Skip to main content

La Reine Margot. PART II: Colliding Factions

Too often we, as viewers, tend to forget the symbolic and iconic value of color and how it can create ideas only by being there. This is very relevant in paintings, but also, on film; through the set design, the cinematography and, of course, the costume design.

The 1994's French adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' novel is a movie that uses that at it's fullest potential, creating a stunningly beautiful (and very well orchestrated) spectacle of death. The movie, directed by Patrice Chéreau, is a tale of intrigue, murder and gore that centers around death itself, and so, the heavy crimsons of blood are a constant presence in the frame; from the sets, to the props, to the beautiful brocaded gowns.

And it is color that takes central stage in the designs in order to clearly separate the two opposing factions in the narrative: catholics and protestants.


The movie starts with a country divided into two factions that will eventually collide to horrifying consequences. These factions are mainly differentiated through the costume design, facilitating an easy and quick visual identification of each side of the conflict.

On the high ground there are the catholic majority; they are the establishment, the dominant group. The monarchy and the court (the top of the social and political ladder) are Catholics, and so they start with a lot more power than the Protestants.

This dominance is depicted in a dominance in color. The palette for the catholic characters is a very bright one; reds, bright greens, golds, and whites.

These colors dominate the frame completely, drawing the viewers' eyes to them, and chocking the presence and visibility of the Protestant minority in the frame itself.

This dominance is also shown through the type of fabric used for their costumes: most of the catholic characters are dressed in very elaborate and expensive fabrics; silks and velvets as well as richly sewn jewelry and embroidery.

Their clothes literally glitter. It's all a display of power and wealth. A way of showing who's on top, in a manner of speaking.

Both men and women cover themselves in pearls and brooches and lavish materials, clearly parading their social status and political power.

And all this lavishness is accompanied of big, extravagant shapes. Look at those ruffles in the above picture. They are very pompous, giving the impression of peacocks strolling around; parading their power. You can actually feel the opulence in which they live.

Amongst this vibrant display of velvets and silks, there's a color that sticks out amongst any other: bright, vibrant red.

This is color coding at its best; conveying an idea referent to this group only through the constant presence of a specific color. It's a visual and subconscious way of conveying to the viewer a very clear idea: catholic hands are covered in blood, be it by direct action (like Anjou or the King) or indirect action (like Margot).

By doing that, the movie takes a very clear stand on whose "hands are dirtiest" in this conflict. This is not an even battle, the odds (and the guilt) are completely on the catholics' side, and most of it is blamed on their intolerance.

This idea allows the costumes to become a constant thematic reminder for the audience.

The fact that the Duke of Anjou is actually crowned in red is only a logical consequence of that color code. Anjou comes to the throne after a bloody set of events, many of which he has had a direct hand in consummating.

The last element to the designs is a very particular one: dirt. This was not a common thing (especially considering that this was made in the 90's, nowadays it's much more common), many period pieces tended to relish cleanness, as if historical costumes could not be worn unless perfectly clean.

This is not the case with La Reine Margot. Here, every single character (except Margot) seems to be covered in sweat and dirt. The movie shows a lot of bodies in close contact, sweating together. Packed rooms and parties seem to be the norm for the catholic court in the movie.

All these (the colors, the dirt, the shapes, the fabrics...) make this faction look like rotten fruit. It gives the whole court an air of sickness and stench. As if the court itself was rotten (which is one of the center ideas of Dumas' novel).

Explaining all these ideas mainly through costume is very useful in a movie that's already very cluttered and dense as it is.


In direct opposition to the Catholic faction, stands the Protestant faction; the MINORITY. This, once again, is very cleverly shown through the costume design (through the chosen palette, the fabric and the style).

The first and most obvious difference in the design is the color palette. Instead of bright, vivid color, the protestant designs restrain themselves to black and white (almost exclusively).

True, this is completely historical (at least in France and Germany, England is a whole other thing) but I doubt they would have kept it if it hadn't worked thematically within the narrative of the story.

This choice of palette shows a simplicity on their part (as opposed to the opulence of the Catholics) as well as a strictness in their lifestyle (that matches their religious beliefs).

The type of fabrics used in their designs is also simpler, more humble. Here, the designer doesn't use silks and velvets, instead, uses linens and leathers. This adds an air of sobriety that is lacking in the Catholic's designs.

The shapes are also more minimal, more discreet. Even a character as powerful as Henri de Navarre is shown to wear rather simple clothes. This is a statement in and on itself.

The ruffle is rather small and contained, as is the doublet; showing a rather humble personality.

These design parameters affect both the male character and the female characters, obviously.

But this simplicity poses a problem; how do you differentiate between different characters and personalities when they are all so simple?

Well, if you have a character that is a bit too proud and has an air of self-importance, you add bigger shapes and richer fabrics, while still maintaining the basic palette.

And if you have a character that is poor? Well, you use even simpler shapes, simpler fabrics, and you make his clothes look like they're too tight on him (because he has out-grown them).

La Mole, a destitute Huguenot, is Margot's lover

La Mole is the Huguenot character that deviates more out of the protestant basic design. The closer he gets to Margot, the more he deviates. The more in love he falls, the better the fabrics get. And he also starts wearing light blues, instead of blacks.

And again, so much is transmitted to the viewer with so little; visually conveying that Huguenots lead a different lifestyle and exactly what that is.


