Unlike the lucky ladies, the men of The Borgias tend to have a fairly set uniform, and you only really sit up and take notice when they change out of it. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still some interesting things going on, costume-wise.
The Borgia Men
Alexander loves dressing up. He’s almost always shown in elaborate, floor-length, white silk brocade robes, often with the addition of precious stones and accessories and fur-lined or -trimmed cloaks. These clothes not only denote his position within the church (white garments are typical of the pope’s ‘house dress’) but also his position in society: nobody who has to lift a finger to do work or their own laundry is going to wear expensive white garments all the time in pre-bleach and -drycleaning days.
But Alexander’s not just playing dress-up here. He’s a canny politician, and he’s well aware that a fair bit of the pontiff’s–and, indeed, the church’s–job is to put on a good show. He loves planning big events. Witness how carefully and gleefully he set about planning the party at the beginning of season 2, or the Jubilee celebrations. The people want something shiny and dazzling to look at, and dammit, Alexander’s going to give it to them:
He does cast his papal robes aside every now and then, as when he puts on the simple garb of a mere friar in order to greet the King of France.
But although he talks a big game about becoming a simpler man and everyone being equal in the eyes of God, this is really just a canny political move. Charles is awed by the sight of this humble pope, so different from the debauched stories he’s heard. And thus thrown off guard, he quickly agrees to whatever Alexander suggests. And once he’s gone, it’s right back to the papal regalia.
He was also in what appeared to be pretty civilian dress for Lucrezia’s first wedding:
Here, he looks like any ordinary, wealthy, powerful father, attending the wedding of his beloved daughter, his lovely wife at his side. Though, of course, that’s not really the case here.
In his downtime, Alexander favours robes in–what else?–Borgia red:
Although his clothes don’t vary much, Alexander’s wardrobe does a pretty good job of helping to establish connections–or lack thereof–between him and a number of the other characters.
And, most notably, Juan. Juan wears Borgia red almost all the time. It ties him to the Papal Armies, which he leads, and to his father, who lounges about in the colour. There’s also the fact that Juan’s a hothead, so red seems an appropriate colour. But look what happens in some of the scenes with Alexander and the two elder Borgia brothers:
Alexander, dressed mostly in black and red, with just a tiny bit of white peeping out at the front, matches Juan, his favourite son, almost exactly. Cesare, in all black, isn’t really going with anyone. He’s the odd man out, which is how he constantly feels in this family. He and his father have a great deal of trouble connecting because they’re so similar in all the ways that make Alexander nervous–Cesare has his father’s ruthlessness and ambition. They clash constantly. In the scene above, Alexander’s trying to get his sons to work together, but it winds up being a hopeless cause, in part because he so obviously and inexplicably favours Juan and makes Cesare miserable.
The brothers Borgia each seem to have inherited one side of their father’s personality. Juan got Alexander’s love of glamour and luxury. He’s always very richly dressed in sumptuous fabrics:
Leading the Papal Armies is just another excuse to play dress-up for him. This is what Juan looks like when he goes into battle:
Absolutely ridiculous. He looks like he picked up a centurion costume in a dress-up shop. Unfortunately, he’s all show and no substance–he’s an utter failure at being a military leader, only managing to get the army virtually wiped out. Twice. He has none of his father’s or his brother’s cleverness, subtlety, or political ability.
Once things start to go badly for him and he begins his swift downward slide, he starts looking more and more like hell.
And he gets the bleak, dark lighting that I typically associate with scenes set in Naples. This is a man coming undone, almost literally. Look how put together Lucrezia is in comparison–note that extremely elaborate hairstyle and fabulous dress. He looks like he just stumbled in off the street. He no longer belongs with this family.
Speaking of not belonging, there’s Cesare. Cesare, as I’ve said, inherited Alexander’s political abilities but absolutely no love of show whatsoever. He hates dressing up, preferring to remain in very plain, somber black almost all the time. It was incredibly unusual for a man of Cesare Borgia’s wealth and social position to dress like this at the time. Sumptuary laws were in full force and ensured one could tell exactly what class someone belonged to by the type of clothing they wore–fabric, colour, accessories, they all told a story, and those who were permitted to wear the fanciest clothes did so because it was an outward show of status (hence the reason why Juan is so dressed up). Cesare has more important things to think about and do than plan his wardrobe. The contrast between the brothers is especially noticeable when they march off to war. Juan wants celebrations, a party for himself, and fancy clothes. Cesare, on the other hand, slips out of the city quietly, so as to catch his enemies unawares, and his armor is just as subdued as his clothes:
No idiotic costumes here. This man means business, and he gets shit done, shutting down Caterina Sforza and carting her back to Rome in a dress that almost perfectly matches his armor:
These two are matching rather nicely, aren’t they? It’s no coincidence that the similarly martial-minded, no-nonsense, asskicking Caterina wears mostly black as well.
