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November to Remember: How costumes defined social status in Gwyneth Paltrow-Joseph Fiennes's Shakespeare in Love

The period romantic comedy-drama, directed by John Madden, also stars Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow and Jim Carter, among others. 

Akhila Damodaran
Nov 25, 2021
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Shakespeare in Love

Costumes play a major role in a film, especially in a period drama. The movie can lose all its authenticity if the makers fail to get the costumes right. Costumes help establish the context the story is set in, apart from establishing the character. 

One of the best examples of costumes for period dramas is the 1998 movie Shakespeare in Love, the romantic-comedy-drama set in the late 1500s. The film, directed by John Madden, went on to win the Oscars for best costume design. They were designed by Sandy Powell based on the time of the renaissance. The film starred Gwyneth Paltrow, Joseph Fiennes, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow and Jim Carter, among others.  

The film revolves around a fictional love affair between William Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, daughter of a wealthy businessman while Shakespeare struggles with bouts of writer's block. The film is set during the period when the author was writing Romeo and Juliet and several characters in the film are historical figures. However, many other characters and plotlines have alluded from the writer's plays. 

The highlight of the film is its wondrous costumes and how they help distinguish the social status of the people. The colours each character wore marked their rank in society. For instance, the colour crimson is shown being worn by wealthy people. The colour has always been associated with people of high society, wealth, royalty and nobility. Hence, Voila (Gwyneth Paltrow) who plays the love interest of Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is seen wearing a velvet crimson dress in the film to represent a young wealthy woman who is falling in love. Her costumes are elegant, beautiful and extravagant with elaborate work on them. For most formal court occasions, she also wears a sparkly golden wired ruff while the people of lower classes wore less flashy clothes, ruffs, hats and fabric with hints of embroidery and trim. 

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Shakespeare in Love

Shakespeare wears a blue leather jacket with detachable sleeves. The jacket is given prominence in the movie and features in the posters too. The greenish-blue colour conveys servitude (blue), and a connection to the Christian season of Epiphany as he served humanity by writing truths in his works. He also wore a jacket as a vest over a loosely-fitted shirt.

Judi Dench plays the role of Elizabeth I in the movie. In an earlier interview, two weeks before the release of the film on December 11, 1998, Judi Dench had talked about her costumes and the challenges she faced carrying it. She had said that the costume weighed about 50 to 60 pounds. "It took four hours to wear it and three people to hoard and carry it. I had to wear prosthetic teeth too," she had said.    

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Shakespeare in Love photo 2

Though the costumes look heavy and bulky, the drama or characters were not glamourised. The tone of the film is also very subtle. The costumes are both modern and modest with their couture designs, tight-fit pants and lots of gold. It is also said that the jackets were made longer so that men do not look silly in their tight pants.

poster
Shakespeare in Love

The film was a success at the box office. It earned $289.3 million worldwide and became the ninth highest grosser of 1998. Apart from the Oscars for Best Costume Design, the film won six Oscars. It won the Best Picture, Best Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), and Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen at the 71st Academy Awards. 

The film is available to watch on YouTube. So, catch to show to experience a visual marvel.


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