Alexandra Byrne: weaving stories through drama and dresses

We meet the Oscar-winning designer who has created everything from superhero costumes to gowns and corsets fit for an on-screen queen

Academy Award winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne
Powered by automated translation

Academy Award-winning costume designer Alexandra Byrne initially trained as an architect – but quickly realised that her heart lay elsewhere. “I liked the evolution of stories through character, and I love fabric and clothes,” she tells me.

It was a smart move. Byrne is now a leading industry figure and earned an Oscar in 2008 for her work on Elizabeth: The Golden Age. After success in theatre, in 1996 she branched out into her first feature film, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. Thrown into the deep end of an unknown industry, Byrne was tasked with creating costumes for a story set in Denmark.

"In Hamlet, there is a lot of snow," she explains, "but I think it actually really helped, because silhouette and colour become very important." She was nominated for an Academy Award for her efforts. Two years later, she was asked to create the costumes for ­Elizabeth, a film based on the early life of Queen Elizabeth I of England, starring Cate Blanchett and directed by Shekhar Kapur. Byrne threw herself into ­research, poring over books and portraits, and creating as many as six A2 mood boards per character.

Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. Courtesy Universal Pictures
Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth. Courtesy Universal Pictures

“When I am doing a period film, I need to know everything I can about that time, so that at least I feel like I am in control of making the decisions that are going out of period. For example, I think a lot of people look at these films and feel they are accurate – they’re not. Blanchett is never wearing the correct Elizabethan shaped corset. We created a new shape and look, because people’s shapes are so different now.”

Byrne and Kapur teamed up again for Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), for which Kapur set the mood by drawing inspiration from the work of the Dutch painter Rembrandt, who favoured rich, dark tones. Kapur essentially wanted Blanchett's character to "glow out of the darkness", an idea that Byrne had to interpret into dresses.

"The advantage was that I knew the period, so I had a jump start. Shekhar is very demanding, but he talks brilliantly. He does not say what he wants somebody to wear, he describes the emotion of the moment.

"It's all about the storytelling. He wanted to film in cathedrals, so I used the colour of the stone as my background, with Elizabeth as a kind of radiant deity within the space. He wanted her to be in blue, which I hoped was an idea that was going to go away, because blue has nothing to do with English royalty in the 16th century – but it didn't, and that became the main problem to solve.

“An example is the purple dress that Elizabeth wears after the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, where she is a diminished queen, so it is very simple. Gradually, she grows in status and confidence to addressing the Armada, so, over five scenes that dress actually builds and changes, which I hope the audience doesn’t really notice.”

The fearless looks that Byrne created for Elizabeth had clear parallels with the work of couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. Intrigued, I ask if this was an intentional reference. "Yes, I saw that Balenciaga did a lot of pieces based on historical costume, and actually did a black dress based on a piece of Elizabethan costume," Byrne explains. "I remember feeling so liberated by that. My thinking was Elizabeth meets couture, and knowing it was Cate Blanchett, she can carry a costume in a way that a lot of other actors can't."

With an Academy Award sitting on her shelf, Byrne then travelled to America to start work on the first of what would become a series of superhero films: Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth. "I was thrown into the world of comics, and I had never read a comic in my life. It was the biggest learning curve, as I had never worked in LA, and I had never worked on a superhero film. I think I dreamed about Thor's cape for about nine months, I was so terrified.

Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) in THOR, from Paramount Pictures and Marvel Entertainment. 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.
Chris Hemsworth in Thor. Zade Rosenthal / Marvel Studios

"A superhero is just another type of costume, so I did the same amount of research, but what was different was the amount of time allocated to make them. All the costumes were on a minimum of a 16-week build, which sounds like a long time, but they are incredibly complex."

The action sequences in particular threw up difficulties that Byrne had never before encountered – how to create a costume that was not only true to the comic book original, but that also allowed the actors to move in a very physical way. For example, how to make the joints at knees and elbows move for the actor, but still retain their design? "We worked out through trial and error that if we use Swarovski metal pieces, it makes a very beautiful accordion fold when it moves," she tells me.

