Get the Inside Scoop on Helen Mirren's 'Catherine the Great' Costumes

Ileane Rudolph
Fall Preview HBO

Helen Mirren, whose portrayals of Elizabeth I and II won her an Emmy, an Oscar, and a Tony, returns to TV in royal style in Catherine the Great.

This sumptuous four-part miniseries showcases the actress as intelligent, lusty and much-gossiped-about Prussian-born empress Catherine the Great, who successfully ruled an expanding Russian empire from 1762 to 1796. The series covers her later years and her affair with military leader Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke).

Ever the strategist, Catherine understood the value of an impressive wardrobe. For Mirren's intricate ensembles, costume designer Maja Meschede used a palette of Russian golds and blues. "I wanted her to resemble an iconic Russian painting," says Meschede, who for inspiration visited St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum to view the many paintings of Catherine and her court.

Catherine, who fancied herself an intellectual, wanted the aristocrats "to dress down a bit," says Meschede, "so she created a court dress [seen above]. You have a corset and skirt, an over robe, and ruched sleeves. It was her interpretation of the beautifully embroidered traditional dress that farmers wore on holidays and to church."

Helen Mirren Is HBO's 'Catherine the Great' in First Trailer for Limited Series (VIDEO)

Helen Mirren Is HBO's 'Catherine the Great' in First Trailer for Limited Series (VIDEO)

Mirren, in the clip released on Sunday, rules the Russian empire in the 18th century and speaks of holding absolute power.

Mirren's costumes — close to 60 in all — are originals constructed from fabrics woven in Italy and India and then hand-embroidered in Lithuania. In reality, aristocrats had their own garment factories attached to their castles. Catherine, a notorious lover of men, enjoyed looking womanly. "We embroidered flowers and very delicate lace onto some of her dresses," Meschede says, "and made beautiful dressing gowns that are very feminine."

The ruler preferred to wear breeches and military jackets when she appeared before her soldiers. "It's been written that she wore men's clothes to show off her nice legs," Meschede notes. "She even threw so-called transvestite balls. The men in women's clothes looked slightly ridiculous, while the women in men's clothes looked powerful and beautiful."

(Robert Vigalsky/HBO)

The actress' favorite piece: a gold gown with a bodice of embroidered pearls. "As an homage to Helen Mirren, we embroidered her initials in pearls in the back of the dress's neckline," Meschede reveals. "If people look closely, they can see it."

Catherine the Great, Miniseries Premiere, Monday, October 21, 10/9c, HBO