“Shakespeare in Love” is the fictional depiction of a young William Shakespeare and his unlikely love affair with the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Viola. Through a bout of writer’s block, male disguises, and passionate moments, the film takes us on a dramatic journey of Shakespearean proportions.
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The romantic movie is set in 1593 towards Elizabethan period of the Tudor era, an epoch defined by strict dress codes and distinction between classes. The late 90s classic makes for an interesting exploration of those differences by positioning Shakespeare as a man in love with a woman of means. While Will (Joseph Fiennes) is not quite living on the streets, the young man is notably lower class than Viola (Gwyneth Paltrow), a woman of society.
“Shakespeare in Love” won a stunning seven Oscars, including Best Costume by designer Sandy Powell (Mary Poppins Returns, The Young Victoria). Powell used at least three colors that reoccur in the period drama and support the story lines: crimson, gold, and blue all provide excellent case studies for a little color theory, and the understanding of color during this bygone era.
The Elizabethan period is a noteworthy example of color’s long history with aiding class distinction. On June 15, 1574, Queen Elizabeth I created demands called English Sumptuary Laws to restrict what those in the lower classes were allowed to wear.
While this was a blatant push for separation of classes, it was also an excuse for the King to inflict harsh punishments upon whomever he decided violated these laws. The sumptuary laws did much more to make plain what the lower classes couldn’t wear, rather than what they could.
Of course the Queen wasn’t bound to the rules of others. Powell says “The Queen could wear purple, crimson, gold, silver, whatever she liked. After researching all the portraits I could find, I decided to let my imagination run wild on Elizabeth’s costumes, resulting in the (multicolored) peacock gown.”
London in 1593 was a time of dramatic contrasts, but the theater was what Joseph Fiennes calls “the great common denominator, a place where all were welcome and everyone became equal for a few hours.” Not quite equal, he adds. In the theater scenes of “Shakespeare in Love,” the audience is separated into the groundlings who stand watching the play from the open air, and those who could pay for a seat in a sheltered area.
As the movie highlights, clothing also makes the social (and financial) status of the two groups evident. The groundlings form a sea of neutral colors, and the upper classes look like a garden of brightly colored summer flowers in full bloom. Gwyneth Paltrow explained that in the Elizabethan playhouse there were “plenty of fashionable blue-bloods up in audience, and you could pretty much tell their rank by the colors they wore.”
The color crimson is laced throughout the costume drama, and each time is featured on characters of high society. Throughout history this bold color has been associated with persons of wealth, status, and power, however it rang especially true during the Elizabethan period. According to sumptuary laws, crimson was reserved for “royalty, nobility, and members of the council.”
The shade’s symbolic meaning is of fire, and because of that association with power, was not to be confused with the color red. The lower classes were allowed to adorn themselves with the color red, which was created with the less expensive madder dye, and was unable to capture the true brilliance of crimson.
Additionally, crimson carries a Biblical meaning: it is thought to symbolize the presence of God and the blood of martyrs. This seems linked to crimson’s connection to passion and love because in this era many were so committed to God, that they were willing to risk their lives for his love.
In this context, it comes as no surprise that Viola is seen donning a velvet crimson dress during the film, as she is a young woman falling deeply in love and a person of high social status. Powell’s use of crimson in the clothing of the upper class signals their power, privilege, and supposed spiritual righteousness over others.
Because of the meaning threaded through each piece of red or crimson clothing, the viewer instantly grasps the schism between the classes, a complete separation between those who are “worthy,” and those who are not, in society’s eyes.
The story of the color gold is much more straightforward. Up until the late 20th century, gold was closely associated with wealth, class, and in some cases, extreme intelligence.
In the Tudor era, gold was a shining example of strict sumptuary laws. The color was not only attached to high status, it was exclusive to royalty and nobility under said laws: duchesses, marquises, dukes, and earls were the only ones allowed this gilded color.
Throughout history gold has symbolized divinity as well as mortal power, and when combined with white, the color was worn for Holy Days and seen as an emblem of God’s glory.
While it may be surprising to contemporary minds, gold has also been thought of as connected to masculinity. This is why it is such an potent statement by costumer Powell– intentional or not– that two of the most iconic costume moments in the film signal feminine strength. Empowered heroine Viola, and the most powerful woman in the land, Queen Elizabeth herself (Judi Dench), wear gold outfits.
On the other end of the spectrum, blue was restricted to the lower classes. Not to be confused with indigo, which was worn by persons in the upper class, the color blue was associated with servitude and worn by many servants.
Blue also has a Biblical association to heavenly grace, which is why the Virgin Mary is often depicted in the color. Today, blue has made the journey to a broader meaning and connection to contemplation, as well as relaxation. This is recognizable in the film through at least three blue-filled costumes. When Viola dons a manly disguise, it is almost completely blue. It represents her temporary change in status, and possibly relaxation as she hides behind her costume.
Viola is seen again in blue while viewing Two Gentlemen of Verona with the Queen and other members of royalty. Very possibly, Powell was using this color to make a distinction between Viola and the other show-goers. Her character ultimately crosses class lines to fall in love with Shakespeare, and this one blue dress could be a foreshadowing of that relationship.
And since this shade of blue represents contemplation and ease, the costume could be hinting at the idea that Viola is most comfortable, most herself, while hearing Shakespeare’s words. But we need to recognize that costumers also make decisions based on what works on screen, and Powell has remarked that Gwyneth Paltrow “looks beautiful in the softer colors.”
And lastly, there is Will’s blue leather jacket with historically accurate detachable sleeves, which the costume designer described as “the Elizabethan equivalent of a denim jacket today.” The jacket is given a place of prominence on the movie’s poster, and features in costume exhibits, and deserves some color analysis here, even if wildly hypothetical. Hopefully Sandy Powell will understand our reach; after all, she’s said “The film is a fantasy, after all.”
The greenish-blue color of the garment communicates both servitude (blue), and a connection to the Christian season of Epiphany (green), a time of revelation. William Shakespeare served humanity by revealing truths through his writing. Far-reaching analogies aside, it surely links the beloved writer to Viola throughout the movie.
Color is that powerful.
Shakespeare In Love is AVAILABLE to STREAM
Watch the TRAILER
Rated R for sexuality
Audrey Stanton is a freelance writer and content creator with a focus in sustainable fashion. She contributes to The Good Trade where she muses on fashion, costume, and clothes (with a side of cultural commentary). Audrey received a Bachelors of Fine Arts Degree in Costume Design, where she discovered her love for clothing and how it intertwines with identity. Visit her website here.
If you enjoyed this post, be sure to see The Period Films List,with the best British, historical and costume dramas sorted by era. You may also want to see Q&A: Costuming Gentleman Jack.