Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 23, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work. This week, two-time Oscar-nominated costume designer Consolata Boyle discusses Victoria and Abdul, her latest in a long line of collaborations with director Stephen Frears. Reaching back to the later stages of the titular monarch’s (Judi Dench) reign, Victoria and Abdul examines her unexpected friendship with a servant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), from British-ruled India. Tasked with bringing Victorian-era England in front of contemporary cameras with a tight budget and 10 weeks to spare, Boyle challenged herself to create intricate, historically inspired garments that pay tribute to Queen Victoria’s legacy, while pushing her overall craft forward after finding a magical balance between respectful duty and visionary progression.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What’s step No. 1 when approaching costumes for film as historically reaching as Victoria and Abdul?
CONSOLATA BOYLE: I start with a completely blank sheet; I pretend I know absolutely nothing. Obviously, Victoria’s life was well documented… She was photographed, people wrote journals about her, she wrote a journal… So, a section toward the end of her life, which obviously people knew about, was her relationship with her Indian servant… I was interested to take that and unpick it, and throw a very wide net to investigate the social, political, and creative mood that in England at the time and around the royal household… I throw a very wide net, whether it’s contemporary or historical, then I refine and reject. I move back and think what is this story about? What is the script about? That’s where you work closely with the other creative heads, from the director to the writer [so] everybody sings off the same hymn sheet.
What’s the answer you landed on? What’s the story you tried to tell here?
This woman obviously was limited, curtailed, and controlled, and also deeply selfish and pampered, but in a way she was also impoverished, even though she was very intelligent and curious about the world. Her responsibilities as a royal didn’t allow her to do anything. [I was interested in] what happened as she became frailer and weaker and, in a way, more depressed as her life became narrower and smaller, and what drew her to Abdul Karim. What doors did he open for her?
How did you craft those interests into costumes?
The very word Victorian — Victoria gave her name to that whole period — resonates with darkness and mourning and death… so there’s a lot of black, and all of that is reflected in and around Victoria, but as the story evolves and as her friendship with Abdul develops, I was able to creep in elements of color: black-brown, grey-black, and white on black, because white was also thought of as a mourning color, purples, and terse browns. I was able to [lighten] the somber hues when Victoria and Abdul’s relationship developed and her mood lightens. Then, as things fell apart and she became frailer and more fearful of her ability to protect Abdul as the household circled around in a dangerous fashion, she becomes dark and somber again. I was able to utilize the aura of the Victorian period with heavily decorated, embossed, textured costumes of that period.
I had a lot of conversations with [cinematographer] Danny Cohen about how to deal with all the blacks… it was about how to keep the blacks interesting so the story of mourning and sadness would be reflected in the three-dimensional elements of Victoria’s gown, and that was the way we told the story: we hopefully expressed the weight of [the Victorian era] on her body, and contrast that with the light, air, and exoticism of [Abdul’s] Indian environment.
How important was it to be historically accurate with each design?
You’re creating magic by telling a story. You need to have all the knowledge and utterly correct reflection of the period, but in knowing that, it gives you the space to fly and not to be burdened down by it… everything has to be immaculately researched and correct, otherwise it’s a distraction, and then you have the space to allow for imagination. Even though we say we’re representing a particular period, it’s all through the prism of the imagination… it creates a space to invest the whole story with a feeling of magic.
What was the most difficult piece to craft?
On a practical level, we needed to get completely and totally right the organization, mystery, and tradition of the state banquet, which is at the opening of the film. All of that had to be completely and totally accurate… That was incredibly important to get right from a historical point of view as well as from the subliminal point of view, of expressing the paraphernalia, pomp, and ridiculous complexity of the running of the royal household. All of that felt like a weight around Victoria’s neck… she very much felt herself as a prisoner within the complexity, history, and responsibility of the royal household, and reflecting that in that state banquet was a challenge… it took every single member of my brilliant team to bring it to fruition, because very costume had to be manipulated and re-trimmed. A lot was made from scratch, and every piece had to be worked into the overall scenario and color palette of the scene.
What went into crafting that particular look?
Just talking about Victoria in that moment, Judi was utterly fantastic. She wore padding right from the beginning in order to fill out Victoria, who was tiny, but very wide. We had to pad Judi in a careful way, not too heavily, to give her the kind of [range] that she needs… out from that, we built the gown and the train, which had to be dragged behind her as she walked in. That gown was heavily decorated, trimmed, and embellished, as was the blue sash with all the orders of office that are layered on the queen. All of that has to be researched, gathered, replicated, and found. She’s also wearing the little circlet on her head, which was built in two pieces. There was the base of a circlet, and on top of that, the crown section was slotted into it… Victoria wore it toward the end of her life, as the big, heavy crown at state events was far too heavy for her at that stage of her life, so she had a small crown and the veiling going behind… all of that had to be replicated and made absolutely bang-on not just for one garment, but for every lady in waiting and member of the household, a version of that has to be done.
So each background costume was as intricately constructed as Victoria’s?
It’d be a very foolish person to think [otherwise]. Everything must be ready to go full throttle. People talk about things being lost in the background, but that’s a fatal mistake, because the camera is free to go absolutely anywhere. Magic moments happen, so it’s a responsibility [to make sure] every possible area is covered, so you invest in everything to create the whole world and make it ring true.