How 'Mary Queen of Scots,' 'The Favourite' Costume Designers Conveyed Royal Rivalry Onscreen Through Fashion

John Mathieson/Focus Features
Saoirse Ronan as the title character in 'Mary Queen of Scots.'

Two regal Oscar contenders see women grappling for power as the pros behind the looks reveal how the clothes inform the characters.

The year's top two regal period pieces — Focus Features' Mary Queen of Scots and Fox Searchlight's The Favourite — center on two women fighting for political power. In the former, Queen Mary (Saoirse Ronan) of Scotland goes up against Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) to decide who will be the ruler of England. In the latter, Emma Stone plays ambitious palace servant Abigail, who tries to undermine the lady-in-waiting Sarah (Rachel Weisz) to become Queen Anne's (Olivia Colman) favorite right-hand woman.

These cutthroat rivalries play out not only in the characters' actions and words but also in their looks. "The costumes both juxtapose and complement, I hope, in that the stories of the two queens are very different," says Mary Queen of Scots costume designer Alexandra Byrne, an Oscar winner for 2007's Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

In Mary Queen of Scots, the rulers' power is directly tied to the color of their outfits. Mary's sense of power corresponds to the scale and saturation of blue she wears, "which is a kind of monitor of her self-esteem and her confidence," Byrne says of the monochromatic looks. When she makes the entrance in court and she announces she's pregnant, Mary dons bright cobalt blue "because then everything is going really well for her. The duty of a monarch in that period was to marry and to produce a lawful heir, and she was ticking all those boxes, so everything was going in the right direction." Byrne's more than 40 mood boards led her to create Elizabeth's wardrobe with a wider variety of color, which fades over time as her power diminishes.

"She was very aware of the power of her image as Queen of England. She used her image to replace the iconography of the Virgin Mary, so her dressing was very strategic," Byrne says of Robbie's costumes, based in part on three portraits of Elizabeth.

The character's turning point comes when she contracts smallpox, becoming "disfigured" with the life-threatening disease, and she is undermined by reports that Mary has given birth to the heir whom Elizabeth won't be able to produce. "She goes very under the radar, so that's where I strip away the color from her clothes. Gradually she rebuilds and drags herself up to taking on the appearance that she feels is right for her meeting with Mary," Byrne says.

In the tense scene in which the queens finally meet (which they never did in real life), Byrne says she "felt it was important the clothes were not distracting." At first, Elizabeth appears more powerful in a riding outfit: "I wanted this to be strength in statement of color," Byrne adds. Elizabeth hides behind a full face of white makeup and a bright orange wig when confronting Mary's natural beauty.

Mary is coming from the battlefield. "She's been riding, so she's got mud on her skirt, which then was washed off in the saltwater in the journey to England. There is a kind of beauty in the passion and the dirt of her clothes," says Byrne. Her bodice is stained orange from rust from her armor, which balances in color with the two redheaded queens. "I wanted there to be a connection but a juxtaposition in their clothes," Byrne adds.

Elizabeth's proper look is "a front — she's using clothes for status and appearance." During the tender scene, Elizabeth removes her wig to show her sickly thin hair, thereby revealing a weakness.

In The Favourite, Abigail and Sarah begin at different statuses in society and have opposite arcs as Abigail (Stone) rises in the ranks and Lady Sarah (Weisz) is pushed out of favor. Abigail first gets hired in the queen's kitchen and wears "essentially a uniform," says costume designer Sandy Powell, a 12-time Oscar nominee and three-time winner (for The Young Victoria, The Aviator and Shakespeare in Love). After Queen Anne (Colman) requests more time with Abigail, the latter begins to wear a black gown (much of the film is in a monochromatic palette because Powell wanted it to be "graphic, clear and clean — and just let the story tell itself").

When Abigail gets married and officially earns the title of Lady, she "gets to wear the full court dress," which used more white. Cocky from her achievements, her style turns "garish ... a bit more over-the-top and vulgar than the rest of the court. She's over-decorated," says Powell. "It's in that nouveau riche way, where people like to display their wealth. Money doesn't necessarily give you taste."

Sarah's looks are in direct contrast to Abigail's. "Sarah of all three seems to be the one that's the most together, and I wanted to express that in her look, which was strong and commanding respect," Powell explains. Weisz's costumes bear a traditionally masculine silhouette, especially when she goes into "active mode" for shooting or riding.

"Then by the end, when she has been banished from court, she has to relinquish all her courtly finery and is relegated to wearing a simple black dress, even simpler than the lady-in-waiting," says Powell.

The contrast between the two rivals is most clearly on display when Sarah takes Abigail out to shoot. Abigail wears a black servant dress, while Sarah shows her strength by wearing boots and a coat like a man. "She's a commanding presence. I like to think of her as being an emancipated woman. She's basically running the country by proxy," Powell says of Sarah's ability to influence the queen's policy. "I wanted her to add that strength with a literal freedom of movement that britches give."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.