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Dual Analysis: The Young Victoria – Chris’ Thoughts

So here we go, our first Dual Analysis with Maggie from The Costumer’s Guide. First up, Chris from Clothes on Film gives his thoughts on The Young Victoria:

While it ticks all the boxes of what many deem to be a typical costume drama, e.g. upper class backdrop, domestic intrigue, suppressed lust, elaborate sets and, of course, costumes, The Young Victoria (2009) is a more valid commentary on the burden of extreme wealth and duty as barrier to happiness. The film is not always successful, as director Jean-Marc Vallée generally prioritises flair over feeling, though a committed and engaging central romance kept lively by screenwriter Julian Fellowes pulls the story on through.

Most unusual about young Alexandrina Victoria (played by Emily Blunt) for a girl of the time is how much she disliked clothes. This is not to imply Her Majesty would have preferred to run around naked, but she did find the routine and formality of her garments suffocating – with all those tight laced corsets, perhaps literally as well as figuratively. The Young Victoria does a good job in establishing this as a source of her malcontent throughout.

There is an insightful scene when Victoria is forewarning Albert (Rupert Friend) by letter of her impending duties as new Queen. She is being fitted into a gown, a typically luxurious silk and frills affair, while looking positively bored by the process.

Victoria is acutely aware that clothes were a source of her fragility; try to imagine carrying a priceless vase around all day that you were terrified of dropping. Daintiness, certainly throughout those teenage years, made her weak in the male gaze. It is perhaps no coincidence that Victoria’s strongest displays of independence, such as refusing to sign the Regency order and subsequent bucking of the ’Kensington System’ occur when she is in flimsy linen nightwear.

Rather wittily towards the end of the movie, Emily Blunt’s costume and hair begins to resemble the customary, stoic image of Queen Victoria as she tends to be remembered today. This is a sly visual ploy as history books often reprint the photograph of the Queen on her sixty sixth birthday more than any other, even though by the time the film finishes proper she is not out of her twenties. What a lot of people may not realise about Victoria is how happy she was in those early years; blissfully in love with her husband and eventually giving birth to nine children.

Despite The Young Victoria being a ‘spectacle piece’, rather surprisingly Sandy Powell’s lavish and detailed costume work is hardly oversold. Vallée frames many of his shots obscuring one side of the foreground with a blurred silhouette. He rarely pulls wide except for location establishing and even then only momentarily. This results in some costumes being only briefly glimpsed (as with the coronation robe) or barely at all (the wedding dress).

With emphasis on the film’s central protagonist, those outfits we can see are a succession of familiar themed walking and morning dresses, fairly simply adorned, sometimes incorporating a wide shawl collar but always with the same puffed sleeves, either from upper arm to just beneath the elbow or just under the elbow to the wrist. The reason for their relative similarity is simple: the real Queen Victoria generally had several dresses made from same pattern in different colours, again expressing her blatant disinterest with the ritual of fashion.

Two pieces that stand out as particularly memorable are worn for evening social events. First a scoop neck gold dress at the Windsor ball and later a rich yellow gown festooned with red flowers for her waltz with Albert. In the former she sashays into the hall with mindful eyes scrutinising her every move. One of the guests even likens her to a “pretty butterfly”, though this is undoubtedly not intended as a compliment.

Victoria’s waltz dress with its wildly decorative décolletage draws more favourable gasps. Still ornamental but now in control, Victoria literally glides into the room, her sleeves quivering like tiny wings. Frankly this gliding motion (on a dolly) is overly literal and unnecessary. Blunt’s graceful though slightly awkward footsteps would have been sufficient. We understand; here the Queen was happy, as light as air.

Following the death of King William IV (Jim Broadbent) and before she is crowned Queen, Victoria is in mourning attire, as was customary for the royal household. This shows how costume, specifically colour, can alter the tone of a movie – at least until Victoria’s triumphant skip that marks the beginning of the rest of her life (though arguably the most tumultuous part). There is an obvious melancholy that comes with black, though during the Victorian era this colour was perfectly acceptable for everyday and evening wear. The toil and grime typical for most folk of the time probably demanded it.

