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‘Victoria & Abdul’: How Costumes Convey a Controversial Friendship

The costumes have their own arcs in Stephen Frears' period drama about the clash of East and West that's relevant in our divisive times.

“Victoria & Abdul”

Peter Mountain / Focus Features


Director Stephen Frears (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) continues his fascination with odd pairings and female empowerment with “Victoria & Abdul,” which explores the mysterious, controversial, and loving friendship between Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Indian clerk-turned-confidant Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal). And what better way to shed light on that friendship (both literally and metaphorically) than through their wardrobes?

“I did wide research into the social and historical world of the Royal English family [from 1887 at the Queen’s Jubilee celebration until her death in 1901], and this woman who was burdened with formality and rigidity and the absurdity of the hierarchy within the household,” said long-time Fears costume designer Consolata Boyle (twice Oscar-nominated for “The Queen” and “Florence Foster Jenkins”). “Every nuance had to be completely right so you could turn your back on it and concentrate on the friendship.”

The Shocking Relevance

Based on the novel by journalist Shrabani Basu, who uncovered the scandalous infatuation that disrupted the palace and lead to a near revolt against the queen, Boyle found the story to be pertinent during these divisive times. The friendship between Victoria and Abdul transcended race, politics, and religion when the aged Queen asked the Muslim stranger to become her teacher (munshi), and granted him a title and property.

“Victoria & Abdul”

“It’s about the unbridled racism and how history repeats and repeats,” said Boyle. “It’s like this learning curve, the rising and falling of things. You just wait long enough and it comes around again. This story, which, in a way, is quite intimate and small, and these two people, from completely different backgrounds, have a friendship that’s like a mother-son relationship, and what resonated out from that. What does that reflect? What does it mean? Why are we investigating these people at this particular moment in time?”

Added Boyle, “Stephen is intrigued by worlds that maybe are not immediately accessible. There’s always this fascination with women who within their own sphere are powerful or limited in their power, that life contrives against them. So I think it’s that process of discovery.”

Overcoming the Queen’s Black Wardrobe

Since Victoria wore black for most of her life (and was in mourning for her late husband, Prince Albert), the primary challenge for Boyle was to be authentic while conveying a dramatic arc through her wardrobe. The growing friendship between Victoria and Abdul allowed Boyle to lighten her wardrobe. She introduced an assortment of colors, including purples, along with various embellishments. “I started to use some whites and grays on her, more lace, to indicate a lightness of spirit.,” she said.

Boyle’s work inevitably underscored the clash of East and West. The vibrant color of Abdul’s clothes stand in stark contrast to the dark and rigid formality of Victoria’s. Thus, the costume designer used fabric with different weights and textures to reflect the difference between the two worlds. All of Dench’s and Fazal’s clothes were made from scratch in London and India and were highly detailed. She had him in Kurtas, Chogas, and Churidars with heavily embossed silks.

“Victoria & Abdul”

“He starts to dress more elaborately as he progressed as a munshi,” Boyle said. “His clothes became quite ethnic and the fabric became more elaborate. He wore the rich colors of the sub-continent: Ochres and golds.”

Boyle also collaborated closely with cinematographer Danny Cohen, which determined decisions on weights and colors of the clothes. They figured out how to make black have more depth and be less flat and less light absorbing.

The Transforming Trip to Italy

During a trip to Italy, Victoria positively glows in the presence of Abdul and the beautiful scenery. “When they’re walking in the garden, he’s wearing a very simple but very beautiful, traditional Indian garment with an ivory silk turban, she’s wearing a black and ivory dress,” Boyle said.

“And later that night when Puccini [Simon Callow] sings, he’s wearing a blue and silver Choga and she’s wearing a deep brown velvet dress trimmed with gold and brown ribbon,” said Boyle. “And they dance together on the terrace and she says [she’s] never been happier. She’s beginning to lighten up.”

“Victoria & Abdul”

Peter Mountain / Focus Features

From then on, as everything progresses, there’s purples coming in, as well as more white and more lace. “And then about two-thirds of the way through, as she’s starting to lose her powers again and the vultures are circling, there’s more black…she ages, she ages, she ages,” Boyle said.

Still, it was a forensic journey into costuming for Boyle. “The contrast between the heaviness of Victorian structure and the lightness of the Indian structure is so eloquently perceived,” she said.

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