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Royal Friendship’s Evolution in ‘Victoria & Abdul’ Revealed in Costumes

When a director and a costume designer have collaborated on as many films as Stephen Frears and Consolata Boyle have, they develop a shorthand and trust that serves their projects well.

In their case, Boyle has created costumes for films including “Mary Reilly” (1996), “The Queen” (2006) and “Philomena” (2013). But despite the duo’s comfort level, complacency never sets in, says Boyle. “Every project is so completely different, each to be rediscovered and imagined anew,” she notes.

Their latest picture together, “Victoria & Abdul,” is a story of the endearing yet little-known friendship that grew over the last 15 years of Queen Victoria’s life between the monarch, played by Judi Dench (once again), and one of her Indian servants, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal).

“For me the challenge is not so much to create authenticity,” says Boyle, who built all the key characters’ costumes from scratch, “but to create a totally believable world where every element tells the story and where there are no false notes. Only then will it be truly authentic.”

From the earliest stages, the clash of cultures between Abdul’s India and Victoria’s England was the bedrock of Boyle’s research, in which the color, energy and vibrancy of the subcontinent stood in stark contrast with the dark and rigid formality of the royal household.

“I used fabrics, color, weight, texture and embellishment to reflect the difference between their worlds and to develop the stories of each character,” Boyle explains. “When we first meet Abdul, he wears simple, unbleached linen and cotton kurtas, chogas and churidars; later this evolves to rich, heavily embossed silks and then to his royal uniforms.”

There’s a general impression that Victoria dressed in black for 40 years following the 1861 death of her husband, Prince Albert, but Boyle, who handled many of the queen’s original garments when conducting her research, says that’s not entirely true. Victoria’s earliest appearances in the film show her in the deepest of blacks — “at the head of an English society and a royal household obsessed with death,” says Boyle. Then the costume designer slowly sneaks in turf blacks and black-grays and greens, also incorporating the classic Victorian half-mourning colors of soft purple, heliotrope and some white.

Boyle, Oscar nominated for “The Queen” and “Florence Foster Jenkins,” has clothed many powerful actresses, including Dench, Meryl Streep and Helen Mirren.

“In our industry they say when you’ve done it once, you’ll get hired to do it again,” Boyle says. “I love working with these actors. The more experienced they are, the more open they are. They know the power of costumes and of the camera and what all the people around them [making the movie] can contribute. The greater the actor, the less the vanity.”

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