Point of fact, The Young Victoria would have benefited from reaching further down into the class system. A story that journeyed deep into the black heart of Whitechapel in addition to the brightly lit corridors of Buckingham Palace would have given an original spin on the genre and helped encourage empathy for the main protagonist.

However as most of us will never get to be, or even meet royalty; Julian Fellowes should be commended for how comfortably we can relate to them. Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) helps as a primary source of Victoria’s antagonism. Who at some stage in their life has not had a pushy, malevolent figure or institution ‘guiding’ their decisions? A writer of costume drama must understand how to wring emotion from a world that has largely buried such feeling under pomp and ceremony.

With so much attention paid to the grandness of her costume contribution, Sandy Powell has received little praise for when she removes most of it from the screen. Queen Victoria is relaxed when unencumbered by dress, almost a different person. Although to the uninitiated, Victorian under-garments may look like a lot of white silk and linen, Powell pays mind to minor details.

Victoria’s delicate stockings, for example; it was not unusual for two layers to be worn by upper class women during the 19th century, silk over cashmere. Contrasted with their buttoned-up public facade, these snippets of virtually undressed intimacy between her and the Prince are shocking, and far sexier than blatant bodice ripping, too.

For the men of the story, essentially royalty, aristocrats and politicians, it is significant how closely their clothes resemble ‘modern dress’, i.e. what we are used to wearing throughout the past 150 years or so. Thanks primarily to Beau Brummell’s influence, that renowned Regency trendsetter; men were donning far more sombre attire during the Victoria era. Brummell was a dandy, but contrary to popular belief that did not mean he was a man of fancy, quite the opposite in fact. He wore plain clothes with no ruffs, frills, stockings or effeminacy of any sort. Although he did reputedly spend six hours grooming every morning, as sombre and immaculate apparently went hand in hand.

Prime Minister Viscount Melbourne’s (Paul Bettany) long, fitted black frock coat, grey stock and slim trousers accurately illustrates male clothing of the period. As a younger man with responsibility he is professionally but fashionably attired. Some of the older gentlemen in the film still wear caped great-coats serving as symbolic refusal to change. Victoria was the youngest reigning monarch in British history and these men did not like it. Also, note Melbourne’s tall top hat when he is riding in the Queen’s carriage. It has been suggested that the height of a man’s hat during this time equated to his social standing.

Albert’s clothes are cheerier than the majority of the male cast. In the context of the narrative this is his role, to bring light and joy into Victoria’s life. This idea also makes the Prince more accessible for the audience, our ‘way in’ if you like. His respect and compassion for the Queen’s subjects gives him heart, though unfortunately not strength enough to survive a suspected bout of typhoid fever which ended his life in 1861 at just 42 years of age.

One outfit of Queen Victoria’s that this movie practically fails to feature at all is her wedding dress. This must have been frustrating to Sandy Powell as there appears to be no obvious reason why. Not only is it a beautiful, trailing gown of cream satin and Honiton lace, it is also heavily symbolic, first of the Queen’s pure and undying love for Albert and second of a resurgence in public opinion. The dress was heavily emulated by Victorian brides and brought about a considerable boost to the Devon lace making industry. Quite why it receives such scant attention in the film is a mystery.

Thankfully there is one final costume treat during the last act, albeit a brief one: Victoria’s riding ensemble. Just glimpsed, really, but faithfully reproduced from head to toe. A quite ludicrous combination of formality and supposed function, this all over black ‘sporting garment’ is clearly recognisable from costume plates of the era. All credit to Emily Blunt that in the proceeding scene she actually manages to make this outfit alluring, although a romantic downpour has laid some of the groundwork first.

Despite The Young Victoria failing to shine as one the true greats of costume cinema, bolstered by an emotional script, believable acting and elegant presentation, it remains an immensely watchable effort.

A sweet irony occurs during its final moments, too, one that sums up what we have learned about Queen Victoria, her emotional resolve and integrity. After the Prince has died she continues to have his clothes laid out on a daily basis. Now, we know from a previous scene concerning the deceased King’s dinner service this is not necessarily something that would have pleased Albert; in his eyes it would have been wasteful. Yet this was Victoria, she was his wife as well as his Queen; he did not have a say in the matter.

Read Maggie from The Costumer’s Guide’s thoughts HERE.

© 2010 – 2018, Lord Christopher Laverty.