Creating Costumes Fit for a Queen and Her Confidant in 'Victoria & Abdul'

Victoria and Abdul Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Peter Mountain/Focus Features

Costume designer Consolata Boyle on creating onscreen looks for Queen Victoria and young Indian clerk Abdul Karim.

The unexpected friendship between Queen Victoria and her closest confidant, a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim, remained largely a secret until author Shrabani Basu uncovered clues into their relationship after a visit to the queen's summer home in 2003 and later published a book called Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant in 2010. Now the heartwarming story between the queen and her servant is coming alive on the big screen.

Based on Basu's book, Stephen Frears' Victoria & Abdul explores how Queen Victoria (played by Judi Dench) develops an unlikely romantic interest and friendship with Abdul (Ali Fazal) and the prejudice that Abdul faced from the queen's family members as he got closer to Victoria. To help create the period costumes for the film, which kicks off with the queen's Golden Jubilee in 1887, Frears enlisted longtime collaborator Consolata Boyle, who also worked with the director on Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) and The Queen (2006).

Here, Boyle chats with The Hollywood Reporter about designing Victoria's heaviest gown and capturing Abdul's transformation from a servant to a munshi through his uniforms.

Where did you first start looking with Victoria's wardrobe?

There's a lot of visual and written evidence about Victoria, so there was a vast store of research material. Also, many of her actual gowns are in existence and she kept absolutely everything. She was a hoarder. She changed so often during the day and the clothes didn't go through the usual wear and tear — they were looked after carefully by her staff — so they were actually in good condition. In the years that followed, they were archived and kept hidden from daylight. Written details are in the royal archive and then a lot of her pieces are kept in the Royal Palaces. Some are on display in the London museums like the Victoria & Albert. We were able to get access to very carefully look at them and take her dresses and turn them inside out to see how they were constructed. 

There was an incredible amount of black in Victoria's wardrobe, but it's not just a dark black.

There was an amazing amount of black because many people were permanently in mourning — so many people died. They were all in various stages of mourning. As her friendship with Abdul progresses, I started with a very deep black, heavily embellished, and then very slowly and subtly, I would introduce very dark grays, dark purples or deep brown that almost read as black. Also you've got the technical problem of the ability to light black, so to give him as much laid-on texture so it's not just a flat black. Victoria's clothes are very heavily decorated, so that was a great help to give it texture. There was of course lots of gold and silver ornamentation. Then it got dark again as she felt her world closing in around her toward her death. I used color and texture very carefully to show the progression of their relationship.

What type of fabrics did you use, and where did you find those materials?

I had wonderful researchers working with me, so we scoured everywhere, including auction houses in London and Europe. We looked for the original silks, the weight of those silks, all the Victorian trims, so we could create the feeling of the weight of the garment. Judi was already quite heavily padded. The actual gown would add to that. We found wonderful original lace, too, and I got a lot of embroidery done on the surface of the gowns, typically around the bodices and around the edge of the skirts. There's a lot of use of ribbon and embroidery and black jet to create light and shade.

Which gown was the heaviest?

The costume that Judi wore in the scene on the Scottish moor, when they were going for the picnic. The skirt on the dress was heavily pleated to echo the pleating of a Scottish kilt, but it was pleated silk. Then there's all the underpinnings and petticoats that create the silhouette and give the feeling of volume of Victoria's skirt. That was a very wet scene; the script said it was a wet day. It was absolutely shivering. That was an amazing scene to shoot, but that was a very heavy and tricky garment to manipulate.

That scene was particularly memorable because Victoria asks Abdul what he thinks of his uniform and Abdul says, "It's really scratchy," and she says, "Everything in Scotland is scratchy."

They were wool — I based it on the Balmoral tartan, it was an approximation. It was a very subtle version of it. They were quite scratchy so the boys were feeling the pinch that day.

Victoria's jewelry collection was incredible.

The jewelry was very specific. On formal occasions, she wore all those orders. She loved jewelry and she wore a lot of it. Her husband, Albert, designed quite a lot for her. The Victorians had a very sentimental streak where when their children were born, a piece would be put into the jewelry in the form of a little charm bracelet or earrings. Victoria had quite a few of those. Also the little crowns toward the end of her life, because she couldn't bare the weight of the heavy crown anymore. Jewelry also represented mourning.

For Abdul, how did you want to show him going from a servant to a munshi?

We see him as a simple clerk and that he travels to London and he's chosen to put on this would-be royal uniform, which is like a concocted version of what an English tailor invented as an uniform. It's a perceived Western notion of what a servant should look like. Also if you look at it, it fits in with the servants from the household itself, with the gold and embellishments. These uniforms, which were red silk for the day and blue silk for the night, had the royal crest, but they had the traditional shape of the chakra or what the tailors thought was a version of the chakra. Then as he's elevated to the position of munshi, his clothes start to become more genuinely Indian and exotic. The fabrics start to become more embellished. As he grows in importance, his garments follow that trajectory. 

Victoria & Abdul is in theaters nationwide.