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
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.
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
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.
4. Hot Political Intrigue
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.
5. Men Showed Off Their Legs
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).
6. They Bedazzled Everything
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.
7. Masks and Masquerades Were Totally a Thing
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.
8. The Pale Look Was In
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.
9. Wearing Black Was In
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!
10. Sexy AND Smart Courtesans
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!
11. Pirates Before the “Aaarrrrgh”
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!
12. The Clothes Are Flattering on Women of Various Sizes and Ages
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!).
13. People Believed in Cross-Dressing
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.
14. Real Men Wore Pastels. And Long Skirts.
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!
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
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.
So, that’s why the 16th century is my happy place. How do you feel about this historical period?