Despite all the political and religious backdrop, La Reine Margot is, after all, Margot's story. So who is Margot?
Marguerite de Valois was the daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de' Medici and became herself Queen of Navarre and France.
Daughter of Kings and sister of Kings, she was never more than a pawn in the power plays of everyone else; being used by her mother, her brothers and later, her husband. She was always an unwilling and rebellious participant into everyone else's grand schemes and still, she tried and rebelled every way she could.
This is actually one of her most important defining traits, both in the novel and the movie. So how is that reflected in the costume design?
A FORCED MARRIAGE
Margot's wedding dress is, undoubtedly, the most iconic gown in the whole movie; and it's the perfect dress in which to introduce our main character.
This gown is designed as the perfect synthesis of the Catholic "style" as established in this movie (see PART II); a very opulent gown made of vivid red fabric and decorated to the brim. The dress itself, creates a stark contrast between husband and wife, helping to instill in the viewers a visual incompatibility between the characters.
These characters do not belong in the same world; this is not a love match. It might seem unnecessary, because we are told that it is not a love match, but it's always much better when we also can see it. And the dress does a wonderful job visualizing it.
The dress is also designed to be rigid; rather constricting. Like her life. She's being forced to marry by her mother. And so, just as her family binds her to a life she does not want, the dress binds her so tightly that she can barely move.
The symbology of the dress is what makes it so striking. Margot wedding is played as a power play to end the Wars of Religion and to establish a clearly Catholic dominance in France, and it ends being the catalyst for the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Margot ends up being a blood offering herself, a bad omen to the land. And so, she is dressed ominously in crimson red.
Only two of her costumes are not red (or at least partially red), which is more relevant than it might seem at first glance. The first of these two "defiant" costumes makes its appearance right after the wedding, during the celebrations and, most importantly, the wedding night.
Defiance, probably, is Margot's most admirable virtue. And also her more anachronistic one. By that I don't mean that Dumas changed the historical character and made her defiant. I mean that Marguerite de Valois (both the character and the historical figure) is a woman ahead of her time because of her determination to not be molded into everyone else's expectations. Because of this, her "defiant" dresses are also the most anachronistic and "ahead of the period" in her wardrobe.
So, let's have a look at the design: the dress is made of a richly embroidered blue fabric (it's important to stress the fact that it's blue, not red), but the most peculiar element is the shape and structure itself.
It's very NOT historical and, more importantly, it's the complete opposite of the wedding dress: where that one was restricting, this one barely sticks to the body, where that one covered her whole, this one is completely revealing. The neckline is lowered radically, allowing her breathing space.
It's a very easy and effective way to show the characters liberation; from the skin showing to the free-flowing hair.
This design was the one that made me realize that, despite my general hate towards the idea, sometimes movies need to convey ideas quickly and in those cases, occasionally, inaccuracies are needed.
In a novel as massive as Queen Margot, where so much is happening, certain character traits need to be established as quickly as possible lest they get lost in the storyline. For instance, the movie needs to establish clearly that Margot is promiscuous and that she does it because her body is the only thing she really has control over. And the fastest way to make that come across is making her show skin, even if it's hugely anachronistic.
As she walks into the night, hidden by the dusk, to find a body to share a passionate moment away from her predetermined role, her actions and the dress itself become a symbol of defiance against her family and everything they stand for.
As the machinations that lead to St. Bartholomew's massacre move onwards, we see a distressed Margot wearing a deep red overdress with a white chemise.
The most interesting part of the design is the progression it has: the longer the character wears it, the more the white sleeves are turned red by the spilled blood that she, indirectly and unwillingly, has spilt.
It's a design created for movement (more than any other in the movie). The image of Margot walking down the soiled streets looking for the body of the man she tried to safe is one of the most beautiful in the whole film.
To save her husband's life, Margot is forced to convince him to convert to Catholicism. And to the ceremony she wears a dark red gown with a ruffle and a thin golden laced veil.
Once again, the designer goes back to the blood symbology for the design and though it might seem as if it's repetitive, it works really well. This is a highly dramatic scene, yet so brief, that the design allows the viewer to understand certain things really fast.