But it was a long slog getting Cesare to this point, and it was mostly a slog thanks to Alexander, whose all white costumes can frequently indicate his distance from his eldest son:
This is how they tend to be costumed in scenes where they’re not really coming together. Even the staging supports that, especially in the top image. Two people, facing off. When they’re more sypatico, Cesare wears clothes with hints of Borgia red in them, or Alexander wears something black:
But moments like that start to become few and far between, especially following Juan’s death. For a long time after that, Alexander sees Cesare as a dark blot on his life. Kind of like this:
All brightness and sunshine, except for that one dark figure right in the middle.
The truth is, Alexander understands this son, and he’s frightened of him. He’s scared of what someone like Cesare could do if given full command of a giant army, so he tries to channel Cesare’s energies in a direction Alexander can control: into the church. So, Cesare is duly made a bishop, and later a cardinal. And even though he’s stuck in a uniform in both those roles, his clothes still tell a bit of a story. Look carefully here:
Most of the cardinals wear straight up red robes, most of the bishops we see are in straight-up purple. But Cesare’s robes are made from watered silk. That serves a couple of purposes. One, it speaks to his wealth. Two, the swirling pattern created on the fabric speaks to his emotions. He’s not happy to be in these clothes, or in this life his father’s chosen for him. Once he’s finally able to free himself, he does so by dramatically ripping off his cardinal’s robes, leaving them behind to move on to a new life.
But escaping from the pulpit doesn’t get Cesare everything he wants. Alexander still tries to control him, oblivious to the fact that his controlling is driving his son further and further into the arms of potential enemies.
Despite the black accents on Alexander’s robe, these two aren’t really connecting at all. It’s clear who’s really in power right now. Alexander’s dressed down, in soft silks in a sunny garden. Cesare is armored up, in a thick, studded jacket that looks like something you’d wear into battle (actually, if you look at one of his armor pictures up above, it is something he wears to battle). He makes it clear to his father that Alexander has no choice but to rely on him, even though he’s afraid to.
Cesare’s costumes occasionally served to connect him with other characters, particularly Lucrezia, with whom he consistently had the best relationship:
Shades of blues, browns, and reds with Lucrezia, with the black trim on her robe calling out to his black clothes in the last picture. (The blue outfit also very closely ties him to his mother in the same scene.)
He and Machiavelli also dress in similar colours more than once, indicating their bond and shared cleverness. And, of course, Cesare’s clothes tied him to another man who tended to wear lots of dark colours:
It can’t be an accident that these two started to be styled more and more similarly the closer Cesare came to actually becoming a rather cold killer in the same mold as Micheletto.
The pictures above are from season one. Here they are in season two:
Similar clothes, similar hairstyles, similar facial hair.
Season three was a particularly big one for Cesare. Not only did he get to become the military leader he always wanted to be, but he got something else he’d always wanted as well:
Lucrezia catches her brother seriously off guard here. Aside from the scenes where he’s having sex, this is perhaps the most undressed we’ve seen him. He’s usually pretty armored up in either his vestments (in earlier seasons) or those tough leather jackets he tends to favour. This is him vulnerable, and after this, we see him partly undressed in several scenes with his sister. He’s also pretty exposed and dressed appropriately in the scene when Micheletto reveals there’s a spy in their midst:
Here, they’re both vulnerable. They’ve been caught with their proverbial pants down (sorry, Micheletto).
I will note that red tends to become more prominent in Cesare’s wardrobe when he’s very actively working on behalf of his family, as when he organises the brilliant fake-out defense of Rome with Victor/Vittoria:
Borgia red! Red is also used heavily in the scene where he finally reconciles with his father:
That’s the most together those two looked all season.
Just a quick word on little Jofre before I move on to other characters. He wasn’t around much, but when he was, he tended to be dressed in yellow:
It was noted in-show that yellow is the colour of betrayal, and that definitely seems to be the case in this family. Giulia wears it when she realises Alexander’s been cheating on her; Lucrezia wears it to mercy-kill her husband after he was fatally wounded by her brother/lover. Jofre marries a woman who sleeps with his brother, Juan, instead of him. So, yeah, betrayal. Poor little Jofre. By the way, whatever happened to him?
Micheletto, Rufio, and other ‘Stray Dogs’
Micheletto, Rufio, and the men they gather to their respective sides are always dressed in very understated blacks and dark, earthy browns, as befits men who live almost entirely in the shadows. The colours also tie them to their masters, Cesare and Caterina, who also wear black most of the time, and to each other. Remember, Micheletto and Ruffio are, professionally, basically the same person: remorseless killing machines who owe loyalty only to the person cutting their paychecks.
