16 Reasons Why the 16th Century Is My Happy Place

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Everyone who likes historical costume movies and TV shows seems to have one or two eras they like above all others. Kendra pointed out that she loves Jane Austen flicks for the women-centered stories even though she agrees with me that the costumes tend to look like crappy white nightgowns.

Well, as I cruise around Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and Turner Movie Classics for stuff to watch and blog for Frock Flicks, the things I gravitate to that make me most happy are always set in the 16th century. Elizabethan and Tudor stories, in particular, but any part of the glorious European Renaissance, oh yes, the 16th century is my happy place. And here’s why…

 

1. Queen Elizabeth Was a Bad Ass

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I

Whether Glenda Jackson, Bette Davis, Helen Mirren, Cate Blanchett, or one of the other fine actresses who’ve played the queen, she is the ultimate woman on top. She’s all queen, all the time. Sure, she has a soft side, she wants a little lovin’ from Dudley and/or Essex, but she has the heart and stomach of a king, and don’t you forget it! Historically, Queen Elizabeth I of England was venerated and practically became a legend towards the end of her reign, so film/TV portrayals of her as larger than life seem pretty spot-on.

Glenda Jackson as Queen Elizabeth I

Glenda Jackson’s QEI, kicking ass and taking names at Tilbury.

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I

Bette Davis’ QEI is gonna cut a bitch.

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I

Helen Mirren’s QEI telling him what for.

 

2. Shakespeare, Duh

Technically, only half of William Shakespeare‘s plays were written in the 16th century, and about half were written from 1600 to 1614. But on film, you’re going to see Shakespeare in 16th-century costume (unless it’s in Victorian, modern, or space cowboy costumes). The language is so quintessentially of the period, and yet it’s full of timeless wit and pathos. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) is still luminous and romantic, while his Taming of the Shrew (1967) is hilarious and biting, and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) is stirring and tragic.  If you don’t like Shakespeare, I don’t think we can be friends.

 

3. Get a Load of Those Wacky Ruffs

Anne-Marie Duff as Queen Elizabeth I

These are the best! You can’t have Elizabethan England without big, crazy ruffs, both the pleated variety and the wired wing style. If a movie or TV show does nothing else right about 16th-century costume, it has to put everyone upper-class in ruffs. I can’t get enough of ’em.

Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth I

Flora Robson, playing Queen Elizabeth I in 1937’s Fire Over England, wears not one but two ruffs.

Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth I

I’d be smiling too if I were wearing this baby.

Lettice Knollys & Robert Dudley in Elizabeth R, 1971

Even the simple ruffs worn by Lettice Knollys & Robert Dudley in Elizabeth R (1971) are awesome.

Queen Margot

La Reine Margot (1994), killing it with a stand-up ruff.

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I

Check Cate Blanchett’s wired ruff in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) from the front…

Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I

… and from the back.

 

4. Hot Political Intrigue

Walsingham in Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Today, politics are all shitty soundbites spewing over a 24-hour news cycle. In Elizabethan England, Sir Francis Walsingham ran a vast and intricate spy ring that covered all of Europe. He wasn’t the only one. Catherine de Medici ruled ruthlessly as Dowager Queen of France for her three young sons, probably instigating the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. In the Italian states, wars raged, and the popes amassed their own powerbases. Everybody was against everybody else, Europe was a messy chessboard. It was exciting! You don’t need to embellish this stuff.

Catherine de Medici in Queen Margot

Do not get on Catherine de Medici’s bad side.

 

5. Men Showed Off Their Legs

Elizabeth R (1971)

Long pants are totally overrated — fellas, if you want to get it on with the ladies, show off that well-turned calf! This is also why we miss the more historically accurate shoes instead of the modern boots. They knew a thing or two about erogenous zones in the 16th century (and apparently in the 1930s through ’50s).

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939)

Errol Flynn, rocking the garter, swashing the buckle.

Young Bess (1953)

OK, so it’s not historically accurate except for the shoes/not-boots part, but hey, he does have nice legs!

Diane (1956)

That’s Roger Moore, folks. Show some leg, get picked as the next James Bond — coincidence?

1948, Adventures of Don Juan

Adventures of Don Juan (1948) — more like Adventures of Manly Men in Tights!

 

6. They Bedazzled Everything

Elizabeth R (1971)

Conspicuous consumption was in. Jewels were applied directly onto clothes and  headgear, plus jewelry dripped from necks, ears, wrists, and fingers. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling.

Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Tudor gable bling!

Edmund Blackadder, Blackadder II

Boys get bling too. While Blackadder II (1986) is a comedy, the costumes are quite historically accurate.

Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I

Enough pearls for ya?

Helen Mirren, Elizabeth I

Layers upon layers of bling.

 

7. Masks and Masquerades Were Totally a Thing

Six Wives of Henry VIII (1972)

I’m all about playing dress up. In 16th-century courts, masquerading was a big deal. Acting out mythological tales or allegories was a favorite party entertainment in the days before Pictionary. In Wolf Hall (2015), Cromwell used his memory of a satirical masque to ID guys he was going to have hanged, but usually masquerades meant fun. The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1972, shown above), Elizabeth (1998), Ever After (1998), and even The Tudors (2007-2010) all featured more lighthearted masquerade scenes.

Wolf Hall (2015)

Percy and Anne innocently flirting at a masque … oh wait.

Wolf Hall (2015)

These masquerades can get you into trouble, if you’re not careful…

 

8. The Pale Look Was In

"Elizabeth R" - Ditchley portrait recreation

I’m a goth, and while my own Asian-descended skin is decidedly yellow, I admire the whole white-as-a-sheet style. Elizabethan ladies perfected this. Check out Glenda Jackson in Elizabeth R and Cate Blanchett’s final look in Elizabeth.

elizabeth-03

 

9. Wearing Black Was In

Tale of Tales (2015)

Did I mention goth? Yeah. The 16th century is the first time in history that wearing all-black was not just for monks, judges, and mourners. Black clothes were now sexy, chic, and showed you had money, thanks to new dye technology. All the cool kids were wearing it.  I really want to know when this Spanish Renaissance styled Tale of Tales (2015, above) will be released. The black satin gown that Joley Richardson wears as Queen Elizabeth in Anonymous (2011, below) is freakin’ gorgeous too!

2011 Anonymous

Mmmm … black satin.

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of Scots’ Catholic priest really “pops” against all-black clothes — the perfect touch for her newly Protestant country.

The Other Bolyen Girl

All-black is so tasteful when you’re on trial for your life.

 

10. Sexy AND Smart Courtesans

Dangerous Beauty

Instead of the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ cliche, the 16th century valued sex workers for their brains (often more for their smarts than for putting out). Dangerous Beauty (1998) isn’t a great movie by a long shot, but it does give us a duel of wits where the courtesan wins. The flick is (loosely, very loosely) based on the biography of Veronica Franco, the Venetian poet and courtesan. Now, if only people would make movies about all the other fascinating 16th-century courtesan poets and maybe feature historically accurate clothing in the flicks too. I can dream!

Dangerous Beauty

For your all-singing, all-dancing courtesan review.

 

11. Pirates Before the “Aaarrrrgh”

Clive Owen in Elizabeth: The Golden Age

The 18th century is when pirates get all rum-soaked, peg-legged, and can inspire Talk Like a Pirate Day. In the 16th century, the dashing Sir Francis Drake was considered the first pirate for his raiding of Spanish ships. I’m amused by the “Aaarrrrgh” pirates, but check out Clive Owen as Drake in Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Richard Todd as Drake in The Virgin Queen (1951). Now those are my kind of pirates!

Richard Todd in The Virgin Queen (1955)

Richard Todd, classin’ up the joint.

 

12. The Clothes Are Flattering on Women of Various Sizes and Ages

Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love

Can we get an amen here? The 16th century offers a fashion silhouette that suits both the willowy Cate Blanchetts of the world and the older, stouter Judi Denchs. An exaggerated farthingale and structured bodice gives everyone a nice almost-hourglass shape, and big skirts and an enormous ruff can make anyone’s waist look small in comparison. Rich fabrics, loads of trim, and the aforementioned bling are all a wonderful distraction from any figure complaints one might have. (Oh yes, this is why I enjoy wearing 16th-century costume too!).

Alice More in Wolf Hall

She’s not flashy, but Thomas More’s wife, Alice, in Wolf Hall has flattering, well-fitted clothes. Also, a monkey.

Vanessa Redgrave, Anonymous

Vanessa Redgrave in Anonymous looks fab in silver and white.

Blackadder II

Nurse in Blackadder II isn’t svelte, but she still looks period-appropriate.

Joanne Whalley in The Borgias

Vanozza Cattaneo is cast aside in Showtime’s The Borgias (2011), but she looks so damn hot, I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.

Frances Cuka in The SIx Wives of Henry VIII

One good-looking Katherine of Aragon, circa 1972.

 

13. People Believed in Cross-Dressing

Orlando (1992)

This really ties in with Shakespeare, since in plays like Twelfth Night and As You Like It, women dress as men, and all the other characters totally buy it. In fact, women fall in love with these cross-dressed women, thinking they’re men. Orlando (1992) takes the twist of casting a man, Quentin Crisp, as Queen Elizabeth, and a woman, Tilda Swinton, is the main character who begins as a man. It all works out in a very period fashion. Shakespeare in Love (1998) plays with the 16th-century stage convention where the women’s roles were played by young boys, and has a woman, Gwyneth Paltrow, playing a boy who performs women’s roles on the Elizabethan stage. Nobody in the movie figures it out until the end, naturally.

Shakspeare in Love

Does Gwynnie pass?

 

14. Real Men Wore Pastels. And Long Skirts.

Elizabeth I

And they look awesome, and I would bang the hell out of them, given the chance. Nothing girly about these boys in pink and lavender or some skirted action. Rrow!

Jeremy Irons in The Borgias

Is it wrong that a pope is this hot?

Robert Hardy in Elizabeth R (1971)

Oh Leicester, your pink suit is so dashing!

Wolf Hall (2015)

What have we got goin’ on under those skirts, sir?

 

15. Sexy Yet Courtly Dancing

Feel free to correct the historical accuracy of this scene from Elizabeth, but the style is what I’m interested in. I dig this period’s dancing because it’s not as fussy as the 18th-century’s set dances or as snoozy as the 19th-century’s waltzes, and it’s pretty to watch.

 

16. Mary Queen of Scots Was Tragically Misunderstood

Mary Queen of Scotts (2013)

Overshadowed by her more successful cousin in England, Mary Queen of Scots has been cast as a clueless romantic and a silly naif. No historical film or TV series has really told her story completely or accurately yet — despite several excellent, well-researched biographies having been available for decades (I’m partial to Antonia Fraser’s work on the subject). I’m a huge MQoS fan, just not really a fan of any movie or TV interpretation. It’s complicated. Yes, there will be another post about this someday soon.

Katharine Hepburn in Mary of Scotland

Katharine Hepburn makes for a very romantic, yet not very historical Mary of Scotland in 1936.

Mary Queen of Scots in Elizabeth R (1971)

The Mary Queen of Scots episode of Elizabeth R is the best treatment of the end of Mary’s life.

 

So, that’s why the 16th century is my happy place. How do you feel about this historical period?

 

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About the author

Trystan L. Bass

Twitter Website

A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. When she’s not dressing up in costumes, she can be found traveling the world with her sweetie and, occasionally, Kendra and Sarah. Her costuming and travel adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also maintains a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

14 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I totally agree the 16th century and the Italian Renaissance of the late 15th century is my favourite period. But I won’t snark at Russian Court styles from the reigns of Alexander III or Nicholas II.

    Regarding Mary of Scotland, she was intelligent and her Pre-Darnley Scottish period she was trying, successfully I might add, to steer a middle ground in Scotland. But her mistake was marrying the idiot Darnley, then rape by Bothwell. I would have taken Leicester. And you?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Mary definitely made some mistakes in the romance department *sigh* Darnley looked good on paper (ok, & in a suit), but was a pretty worthless human being. If she’d had a real chance at Leicester, OMG, that would have been so exciting :) My big Mary Queen of Scots in film/TV post is planned for her December birthday!