In the middle of it all stands a figure who cares little about the conflict itself and yet, is the sole mastermind behind most of the events: the Queen Mother, Catalina de Medici (beautifully played by Virna Lisi).

Although she's on the catholic's side, she doesn't really care about the religious conflict. All that she cares about is keeping her sons secure on the throne, and she'll do anything to achieve it.

And so, she's presented as this Machiavellian figure; all dressed in red and gold, and with a ruffle that makes her look like a spider.

But once the chain of events leading to the massacre is set in motion, she swaps the red for an ominous black, and all her designs from that point onwards maintain that darkness.

This helps her turn into this looming presence in the shadows; like death lurking in dark corners.

The shapes for her designs are consistently grand and theatrical, accentuating the dangerous side of her character.

She's the hand of death, choking the life out of everything she touches and so, her design looks more like how you would dress death than how you would dress a widower.


The movie thrives with visual symbology and the costume design plays a key part in achieving that. The opening shot of the movie reflects this perfectly.

Red, literally, taints the frame (mainly achieved through production design and costume design), and behind all of the characters dressed in sumptuous red drapes, stands a huge Christ, the excuse over which these characters will taint the streets in blood.

To read Part III, click here.


Popular posts from this blog

Burning Question: What's wrong with Belle's gown?

Since the first promotional pictures of Disney's new Live-Action remake of Beauty and the Beast hit the internet, there has been a lot of discussion around Belle's iconic ball gown. And, even months after its release in cinemas, there still continues to be a lot of buzz around it. Why? Mainly, because a lot of people feel that it is just doesn't look that good.
The thing is, Belle's animated yellow ball gown is, at this point, an iconic staple of animated cinema. Everybody knows it and everybody loves it. And, as a result, everybody can see the new one and say "this is not the costume I know". Therefore, everyone can compare it down to the smallest detail and see that it just doesn't quite look right.
Today, our goal will be to try and dissect the design in order to answer the burning question everyone has been asking themselves: what's so wrong with the "new" dress? Or, to put it bluntly, why is it so incredibly underwhelming?

This might n…

Historic Accuracy in Costume Design: The 16th century

I've never been a purist with historical accuracy as long as the changes made have a real reasoning behind (generally a narrative or symbolic one). I will always think that La reine Margot (1994) costume design is one of the most gorgeous and smart designs ever, even if said designs main premise is to purposely bend the period in regards to costume.
But there are certain things that bother me in regards to historical accuracy in costume which I realized when I found myself constantly irritated while watching The other Boleyn Girl (2008). This led me to post a question: when is it right to bend history? why is it interesting sometimes? whilst other times it's simply horrendous?
To me, when these changes are made for the narrative's sake, I'm usually on board (like the 2012's "Anna Karenina" designs, which mixed 1870's fashion with 1950's fashion in order to enhance the sense of theatricality and falsehood in Imperial Russia). But when these change…

Disney's Cinderella(s) and the evolution of the "princess" aesthetics

Every girl, at some point in life, has wanted to be a princess. It has become undeniable that the concept of the "princess" is, for better or worst, inseparable from girlhood. We live in a "princesses" obsessed era, and we have for a long time now. And a lot has been said about it, with loud people yelling over the internet about the positive and negative aspects of it. So it was about time for us to join the yelling contest, I guess.
If we're going to talk about princesses, the logical place to go is to the Global Mogul Conglomerate that has led the trend and, in many ways, defined it: Disney. They have, undeniably, redefined the fairytale and have turned the term "princess" into a best selling Licensed Entertainment Character Merchandise.

The thing is, even though princesses have been part of the fairy tale canon for a very long time, they didn't become the central figure until Walt Disney placed them there.
In the tales that the Grimm Brothers…

Cleopatra or the Most Undeserved Oscar Win ever

There is a reason why I usually do not review movies from the "golden-age" of Hollywood (which means any movie prior to the 1970's), and that is because back then they cared even less about historical accuracy in costuming than nowadays, which is saying a lot. Because of this, most of the "historical" movies generally ignored the period and just did whatever was fashionable at the time with a spice of the supposed period.
This is something that usually makes me laugh, rather than angry, because it results in very funny outfits (peplums particularly created a lot of funny imaginary). And Cleopatra, 1963's epic about the Egyptian queen, was for most of my childhood one of those movies. I knew the costumes were not accurate, but they fascinated me anyways in their ridiculousness. That is until I heard that the movie had won an Academy Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design, the same year that "Il Gattopardo was nominated for Best Costume Design. An…

Marie Antoinette: Working with an historical basis

A couple of months ago, we talked extensively about the narrative aspect of the designs for the 2006's movie; Marie Antoinette (see here). But that's only one half of the story. This movie is, after all, a period piece, so let's have a look at how they translated that period into the costumes.

MARIE ANTOINETTE: WORKING WITH AN HISTORICAL BASIS Period accurate pieces are actually the hardest to get by; that is because clothing in past centuries was way more complex and expensive that our 21st century standards. Because of this, most costume designers end up being constricted by their allotted budgets and have to make compromises with the accuracy. This was not the case with this movie.
Sofia Coppola's Marie Anotinette had a rather large budget, which allowed renowned designer Milena Canonero the freedom to create period-accurate pieces (the inaccuracies were only added for narrative purposes not budget constrictions). Because of this, Canonero decided to work of actual …