How ‘Becoming Elizabeth’ brings modernity to period drama through costumes

For Starz’ new series “Becoming Elizabeth,” costume designer Bart Cariss took a slightly different approach to what you’d expect from a period drama.

When designing the many costumes for the show, which airs new episodes on Sundays, Cariss leaned into modern style elements and references, fusing them with historically accurate pieces that were prevalent during the Tudor period.

“We immersed ourselves in the paintings of the time,” Cariss said. “The Hans Holbein [Elizabeth I portrait] obviously, but also looking abroad Giovanni Battista Moroni, who was Italian and did a fabulous painting called “The Tailor”, where he has his hair cut short and cut. There is still a beauty in some of these old paintings. Sometimes you see faces and they can be modern at the same time.

“Becoming Elizabeth” is a dramatized account of the early life of Elizabeth I of England before coming to the throne. The series begins with the death of King Henry VIII when Elizabeth I was around 13, and follows the young royal as she navigates the English court as her nine-year-old half-brother, Edward VI, takes the throne.

In approaching the character of Elizabeth I, played by Alicia von Rittberg, Cariss wanted to reflect her young age, but her maturing personality through her costumes by referencing elements of modern style.

“We wanted Elizabeth to feel like a teenager,” he said. “We wanted to give him [elements] like how young modern emo teenagers might have a long sweater with cuffs they pull down and hide underneath. We wanted to try to give it that equivalent, so we worked to have that effect.

The character also wears more understated costumes compared to her stepmother, Catherine Parr. Elizabeth I sports dresses in darker hues with black embroidery and accessories with delicate pearls. She and the rest of the women in the series are often seen wearing the French hooded headdress, which was a popular accessory during the Tudor period.

Elizabeth I and Parr wore their most conspicuous attire when they appeared in an English court in order to attract attention, as the two figures were not as well respected as their peers. Elizabeth I, who is also Anne Boleyn’s daughter, was declared illegitimate after her mother’s execution and did not receive the throne after her father’s death.

“At times we had to make her feel young and vulnerable,” Cariss said. “And then at other times, we needed to make her feel powerful and stronger. That adaptability in her wardrobe really becomes kind of a style thing that we did to convey the right moment in time for the scenes and the action.

Cariss’ use of modern style elements is also found in Parr’s wardrobe. The costume designer said he wanted to give the character a bohemian vibe to reflect his progressive nature.

Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, was the most married English queen, with four marriages to her credit. After the King’s death, Parr soon remarried her last husband, Thomas Seymour.

“They were kind of a modern, progressive couple for the time,” Cariss said. “We really wanted to create that bohemian attitude and I actually had a nice contemporary image that was on my mood board that was the starting point. It was a 60s or 70s image, but it just conveyed the whole ‘idea.

Overall, Cariss thinks the show’s costumes help recreate the world of the Tudor period without feeling overly costumed for their ornateness or lavishness.

“We knew there were so many Tudor-era enthusiasts out there, so we wanted to do something that those people would enjoy,” he said. “We won’t be without our detractors, because they can be at the forefront of absolute authenticity. Some of them point out that the headgear would have been worn all the time. Well, at the same time we’re doing a drama and we didn’t want to weigh down the actors, so we created a whole universe and we all collaborated so well to create the show we wanted to do.

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Launch of the gallery: photos of the costumes in “Becoming Elizabeth”