In Victoria and Abdul, light is shed on the little known story of the close friendship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim. Abdul was a manservant who traveled from India to gift the longest reigning monarch at that time with a present from her empire. During the Royal Banquet, Abdul broke with Royal Protocol making eye contact with the Queen. He and Victoria developed an unexpected friendship and he swiftly became her closest confidante, much to the dismay and horror of the royal household.
In the new film from Stephen Frears, Judi Dench who was born to play British royalty, takes on the role of Victoria and Ali Fazal plays Abdul, the Queen’s “munshi.” Oscar-nominated costume designer Consolata Boyle reunites with Frears taking on the challenge of creating stunning costumes in the period drama. Set in the latter years of her life as she’s still mourning the death of her beloved Albert, the film finds the queen dressed in black. Abdul’s appearance and presence in the household brings the queen unexpected pleasure and Boyle talks about how that allowed her to play with color and texture when designing the costumes for the new film.
Boyle is no stranger to creating period costumes. Her work includes Mary Reilly, The Queen, and Florence Foster Jenkins. Much of the documentation about the friendship between Victoria and Abdul was destroyed after the Queen died, but journalists and author Shrabani Basu have managed to help find a few visual references which served as a springboard for the costumes we see Abdul wearing.
When we first see Queen Victoria, she’s going through a stage of deep mourning for Prince Albert and wearing black. Talk about designing for her in that period of her life?
We did huge research and she was also photographed a massive amount so there was no problem with both written and visual references at all. It’s really what you choose to use because you’re telling a particular story that is dictated by a particular script and by a particular point of view. What are we telling in this story? It’s a very particular period of her life, the last twelve years, and she’s in a mental and physical state where she is lonely and curtailed in her life by the royal household and just by the responsibilities of her position and I think she’s really trying to feel that. Her health is also starting to fail a little bit.
She was in the deepest mourning. She was in mourning from an early age and the Victorians, in general, spent a lot of time in mourning and in black because people died. Disease was rampant even in the upper classes and so there was a lot of death and a lot of darkness in the household and around her.
From a costume point of view, the challenge was dealing with black. I spent a lot of time with the production designer and the cameraman working out how to make blacks as interesting and as textured as we could. That was in a way Victorians and she did it for me because their clothes were so heavily embellished with every possible type of texture and trim. The layers of embroidery and lace, also she herself wore a lot of jewelry. There was a lot and so that’s how we started.
With the developing relationship with Abdul, I was able to use the other colors of mourning such a purple, the whites to indicate the beginning of the lightening of the tone around her. She got to know him better, the relationship developed, and her spirited lightened so all of that was how the costume was used to tell that particular story.
She also had a deep fondness for Osbourne House. How did that play into your designs?
I was aware of her love for it because it was a place where she could be released. I knew about the Durbar Room. The details of the room and how important that was to her and how influential Abdul had been in all of that, that was something that all of us found out as we were doing the research.
The Durbar Room was a massive undertaking. She took architects over from India, even the Peacock Throne and it was just fascinating. We were in that room. The corridor leading into it, and the pride and joy that went into it as she learned about the sub-continent and her empire. The information had been kept from her because she hadn’t been allowed to travel there and Abdul opened that for her in our story. She was hungry for knowledge and curious. She was a very intelligent woman who was taught languages and about the culture. She always was attracted to beautiful men, and his beauty enthralled her and his exoticism, those connections were commercially very strong. There was a lot of trade but she was never allowed to travel there because of the political trouble and upheaval.
Abdul had a lot of color to his outfits but he’s someone we didn’t really know existed until recently. How did you design his colors and the transformation we see with him?
Even though the visual information and information about this relationship has been destroyed and was destroyed by Bertie, there were some things that did survive. Shrabani (Basu) who wrote the book was the journalist did all the digging up of much of what our work is based on.
There are some visual references of him in various uniforms, so I used that as a starting board. The uniform that the royal tailors put him in initially is a Western concoction. There’s a mixture of traditional Indian cuff with the traditional European satin sleeves but there’s an element of the Indian feel about it and you see it in the baggy trousers with the narrowing of the ankles. That was done as it says in the script in the National Gallery. It has the royal crest and it has all the things that match what the livery servants were wearing in the royal household. There are echoes in that.
He’s elevated to her teacher and his clothes take on an importance and pomposity as he grows within the household and within the relationship. The more visually obvious he becomes, the more it causes the political upheaval and resentment within the household. In many cases, the moments between talking and intimacy between the two characters are completely mysterious, they were never witnessed. So a lot of the story is a reimagining of what might have happened within that relationship. No one really knows. He traveled everywhere with her and was very obvious. He had his own servants and he created a furor as we know and it got more poisonous as time went on. A lot of their intimate detailed times together are part of the story that we were trying to tell, and the story of these two extraordinary ill-matched people who suddenly clicked and brought joy to each other. It was an amazing relationship and they were very very close.
As a costume designer, you have Stephen’s ideas, history, and your ideas. How do you work to ensure the three visions are met?
It’s like something going through water. All the information you have and all you know about the script and what I know is Stephen’s main pre-occupation which is this woman and the phenomenon of that relationship. It’s fascinating that women of that particular age have power. She’s ill, isolated and it’s unpicking all of that along with the relationship and knowing how it played out is the bedrock of how it played out, it’s the bedrock of the script and every member of the creative team is doing the same thing and using every tool at our disposal. But it has to pass through our imagination and out the other side and we all try to sing the same song. I suppose that’s something you learn, trying to bring everything together and never losing the end goal. The final goal of what we’re trying to do never loses the center of the imagination, and you don’t get sidetracked. You take all you know and you channel it into the final end of what we’re all aiming for.
When you work very closely with people, you know what they’re thinking. We all know each other and we know the ambition. It’s taking the element and understanding what the story is about and keeping that front and center at all times.
There are a lot of background characters. Was that rigorous designing all those costumes?
Yes. Obviously, everything and anything based on history needs complete accuracy and no false notes. All the types of royalty and hierarchy had to be done accurately.
Let’s take the royal banquet, they were all dressed with their correct pecking orders and every single element of their clothes symbolized something. We had to ensure it was bang on and didn’t cause a distraction. All of that accuracy is only of use when it can be forgotten about and the main element, this woman at the end of the table is what we’re really focused on and what’s going to happen when that young man enters and not one single beat is wrong or missing. Then you can leave it and let it evolve, there can be no mistakes as much as we can possibly try or control or else it becomes a distraction. The feeling of where we are, the feeling of the period, you can get lost in it and get carried right into the film and get carried into the story.`
Victoria and Abdul is out now.