Earlier in the series, Micheletto changes out of his uniform/armor very rarely. And even then, it’s only to demonstrate his superior badassary, as when he allows Della Rovere to remove his shirt and drip lemon juice over his fresh wounds, or when he fights his way out of a Neopolitan spa wearing nothing but a Speedo:
But midway through season 3, things start to fall apart for him, though it takes him a little while to realise it. He meets Pascal, who turns out to be a spy for Caterina. He’s reluctant to take up with the man at first, but finally gives in to the possibility of an actual relationship (well, as much of a relationship as someone like Micheletto is capable of having). And once he lets Pascal in, showing him to his secret loft, he starts dressing down considerably:
That’s Micheletto, completely disarmed. He also wanders about naked a fair bit. Doesn’t get more vulnerable than that. And man, does that come back to bite him in the ass when Pascal betrays him.
The very last time we see him, Micheletto’s wearing something quite different:
It’s hard to see in the picture, so just take my word for it: he’s wearing a soft shirt in green. This shows his complete break with his life before. He’s not in his old uniform at all, and the colour green is typically associated with hope and new life (we also saw it on Vannozza just a few episodes earlier, shortly after she rekindled her affair with Alexander). So, maybe there’s hope for our favourite hired killer after all.
Lucrezia’s Husbands and Suitors
There were a lot of men in Lucrezia’s life, and although they tended to be very different people, they mostly had one disturbing thing in common: a lot of then wound up dead.
Let’s start with a quick look at the suitors who were paraded in front of Alexander in season one. They were all wearing Borgia red:
They’re all trying to show they fit in, though some (Sforza, namely) are more reluctant than others. The only suitor who wasn’t in red was the one who appeared to be about 10 years old, and I think that was mostly to illustrate how far outside of consideration he was.
And then there’s the suitor whom nobody really considered a suitor: Djem.
His clothes are wildly different from those of the other men. Just look at him next to Juan up there. These two are clearly inhabiting completely different worlds. I mentioned in the Lucrezia post that Djem’s pastels go beautifully with hers, drawing the two together. His clothes also clearly make him the ‘other’. Mostly. In one scene, the only one where they’re getting along and genuinely having a good time, he and Juan are actually very similarly dressed:
The man she eventually married, the brutish Giovanni Sforza, quickly abandoned his Borgia red and switched to dark, menacing colours, which pretty perfectly suited his horrible personality.
Aside from treating his wife like shit, Giovanni’s main interest in life is hunting, so he’s almost always dressed for that. Unfortunately for him, he stupidly leaves the leather aside and lets his guard down with former brother-in-law Cesare, who takes the opportunity to stab him to death.
Don’t dress down around Cesare, man. He means business.
Paolo, the man who comforted Lucrezia and fathered her child, is an uneducated servant from the underclasses. As such, he’s dressed in very simple earth tones, tying him to the drab surroundings of Sforza’s home and the land from whence he came. The clothes also very clearly paint him as ‘country boy’, which makes him really stand out when he’s in Rome.
We had a whole new slew of suitors for lovely Lucrezia in season 2, once of whom very nearly married her, unaware she only accepted him because she planned to keep on sleeping with his brother:
Significantly, it’s the brother (the blonde guy) whom Lucrezia winds up sleeping with who’s wearing Borgia red, while the actual suitor is dressed in black and blue, bruise colours, which tend to be associated with sadness and failed relationships in this show. The one who finally wins her, Alfonso of Naples, does show up in head-to-toe Borgia red:
Well done, Alfonso. You’ve won first prize! But even though we realise right away that these two are meant to go together, we get a hint that he’s not going to do so well here:
He looks small, insignificant, and rather silly, standing there with that huge parasol. And we (and the Borgias) soon come to realise that he’s a bit immature and completely spineless. Like the eager puppy he is, he keeps trying to make connections with the others, dressing in an outfit that matches Cesare’s when they’re on their way to Naples to settle the marriage arrangements:
Wearing Borgia red (the same outfit as when he first met her) to greet Lucrezia on her arrival:
And dressing to match her at his cousin’s coronation:
But he’s not really connecting properly with any of these people. His efforts are in vain; Lucrezia and Cesare are drawn to each other, and the more Alfonso realises that, the more he starts showing up in the colour combinations that are typically associated with sadness or conflict. Black and blue:
…for their engagement party, if you can believe it.
…to stand around behind his much more powerful and influential wife, looking like a servant.
Red and green:
And finally, back to black and blue, to die:
Poor, sweet guy never stood a chance with this lot.
Images: Showtime, Grande Caps
8 thoughts on “Dressing The Borgias: The Men”
Such amazing on-spot observations…are you sure you didn’t work in the show’s costuming department?!
I wish! But no, I’m just really, really into historical costume. Glad you enjoyed the posts!
Loving these! I have just finished The Borgias, and have been looking for good analysis. I too, love Tom and Lorenzo.
Glad you like them, thanks for reading!
Wow, I really love the Borgias (still watch it at times), and your observations were so spot-on. I genuinely thought it was an official article from the costume department or the director himself:) Thanks a lot for posting it.
Thank you for your kind words! Glad you enjoyed the posts!
Just looking for costumes for a UK LARP [Empire] and these discussions and strong analysis really help – thank you!
You’re welcome–glad you find them helpful!