Fair is foul and foul is fair in The Favourite. The ten-time Oscar nominated black comedy seems like period drama gold from afar, concealing its sinister underbelly through a masquerade of baroque pearls and french lace. However, once viewers can no longer avoid the pervading gender subversions, the character manipulations, and the devious sexual weaponry in the narrative, corseted bosoms and silk chokers become part of the elaborate ploy for power. No one can be trusted in The Favourite, especially not those who parade sparkling jewels.
The Favourite transports viewers to courtly life in 1708. We become uncomfortably acquainted with the eccentric Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), who devotes more energy to her pet rabbits than her war-ridden kingdom. Meanwhile, The Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and her cousin Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) feud to be the Queen’s court favourites. The Favourite has been acclaimed for its script, set, and cinematography, all of which combine to form a troubling and entertaining portrait of eighteenth-century politics. In having three female characters thirsting for power and willing to use every scheme of deceit, artifice and manipulation to attain it, every shred of their identity - including their make-up, costume, and jewellery - becomes part of the trick itself.
Pearls and power
Costume has meta importance in Yorgos Lanthimos’ creation. Not only does it bear the responsibility of historical representation, but dialogues of class, femininity and gender are mobilised through clothing. Sandy Powell worked on the costume design for both Mary Poppins and The Favourite simultaneously, juggling a large production budget for the former against a much humbler purse. Nonetheless, Powell’s attention to detail allows for a stripped back wardrobe (royally-speaking) to speak volumes through her careful consideration of colour, texture and pattern. In absence of expensive lace, the costume designer uses laser-cut leather to create period style chokers. Many costumes were crafted from recycled and second-hand fabrics. An article published by Vogue states you can actually buy some of the jewellery from The Favourite for an affordable price of £95. Powell not only knows luxury style, she also knows how to be consumer-savvy.
Regarding the monochrome wardrobe, Powell asserts that the checkered chessboard aesthetic bore great significance in The Favourite. The connotations of strategy and mastery associated with chess are mirrored in the clothing, adding a visual layer to the manipulation present in the plot.
Jewellery in The Favourite is also blanched and blackened in terms of colour. Baroque pearls and black gemstones reinforce the monochromatic lens of perception, with a few pink diamonds peppered here and there. The function of jewellery is however, integral to the character development of Abigail. Abigail’s social incline is very much linked to her clothing and jewellery. At first we see a socially-dilapidated girl dressed in worn blue clothing. As the film progresses, pearls swell and shrink in accordance to who is the favourite. Soon, Abigail adopts the monochrome fashions of the court, with necklines lowering and jewellery becoming increasingly opulent to the point of vulgarity. Ironically, life is anything but black and white for the female protagonists, who ebb and flow in and out of the Queen’s favour. But for the audience, the women’s rise and fall is symbolised through sharp details within the costume.
Appearances versus reality
Though historically correct in silhouette and design, Powell used contemporary fabrics such as denim and leather to create the fashion ensembles. To many people’s surprise, Powell declared in an interview that ‘strangely the costumes don't have a great deal of detail for that period.’ Embellishments are minimal, make-up is practically non-existent (aside from party scenes), and even the Queen is mostly shot wearing her nightgown. In doing so, Powell strips back the decoration in order to focus on the emotions and schemes of the characters. Costumes reinforce the plot, rather than dictate it. Indeed, this reflects the time and budget constraints of the production. Yet it also illuminates a meta-theatrical aspect of The Favourite. The costume design makes a further comment on the theme of false appearances and reality. Cheap leather appears as expensive lace. Recycled denim is used to create lavish gowns. And £95 pearl earrings impersonate the royal jewels. Like the cunning cousins vying for the Queen’s favour, nothing is as it seems in this film.
With the women looking natural and the men looking like ‘ridiculous peacocks’, we are better able to notice the struggles of eighteenth century women in their quest for power and respect. The women are presented to us in their raw, true and savage reality, rather than camouflaged by an abundance of ruffles. It is the men who become an indistinguishable sea of wigs, rich embroidery and silk stockings. This gender subversion allows us to focus on the women, and the women only.
All of Powell’s genius details work to underline the theme of manipulation in the plot. We are given a portrait of eighteenth century royalty that is much more grotesque, feral and female-centric than other period drama suggest. In imagining this female perspective on courtly life, we are offered new insights into how items such as jewellery play a significant role in feigning identities. For if one baroque pearl can take you from scullery maid to the favourite, imagine what a whole string of pearls could do.
Images courtesy of REX