Those familiar with director Yorgos Lanthimos’ penchant for dark comedy and mesmerizingly unsettling auteur cinema won’t be shocked that his latest project, The Favourite, premiering today, is a far cry from the stereotypically stilted English period piece. Set during Queen Anne’s reign during the 1700s, the film tells the story of two royal cousins who become rivals, vying for the affection of their needy and emotionally unstable monarch. Rachel Weisz plays Lady Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who serves as the longtime confidante to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and the only person blunt enough to tell the Queen to her face that her makeup makes her look like a badger. And because Anne would rather spend her time in bed, doting on her numerous pet bunny rabbits than rule the country, Sarah control the affairs of the state from the sidelines, and in turn, wields tremendous power in the ongoing war between England and France.
And then there’s Abigail Masham, played by Emma Stone, who was once a lady herself but has found her family name disgraced due to her father, who gambled away all of their money and honor. Abigail arrives to the castle drenched in manure and Sarah takes pity on her once-esteemed cousin, granting her the position of her personal maid. Although Abigail seems sickly sweet on the surface, she slowly begins to plot her rise by currying favor with Anne. Unlike Sarah, Abigail is more than happy to humor even the most nonsensical of the Queen’s whims, whispering doting compliments into her ear and providing the affection that Anne never received from her longtime friend.
Like the black comedy’s unconventional tone and dialogue, the costumes for The Favourite defy expectations and stereotypes, casting women as the main political pieces in the chess board of war and men as the secondary characters in comparison. One wouldn’t typically think of a corset genre film as empowering for women, portraying the unrealistic beauty expectations of the time period, but that’s exactly what costume designer Sandy Powell, best known for her work on Shakespeare in Love and Velvet Goldmine, set out to do.
“The whole film is a reversal in that most films are about men and women quite often are the pretty things in the background,” she tells CR. “Even though the men have proper parts to play, they are secondary to the women and [Lanthimos] said he wanted the men to look overly made-up, ridiculous peacocks and the women to be much more naturalistic with barely any makeup.”
Bearing in mind that The Favourite would not be a conventional period piece, but a more stylized take on the genre, Powell took artistic and historical liberties with the garb, using old denim jeans she thrifted from vintage shops to make the costumes that the kitchen and rest of the wait staff wore in order to represent workwear. For Queen Anne and the rest of the English court, Powell pared down the ornate fabrics, embroidery, and jewelry to the bare essentials, creating a black-and-white wardrobe to distinguish the royals from the lower-tier social classes.
For Stone, getting into character required that she wear a corset for the first time during filming (which the actress says reportedly caused her internal organs to shift around in her body.) Her costumes also mimicked her social trajectory throughout the film, starting out as once-wealthy woman who has fallen on hard times, arriving to the castle in a frock that was once nice, but then gets ruined when she falls into mud within the first 10 minutes of the film. “When she finally becomes wealthy and a bit above her station by climbing the social ladder, I had her dress in a lot of whites and almost vulgar,” Powell says. “Emma was very enthusiastic about all of that.”
Despite being a royal monarch, the majority of the scenes with Queen Anne took place within the confines of her dimly lit bedroom and private quarters . In order to match Anne’s depressed mental and emotional state and physical ailments with which she grappled (Anne reportedly suffered from gout throughout her life, leaving her unable to walk) Powell had her wear mostly nightgowns when she wasn’t speaking to the court.
“When I was reading the script I thought, what do people do when they’re depressed and sick and hanging around in their bedrooms? They don’t get dressed,” Powell says. “She’s the Queen and can do what she wants and rather than have her completely dressed up, I thought it would accentuate her fragility to put her in a nightgown. She only dresses up when she has to be seen in public or for ceremonial occasions and that gives her a nice contrast with the nightwear and robe that she usually wears.”
Sarah, in particular, stands in direct sartorial opposition with the rest of the men on the court, who walk around in a litany of powdered wigs, high heels, smeared blush, and garish eyeliner. Nicholas Hoult plays Robert Harley, the First Earl of Oxford, who seeks to gain favor with Queen Anne on behalf of the opposition party while Joe Alwyn plays Samuel Masham, a courtier who’s smitten with Abigail, but ends up another pawn in her bid to ascend social rank. With the exception of Queen Anne’s badger eye makeup, the women remain bare-faced and more concerned with scheming than physical appearances. The costuming was meant to evoke the gender politics of the film and to turn expectations on their head.
And while Abigail tries to climb the social ladder and Anne seeks out emotional comfort from her subjects, Powell sees Sarah, an impressive rider and marksman in her own right, as the strongest, most independent character in the film and wanted her clothing to reflect that mentality and in turn, dressed her in britches and pants.
“I see her as the most in-control,” Powell says. “She’s not got any ulterior motives and I think she’s the most sympathetic person of all of the three main characters. She’s just doing her job and I showed that in her clothing. I wanted her to look more emancipated, hence the clothing that she wears when she’s shooting or riding is more masculine-based. She wears men’s clothing in a feminine way and she’s the equivalent of the Katharine Hepburn character who wears pants but doesn’t look like a man.”
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