How “Mary & George” Makes Jacobean Fashion Sexy

If you aren’t familiar with Jacobean dress, it’s time to get into it. As costume designer Annie Symons explained to us while discussing her work on the new Starz miniseries Mary & George, the era—during which James I ruled jointly over both England and Scotland, from 1603 to 1625—is not often represented in film or television, but filled with sartorial delights nonetheless. The hats, the ruffles, the jewels and fabrics—this was when English court fashion was at its most flamboyant.

So flamboyant, in fact, that fashion in Mary & George is essentially its own character. Based on Benjamin Woolley’s 2017 history book The King’s Assassin, the series follows mother Mary and son George Villiers as they ascend through the ranks of James’s court, with George eventually seducing the king and his personal favorite. In this story, dressing the part quite literally becomes a matter of life and death.

And boy, do the characters look good doing it. Mary & George is a psychosexual court drama filled with intrigue and queer overtones, and Symons’s costumes deliver just the right amount of camp. We caught up with the costume designer to learn more about the one color Julianne Moore asked not to wear, and how maybe—just maybe—ruffs might be finding their way back into fashion.


I imagine it’s tough to find new ways to make period pieces look different. How did you accomplish that with Mary & George?

Well, that’s the thing—we haven’t seen this period before, because it’s rarely done. We’ve seen a lot of Jacobean tragedy on the stage in the U.K., but very few in televisual representations, so it was exciting to dig into new territory. James was only on the throne for a short while, but he really defined a style and fashion that is unique. There wasn’t anything available costume-wise from the rental houses, so we had to make everything. We [rented] a little bit of Elizabethan stock.

mary and george julianne moore nicolas gaultizine

Rory Mulvey

How is Jacobean costume different from Elizabethan?

The shapes are different. Jacobean is all about these falling ruffs, the jewelry, the hairdos. The Elizabethan period had these enormous farthingales [underneath skirts to give them their shape], but in the Jacobean, everything begins to soften and become more wearable.

This show is, in a very simple sense, all about social climbing. How did you communicate that through the clothes?

Mary uses costume as a device. Clothing and fabrics are signals of power and wealth and status in the same way they are today; but then, it was even more important, because you really had to fake it to make it, to get into court. Several families from that 17th-century period are known to have gone bankrupt in their attempt to be part of a world that could afford those clothes and phenomenally expensive lace that came into fashion.

How did you bring Julianne Moore’s character, Mary, to life through costume?

For Mary, she uses costume as a chameleon-type calling card. Wherever she goes, she seems to fit in—apart from one scene, where she very deliberately wears a bib purple farthingale dress with the “prostitute makeup.” But that was very deliberate, and she wears that to deliberately draw attention to herself. But when the show opens, Mary is quite depleted: Her means have been eroded, and her family are living in this medieval house in constrained circumstances. Their clothing is good quality, but I stripped all the color out. We used a lot of parched-bone, lichen, dried-blood kind of hues to suggest that something had withered and died. As she moves forward, she becomes emboldened, and as she gets richer, as she marries into money, she uses that money to dress herself and her son George to play the sartorial game.

a group of women sitting at a table with food

STARZ

As she climbs the social ladder and her character develops, how do we see her costumes change?

Basically, every time there was a significant moment with Mary, she would have a different color outfit. She is kind of this chess piece that changes color. The main thing was to get shapes and a look that really complemented Julianne. I first met her in Savannah, while she was filming May December. I flew out with five suitcases of stuff that was available—bum rolls, hip rolls, farthingales, God knows what else—and we spent a whole day trying on different shapes and learning what suited her. What I ended up doing was leaning into Dior’s New Look a bit. Jacobean waistlines creep up, but it’s not that flattering on camera, so I kept her costumes on a natural waist. The character of Mary is very precise and neat. A bit like a missile, she’s determined to meet her goals. And we also had this idea that she was a modern woman living in a man’s world. There are elements of her that are quite suitlike and masculine in their simplicity. When she’s in London, for instance, she wears this sort of proto-feminist leather jacket that I thought looked kind of funky and was right for London.

That’s so interesting that you were inspired by the New Look for a Jacobean costume.

What we landed on is akin to the New Look, which came later, and also to the Elizabethan look, which came before. Waistlines in the Jacobean period were creeping up higher and higher—but that means a lot of bulk on camera. We also felt that Julianne’s portrayal of Mary should be kept pretty sharp. I took from the past and learned from the future.

What is it like to costume Julianne Moore? Was she collaborative, or did she let you run free?

Julianne is extremely trusting. It’s all about how she feels in the costume, which I completely understand. She wore a corset mainly to support the weight of these rather large skirts. For her character, I kept finding myself saying, “Yet another costume!” Because in the end she had about 65 costumes. She would say, “You’re the designer, so if you like it, I like it!” Then I’d ask if she felt good, and she’d say yes. There was, however, one color she didn’t want to wear.

a person wearing a garment

Rory Mulvey

And what color was that?

Trade secret! It was yellow. I wanted to have her emerging like a sun out of a celestial blue court. But I didn’t want to push the issue.

Yellow is a tough color!

It really is! It’s all to do with skin tone. But you can’t blame me for trying.

There are some really fantastic hats in this show.

I was delighted that Julianne embraced the hats, because they’re part of the outfits. Hats can be difficult—you need to work really tightly in conjunction with the hair people, especially in period stuff. The hair supports the hat. We tried many, many shapes on and finally arrived on a variety we thought worked. The most remarkable one Julianne wears is the one with these giant rabbit ears. The director said, “Just go for it.”

Sex plays a really important role in the plot of this show. How did you make Jacobean dress feel sexy?

We used a lot of gauzy fabrics and see-though fabrics. There are quite a few scenes where George or the king are just wandering around in a shirt. We wanted it to be suggestive without being explanatory. We used a lot of fabrics with a certain lightness about them, and that adds to the sensuality, and the freedom of movement.

a person in a white shirt

Rory Mulvey

Was there anything your cast tried to steal from set?

There were some highly covetable items, but not really! People were very respectful. I imagined a few fluffs might go missing as souvenirs, but they didn’t actually.

I’d imagine ruffs would be difficult to sneak off set.

Funny enough, they fold up quite easily!

There are some great ruffs in this show. Maybe your costumes will spark a fashion trend.

Ruffs are going to be big in fashion next year! But I’m not sure about farthingales.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lettermark

Todd Plummer is a Boston based journalist covering culture and lifestyle. He is a seasoned entertainment reporter, travel writer, and is an alumnus of McGill University and St. John’s University School of Law.