WHO WORE IT BETTER: Romeo and Juliet vs. Romeo + Juliet

Taking style—not relationship—cues from theatre's most iconic couple

A long, long time ago, musical duo The Everly Brothers recorded a song called “Love Hurts.” Now, history was never my strongest subject, but I’m 98% sure Billy Shakespeare had that song in mind when he wrote his tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet (his other point of reference was clearly the classic romance, Pretty in Pink).

To truly understand this tale of woe (this of Juliet and her Romeo), one must look beyond what one learned from their Grade 10 English teacher, and instead refer to the styling choices made in the two most iconic film adaptations. I’m talking, of course, of the 1968 Franco Zeffirelli and the 1996 Baz Lurhmann versions. Come join us in Fair Verona where we lay our scene.

ACT ONE: Just a Good Ol’ Fashioned Family Feud

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a well thought out costume is worth pages of backstory. Costume designer Danilo Donati won an Academy Award for his job on the 1968 film, and it’s easy to see why: what better way to convey the gang like confrontations between the Montagues and the Capulets than with colour-coded tights? The entire movie is like a 1960′s retrospective of the Renaissance, where even characters with violent tendencies are draped in lush fabrics and faded colours. This explains the following:

PINK TIGHTS!! Just hanging out in the background on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it extra.

Luckily for us, the overenthusiastic viewers, Baz Luhrmann also just does not do subtlety. Romeo + Juliet was, believe it or not, the first movie for costume designer Kym Barrett, though as a surprise to no one she has an extensive background in theatre costuming. (She would later go on to work on the hacker-tastic Matrix). If you’re gonna have an out-and-out brawl at a gas station triggered by nothing more than some inappropriate thumb-biting, you’re going to need flamboyant looks including shocking pink hair and lots of leather. Is this movie timeless? Hell no. And that’s why we love it.

ACT 2: It is the East, and Juliet is the Sun

And so we come to our star-crossed lovers. Olivia Hussey as the 1968 Juliet was probably the mane main reason why I went a year and a half without cutting my hair. Every scene in which she wears it pulled back, her hair still dominates the scene with its glossy locks and center part. You know the girl was just waiting for any opportunity to shake it out like she was in a Herbal Essences commercial. In keeping with all the soft edges of the film’s aesthetic, is it any wonder that for Romeo they cast Leonard Whiting, who looks like he could be Zac Efron’s great uncle? Gotta love a dude who can effortlessly pull off two-tone tights while getting into a fight.

The relationship between early-teenager Juliet and nearly-adult Romeo probably would not be that palatable to contemporary audiences, yet Lurhmann was able to keep the age difference consistent but not skeezy by casting another baby-faced blue eyed actor named Leo (that’s DiCaprio. Keep up, now). Simultaneously non-threatening and able to piss off the parents of his amour, he proved to be the perfect Jordan Catalano for Claire Danes’s Juliet.

I believe the costume designer for this was given the assignment: “try to put everything about the ’90s into one outfit. Then amp it up by 11.” A shiny, button-up, halter wedding dress WITH a high ponytail and two skinny face framing hair wisps? Is she getting married or auditioning as an extra in a Smashing Pumpkins video? Next you’re going to tell me that the best man in this wedding is the guy from Bring it On.


ACT 3: Ain’t No Party like a Capulet Party

In a play filled with excesses, the visual cues come to a glittering pinnacle with a riotous masquerade. It serves as the backdrop for the first meeting between two of pop culture’s most melodramatic teenagers, so low-key it ain’t. Zeffirelli goes for a hazy nightmarish vibe with unsettling metallic masks, at once animalistic and skeletal.

Lurhmann skips the vague drug allegories and goes straight for an ecstasy high, creating a kaleidoscope of colours heightened by the surrealism of having his entire cast in costumes that mirror their personalities.

They can star in as many gritty shows and movies like Homeland and Django Unchained as they want, but will we ever see these two as anything beyond an angel and a knight, kissing by the book?

ACT 4: The Supporting Cast Needs Your Love, Too

Ice queen Lady Capulet (Natasha Parry in 1968) drapes herself in black, curtaining her perma-scowl. Even if the Montagues and Capulets weren’t feuding, methinks Romeo would still be nervous around his mother-in-law.

Whatchu brewing in that apothecary, 1968 Friar Lawrence (Milo O’Shea)? Could it be CINEMATIC ATMOSPHERE??? Somebody use this as the backdrop for a photo shoot, stat.

1996 Friar Lawrence (Pete Postlethwaite) has such an intense relationship with God he doesn’t even bother buttoning up his shirt, granting the Almighty a straight route to his heart.

1996 Nurse (Miriam Margolyes) looks like somebody to whom you could confide all your problems before raiding her accessories drawer. Those shades!

ACT 5: Call it Funeral Chic

This is a tragedy, after all. That ooey-gooey puppy love can’t compete with the power of deep rooted hatred, poison, fake poison, swords, daggers, and (if you’re Baz Luhrmann), pistols. Still, if you’re gonna fake your death, you might as well do it in style. Can we see some more gauze on that ensemble, Juliet?
That’s better. And how much do we love the girls of Capulet house, treating Juliet’s not-not-funeral as a place to show off their duds? We love them. We love them a lot.

Romeo and Juliet, together and colour-coded for eternity.

Not to be outdone, 1996 Juliet shies away from wearing black when depressed, opting instead for an equally moody midnight blue. I mean what are you going to do, not wear a velvet dress with a pointed collar and matching beret when planning to fake your own death? That right there is exactly why you’re single.

Finally, my favourite set out of both movies. LOOK AT ALL THOSE CANDLES! What I love about this is that Juliet’s family didn’t know that Romeo would break his way in, or that Friar Lawrence was planning to rescue her, and still they go all out in snazzing up her crypt. What does your job title have to be to ensure the lighting of dozens and dozens of ornate candles surrounding a dead body? And is there any room for advancement in that profession? Is the life expectancy at least better than a Montague in Verona?

Winner: I could waste my time trying to calculate which film had the better wardrobes, but really in both scenarios it is the audience that wins. Still, I have to give the “Best Dressed” title to anybody, we all know that 1996 Mercutio owns it.

Please don’t kill yourself in the name of romance.

Dreaming of tragedies in tulle.

Can we all just acknowledge that at some point in our lives, most of us wanted to be a ballerina?

This phase may have been short-lived – perhaps it was a fleeting fancy resulting from a December Nutcracker overdose – or perhaps like me, it took form in painfully awkward ballet bunnies classes. For a special few however, this passion develops into a career in dance. To all ballerinas: I am feeling especially jealous lately!

Ballet, with its conjured images of grace, tutus and impossibly dainty (and painful!) pointe shoes, represents a sort of understated elegance that has often inspired the fashion world (like Degas’ “Dancer” paintings with creamy peach tones and appliqué flowers). This influence has been distilled into even the most mainstream of trends – ballet flats for example. Without dialogue, ballets rely on communicating characterization through costumes more strongly than in speaking mediums.

I was able to view this first hand when seeing The National Ballet of Canada’s Romeo and Juliet (the Prokofiev version).

This is the kind of grace I am talking about – look at Karen Kain’s leap! (She’s now the Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada.)
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