Margot feels that, yet again, she has been used against her will to achieve something she doesn't really want. She feels played and disgusted for not being able to fight back.
"You invited your victims at my wedding" cries a desperate Margot as they try to shut her up. She feels like she, herself, is covered in the same blood as her brothers; as if she's been soiled under the eyes of God because she was the cause of so much blood and she let it happen.
While her brothers and their men appear at the ceremony covered in literal blood, she appears dressed in metaphorical blood (as her dress makes her look as if drenched in it). And so, the design captures beautifully her inner conflict: she is the cause of a massacre she didn't even know they were planning.
Another element of the design that makes it work so well is the shape and structure: she looks like a religious icon with the loose hair and the veil and the perfectly modest dress. But because of the tonalities of the dress, she is much closer to a twisted religious icon, like a Virgin of death.
The sum of these elements allow for a very striking and on point design.
A CAPTIVE IN HER OWN HOUSE
As the events unravel, she becomes a captive in the Louvre, a mere observer in the grand scheme of things. And so, in the first scene she appears as such, she is seen being manhandled as she lets the courtiers paint her lips in a vivid crimson red.
Again she is shown wearing a red dress, made with a fabric which is very similar to that of her wedding dress.
But the most important element of the design is not the dress itself but the makeup. Margot, throughout the majority of the movie is shown to wear no make up at all, and yet, there are two key scenes where she does: the wedding and this scene.
This is relevant because it's trying to visualize and differentiate between when she is being herself (no make up) and when she's being used (make up).
She has become, more than ever, a pawn for her family and this design (both the dress and the make up) are the perfect way to visualize it.
The capture and sentencing of her lover, the protestant La Mole, poses a definitive turning point for her, as she stands to lose the only thing she ever had that was truly her own; her heart. And as her desperation grows, she decides to stand up in defiance of everything she has ever known.
As she begs for La Mole's life, she presents herself in front of her brother and the whole court in a stunning white dress with no other decoration that a pearl necklace and a Lacrimosa pearl on her hair.
This, alongside the blue dress, are the only designs not to be centered around red. And even more importantly; it is the only white dress in the movie. Nobody else gets to wear white.
Why does it matter? Because she's the only character that dares to take a public stand. Her first act of defiance (during her wedding night) was a private one, but this is a public act. She stands in front of everybody and claims: "I love this man, he has done no wrong and he can't be executed".
It's literally the first time in the whole story when anybody claims for public justice. Some characters complain about it in private, but nobody takes a stand.
It's only logical then that she is, for the first time, presented as a pure soul, the only one in this nest of vipers.
By standing up, she ends her journey as a character; slowly evolving from a proud obedient daughter to a defiant woman. From crimson red, to pristine white that gets soiled in its attempts to break free.
And here lies the greatness of Dumas' work; by making defiance a major virtue, he highlights the need to oppose those systems that foment violence and hate, even when those systems are set by those whom we hold dear.
|Catherine de' Medici and her children|
Somehow, both Dumas and Chéreau, manage to capture Margot spirit and make an interesting statement about it. Look at the picture; Marguerite stands in the background, almost shadowed and eclipsed by her brothers, and yet, still finding the strength to look defiantly and directly to the observer, as if challenging us, to dare judge her.
You might be wondering what all this has to do with costume design and you might be right to do so. But it's far more relevant that it may seem at first glance.
It's not until we fully understand what the creator is trying to do, that we can finally appreciate the designs done specifically for said vision. And that's what I've been trying to do throughout this three-part article.
We started this article by asking who Margot is: Margot is a defiant woman. And so, this is a movie about defiance as a virtue. So, Chéreau made a defiant movie: from the storytelling (not focusing on a regular Hollywood structure) to the visuals and the designs (staying away from the historical fashion).
Yes, they play loose with history, but it's not what the movie is about. These designs are certainly a lesson in narrative design: a demonstration of how simple and effective color coding and it's symbology really is. And how, through its good use, a color can become defiant in itself.