      Reply
    • Dawn

      That rape has always been questionable to me. Mainly because anyone who assaulted the Queen would have found a quick end. Take the case of Pierre de Chastelard, for example. He had a mad passion for her, hid under her bed, was banished, ignored it, and forced his way into her chambers when she was about to change clothes. Man was executed for it. I tend to fall into the camp that Bothwell seduced her and they covered it as rape.

      Reply
  2. mmcquown

    Blowing Darnley up was probably cheaper than a divorce. And speaking of lawyers, the period was one of the most litigious in history. Sometimes referred to as “Tudorbethan,” the 16th is my 2nd fave, but the 17ths is my true love. Besides reenacting the early settlement in America/ECW period, I was in “The Revenger’s Tragedy,” one of the classics of the Jacobean revenge cycle.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      I really love that cross-over period where the 16th ends & the 17th starts too! About 1580 to 1620 — the history, literature, & costuming are just fascinating.

      Reply
  3. Dawn

    It’s my favorite period as well!

    Mary Stuart was a smart woman, but made some bad choices (I don’t think much of the later Stuarts, to be honest, but I think she and Charles II were probably the smartest of the bunch 1542-1714) and she couldn’t manage to stay flexible enough to get back on top or lower her pride enough to not trip over it. Plus, Elizabeth outclassed her in many ways due to her own upbringing. Elizabeth was a trained hunting cat and Mary, while possessing her own sharp claws, was more of a lap cat.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      There’s an excellent book Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn that details exactly the subject of the two queens’ upbringing & how the differences were critical in understanding their future lives & decisions. QEI was basically given a 16th-c. upper-class man’s education, while MQoS was given a 16th-c. upper-class woman’s education, & yet both of them were expected to do the same job of ruling a country. There’s more to it about the role-models they had growing up, how the English & French courts were incredibly different politically, but yeah, made for wildly different women.

      Reply
      • The_L1985

        That explains SO MUCH. I have seen one sympathetic treatment of “Bloody Mary” before today. In the anime/manga series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a vampire roams around Victorian England (yes, I know the costumes are nowhere near historically accurate) raising corpses as “ghouls.”

        Two of the ghouls turn out to be honorable knights who’d served under Mary, Queen of Scots, and had been unjustly executed by QEI. This was the first time I’d seen Liz treated as the nasty villain and Mary as a decent person, instead of the other way around.

        I definitely need to look up that Jane Dunn book!

        Reply
  4. Dawn

    Meant to ask: is the Roger Moore film “Diane”? Is it any good? I hadn’t heard of it before.

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, & I am going to have to just buy the DVD of “Diane” so I can review the whole thing — the costumes are fantastic in that 1950s Walter Plunkett way, & hello, Lana Turner as Diane de Poitiers? That’s inspired casting right there ;-)

      Reply
  5. Anne Foster

    If the movies would accurately portray the 19th century waltz (6 tiny, tight steps instead of 3 giant swoopy ones), it wouldn’t be anything close to snoozy. Once you’ve tried it, you totally get why the Regency debutantes had to get permission to do it–and why it was so controversial when first introduced. A very breathless, you and he are the center of the swirling universe sort of feeling. Modern 3-step waltz was invented by the Castles after WWI so it more closely resembled a march, which meant men could more easily and willingly learn it.

    Reply
  6. Donna

    Last night we watched La Celestina … this is very, very late 15th c./ early 16th c Spain. It is based on a play written in 1499. The sets and properties were great. The lesser characters had pretty good costumes. The lead actress (Penelope Cruz) costumes were OK … good shapes, odd fabrics. I’m with Trystan on preferring late 16th c, but early 16th isn’t too bad either.
    Netflix censored it oddly … female genitals were censored, but male parts were not. Still lots of sex and flesh as well as costumes

    Reply
  7. The_L1985

    OMG, courtesans! I would die of squee if The Shadow of the Lion were made into a miniseries just because it has a badass courtesan. And magic. Magic is always fun. Seriously, if you’re not afraid of giant door-stopper books, the entire series is densely-plotted, takes the actual politics of the time into account, and includes a magical system (and magical politics) that make suspension of disbelief fairly easy. Plus, excellent characterization!

    And the sixteenth-century bodice
    Makes all women look like a goddess.
    No matter your size,
    From your breasts to your thighs,
    There’s no fat rolls or muffin-top oddness.

    Reply

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