Something wicked: Behind the geometric style of Joel Coen's Tragedy of Macbeth
Joel Coen's The Tragedy of Macbeth hit theaters at Christmas and is now streaming on Apple TV+. Shot in dramatic black-and-white with a narrow (practically square) aspect ratio, Coen adapted the gloomy piece of theater in high style — and that includes the costumes, which EW's Leah Greenblatt described in her review of the A24 film as falling into "a mode maybe best described as Luxe Monastic." Below, costume designer (and regular Coen collaborator) Mary Zophres breaks down the ruthlessly stylish wardrobe.
Designing for black-and-white meant Zophres relied on texture more than color to create depth. As Macbeth ascends, "we move into [materials] that are more reflective and have a sheen," she explains. This kingly cape, dotted with stars, was made in a fabric from Valentino (whose creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli is a friend of McDormand's) chosen in part to echo one of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's shots of the night sky.
Zophres also had to be intentional with her use of color, though it might not seem like it would matter in black-and-white. She had learned years ago, when working on the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, that "to achieve lots of levels of depth, you don't want everybody to be in the same shade," since the camera will still subtly pick up distinctions between colors. However, Coen and Delbonnel "felt strongly" that the actors should not wear various and vivid hues — however much it might have helped lend nuance to the final frame — so as not to interfere with the artists' work on the set. "They felt that might be distracting to the content of the piece we were doing, which I totally agreed with," Zophres says. "You don't want to be talking to Ross in pink."
Not limited by strict historical authenticity in Coen's slightly surreal environment, Zophres was free to reimagine Medieval armor. "The 'knight in shining armor' didn't feel right" for soldiers — like Corey Hawkins' Macduff or Harry Melling's Malcolm, pictured above — in the film's geometric aesthetic world. Zophres instead used leather for its "organic feel," and wove together strips of the material to create a new, rich texture that read well in the black-and-white cinematography. In the creation of the armor, she found inspiration in an expected place: Images of China's Terracotta Army.
In their early discussions about their look of the film, Coen showed Zophres a collection of photos, mostly of architecture. "There were archways and colonnades and stairwells and steps," she remembers. "It was very linear, graphic, architectural, geometric." She created the costumes with that sensibility in mind, and a special attention to shape. This cloak of Lady Macbeth's was based on a Medieval cape pattern and masterfully draped and tailored to McDormand in a textured wool. "We referred to a lot of the characters as chess pieces," Zophres explains. McDormand is the queen, and "moving her around, she's confined in that shape in that cape. We wanted to sort of encase her in her clothing, almost constrain her in some way."
"Joel wanted Fran to look more beautiful than she's ever looked in a movie before. That was our edict," Zophres says. So she designed one silhouette to suit McDormand specifically — a slightly fitted bodice atop a "conical" A-line skirt — then used it as the pattern for all of the female characters' clothing. Lady Macbeth's style keeps one shape but evolves in textiles as she and her husband gain power; for her increasingly elaborate embellishments, like the feather trim on this formal gown, "we chose motifs that were historically relevant in Scotland."
Moses Ingram's Lady Macduff is presented as a sartorial counterpoint to Lady Macbeth; her wardrobe retains the same silhouette, but in textiles that subtly differentiate her warmer presence from the leading lady's coldness. "I wanted her costume to represent a little bit more life and a little bit more, literally, fertility," Zophres explains. While Lady Macbeth's gown bears a feather motif, Lady Macduff's is embellished with leaves, which "symbolizes life and rebirth, and [they're] in a pattern that's somewhat circular, and it kind of skims across her feminine parts. It was all very intentional." Her earrings are larger and more vibrant than Lady Macbeth's, and despite Coen and Delbonnel's policy of avoiding vibrant shades that might interfere with the on-set atmosphere, Ingram's gown was rendered in an ochre color, "and we used yarns of orange and red that would pop through to give it some texture, and then hand-embroidered the pieces on her dress."
Of all the carefully woven, embroidered, and sculpted looks in the film, Zophres' favorite is the one worn by Alex Hassell, who plays the enigmatic Ross. Coen reshaped the character somewhat, condensing a few other small parts and giving him a raised profile compared to past imaginings of the Scottish play, and Zophres had to reflect his unique position with his wardrobe: "He sort of had his foot in both worlds — he wasn't a soldier, he wasn't a royal. Where did he stand?"
For his costume, Zophres found the "organically textural" material in fabric storage at Warner Bros. and based the graphic silhouette on a '50s capelet, worn over a narrowly fitted gown. "I think part of the reason why the costume is so successful is that Alex has such a specific, perfect shape with his own body for it," she says. "He has very broad shoulders and very narrow hips. And I just took it as tight as I possibly could, to emphasize that shape. He's another chess piece — and very singular."
The Tragedy of Macbeth is now in theaters and streaming on Apple TV+.
A version of this story appears in the January issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now and available to order here. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.