Another issue was that the lead actors all had to bulk up for their roles, forcing Byrne and her team to find innovative solutions. "Chris is very broad across the chest, and that immediately creates a problem, as there is a big compression zone under the arm when he holds the hammer forward. The way he holds the hammer is totally ­counter-intuitive to working in armour, so we had to create engineering under his armour that collapsed inward when he moved his arms," Byrne details.

Her designs also had to be replicated up to 20 times to fit actors and stuntmen. With stuntmen often differing in height and weight to the actors, this meant each costume had to be custom-tailored to achieve the exact fit on everyone, and had to be created in different materials for various scenes. For example, a softer version of the armour had to be created for stuntmen so they wouldn't hurt themselves when performing tricky sequences.

After working on several superhero films – including Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Dr Strange (2016), Byrne reunited with Branagh recently for his latest film, Murder on the Orient Express, which is set in the mid-1930s. Byrne was able to source a variety of vintage pieces as a reference for the all-star cast, which includes Michelle Pfeiffer, who appears in the film in a showstopping purple dress.

Michelle Pfeiffer stars in Twentieth Century Fox’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Nicola Dove / 20th Century Fox
Michelle Pfeiffer in Murder on the Orient Express. Nicola Dove / 20th Century Fox

"I had already sent her the mood board and put together a rail of evening wear for her to try. The dress she wears in the film is actually a copy of two dresses that we put together, but it is based on the first dress she put on, and it was quite a moment. Bias-cut dresses from the 1930s are quite unkind, and I think Michelle was quite nervous about finding the right piece for this. She put it on, and turned to look in the mirror and I could see her thinking: 'I've still got it'. Which was exactly the reaction we wanted for that dress," Byrne reveals.

The greatest challenge, in fact, was creating a look for Branagh, who plays the lead role, in addition to carrying out his directorial responsibilities, so he had to be able to switch quickly back and forth between two sets of clothing. "One of the biggest challenges was solving the fabric," she confides, "because we had original period pieces we could look at, but there aren't fabrics like that anymore. The men's suiting was really difficult, because English tailoring at the time used a heavy 18-ounce wool, with a very flat weave, whereas an 18 ounce now is spongy, and hangs very differently. For Kenneth, we had his suiting fabric woven especially."

With such a career under her belt, Byrne might be forgiven for being a bit big-headed, yet she is quick to point out that she still has to read for new roles, like everyone else, and uses it as an opportunity to try and understand the director’s vision, and work out if she can execute it.

“The initial start of a project is talking to the director about the script and then I have to turn those words into images. I flood myself with images, and my mood boards are a very creative process for me. It’s a lovely geeky moment when it’s just me, putting it all together. And when the director and actors look at them, they all see something different, which creates a dialogue,” she concludes.

Byrne is in the UAE for the Dubai International Film Festival, and has teamed up with Swarovski to present a costume design workshop for students at the new Swarovski Creative Center, as well as a masterclass in association with British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA).

Annmarie Harris, director of corporate branding and communications for Swarovski Asia Pacific, presents a short movie in the lead up to Byrne’s masterclass. As she talks us through the montage of images, it becomes clear just how many famous moments in cinema and music have been brought to life by the tiny, shimmering crystals that her company produces.

We see Audrey Hepburn draped in crystals in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and admire the sparkle of Nicole Kidman's outfits in Moulin Rouge. We learn that the Heart of the Ocean necklace in Titanic was crafted from Swarovski crystal. Even Michael Jackson's iconic glove danced with light because of Swarovski. The brand has collaborated on costumes for film since the 1930s, beginning with Marlene Dietrich's gowns in Blonde Venus, and Dorothy's red shoes in The Wizard of Oz. "There is very little in the world of embellishment that they cannot solve," Byrne says of the brand. "I have worked with them on characters that depict Norse gods, 18th century opera divas [and] Queen Elizabeth I, garbed in plated armour sleeves to the crown jewels."

Read more: