Top 5 Costume Inaccuracies in Wolf Hall

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The 2015 BBC miniseries Wolf Hall has AMAZINGLY good and historically accurate costumes, let’s just get this on record first thing. If you listen to our podcast, you’ll hear us rave about how much we freakin’ LOVE the show and the costumes. It’s beautifully done, and costume designer Joanna Eatwell did a brilliant job recreating the 1530s clothing for Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. This series sets a high bar that future 16th-century movies and TV shows will be judged against. It’s the Elizabeth R for a new generation.

All that said, Wolf Hall is not perfect. This is still a theatrical production, and Eatwell and her staff obviously made concessions for television, for directorial choices, budget and time constraints, or other reasons we don’t know about. I get it, I live in the real world too, and on Frock Flicks, we’ve discussed why designers may mess with historical design. When this is done purposefully and not to mislead people or to dumb down history, then we’re generally fine with it and not going to snark the production. And I’m not about to snark Wolf Hall here either!

What I think is useful, however, is to point out the few places Wolf Hall doesn’t show the most accurate historical costume — because this series WILL be copied and used as costume research by the masses, trust me. This will become one of the standard references, much as (less accurate) movies and TV shows like Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, and even The Tudors were before it. Those looking to Wolf Hall for costume inspiration will be getting things 99% right, and I’ll be extremely happy to see them at the next Renaissance faire or Society for Creative Anachronism event. But if they want to go for 100%, then maybe this list could help!

Without further ado, here are my top five costume inaccuracies in Wolf Hall:

 

Henry VIII, 1537-1547

Henry VIII, puttin’ a bow on it.

1. Too Small Codpieces

Apparently, Americans are scared of big codpieces. Or so sayeth Mark Rylance (who plays Thomas Cromwell): “I think the codpieces are too small,” he said in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, “I think it was a direction from our American producers PBS — they like very small codpieces which always seemed to be tucked away.” Well, this American right here likes big codpieces, and I cannot lie! Hmph. I need to have a word with someone at PBS; I donate, they should listen to me. C’mon, fellow PBS fans, let’s tell them not to shrink Henry’s junk for Wolf Hall, Part Two!

Wolf Hall, Henry VIII

Dude, where’s my codpiece?

OK, in an interview with the BBC’s History Extra, Joanna Eatwell says: “The codpieces were not consciously made to be too small.” She added, talking to Vanity Fair, that “The codpieces are there, but [the male characters] have their skirts and jerkins covering them because they are gentlemen of a certain age and you don’t see them.” Pshaw, the iconic Holbein portrait (excerpted above) is dated  to 1547, when Henry was in the last 10 years of his life. Whatever codpieces are tucked down there in Wolf Hall look small compared to period imagery. C’mon, Henry VIII is the guy who made it famous, so throw him a bone (pun intended).

 

Anne Boleyn, 1534

How a French hood circa 1534 should look.

 2. Weird French Hoods

Some of the women’s headgear is really good and beautifully historically accurate. And some of the headgear sucks. It’s weirdly inconsistent! The French hoods on Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Jane Rochford are the least accurate, and the later two are particularly bad (which is noticeable because they have a lot of screen time).

Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn

This French hood isn’t great, but it passes the 5ft rule. (Tho’ crazy eyes, Anne, whoa.)

The first offense is that the court ladies tend to have sheer veils attached to their hoods. I’ve looked at a ton of period imagery for French hoods, and I can’t say I’ve seen any sheer veils. They’re typically opaque black or another solid dark color. Not sure where this sheer thing came from. Much, much later in the century, you see a lot of sheer, floaty stuff combined with headgear, but it’s in addition to, not instead of, the dark hood, at best.

Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn

Why the sheer veil?

Some people online have suggested that the sheer veils were done for theatrical reasons so as to not obscure the women’s faces. But contrast that supposed problem-and-fix with the many, many scenes of Cromwell and another guy talking in a practically pitch-black room, barely lit by a fire and/or a few candles. You can barely see their faces in the gloom. Double standard? The production deliberately obscures the men’s faces FOR historical accuracy, but tries not to obscure the women’s faces and is LESS historically accurate? That doesn’t make sense. Many of the women’s scenes are in light-filled rooms where a dark veil covering the back of a lady’s head wouldn’t obscure much. So I’m not buying this excuse.

Another suggestion is that the sheer veils are to show off the women’s styled hair. Huh? Why? I mean, yay, it’s styled, that’s period, but the hood is supposed to cover it. Still not buying the sheers.

However, that’s a minor nitpick. The larger historical fashion crime is the style of the hoods themselves: Mary and Jane Seymour are wearing the typical movie/TV “headband” French hood, while Rochford is wearing the “visor” variant, ugh. Anne’s hoods vary from headband to a theatrical take on the period fashion made up of multiple layers. But none of them are fabulous.

Wolf Hall, Mary Boleyn

Who cares about the sheer veil when you have such a crappy headband for a French hood? You can actually see the bottom of the headband sticking out.

Wolf Hall, Jane Seymour

Jane Seymour’s is quite tragic – it’s literally a headband with some lace glued on.

Wolf Hall, Jane Rochford

Then there’s Jane Rochford, with a visor on her head. This offends me.

Honestly, the middle-class headgear, like that on Cromwell’s sister-in-law is much better! Those look like they were made in a truly historical style. The gable hoods throughout the series are also quite historically accurate. But for these principle characters, we get French hood clichés. When so much is so good in this production, that they didn’t get such an iconic piece of headgear right on the woman who’s often credited with bringing it to England makes me a little sad.

 

Henry VIII, 1537-1547

Somewhere, down below Henry VIII’s giant codpiece, lurk these fancy slashed shoes.

 3. Boots, Not Shoes

We’ve mentioned this before in How Movies Get 16th-Century Costume Wrong, and I’m sorry to say that Wolf Hall repeats this trope. During this era, boots are supposed to be for activities like riding and hunting, and indoors, men would wear shoes. So are they trying to show that Henry is so manly and active, he could jump on a horse at any minute? Even when he’s inside doing court biz?

Wolf Hall

Only the guard might properly be wearing boots at parliament — the guy taking notes (seated, far left), Cromwell (standing, left), & Henry (seated, right), should be wearing shoes.

Wolf Hall

Because they dance with their boots on in Calais?

OK, whatever, except that every important male character (and pretty much every man in the background) except for TWO wears boots — only Thomas More and Anne Boleyn’s executioner wear shoes, not boots. Yes, I checked. If you can see a man’s feet, he’s probably wearing boots, other than those two guys.

Wolf Hall, More's trial

Richard Riche wears boots to prosecute Thomas More, who wears shoes because, what?, he’s not a manly man? What’s the message here?

Wolf Hall

Um, strolling musicians?

Wolf Hall, Mark Smeaton

Mark Smeaton, running away (in boots), after Anne teased him.

Even the musicians in Anne’s chambers (including doomed Mark Smeaton) are wearing boots. Musicians! Those aren’t exactly the type of fellas who’d run off on horseback at any minute. Seriously, they all should be wearing shoes.

 

Jane Seymour 1536

This is Jane Seymour, & it’s probably velvet, & it could be artistic license, but still.

 4. Inconsistent Bodice Wrinkles

I know, I know. Everyone’s argued this one to death, but that’s why I had to include it. Some (let’s call them Team Sarah) say the wrinkles are due to the costume designer using more historically accurate bodice construction, layered over a kirtle, not a corset (which wasn’t necessarily used until very late in the 16th century), so you’re less likely to get a smooth front. Portraits showing perfectly smooth bodices are probably just artistic license.

Others (let’s call them Team Kendra) inform us that the designer had only one day of fitting with Claire Foy, who plays Anne Boleyn, and according to the History Extra article, the “costumes were made to a set of measurements taken on trust, and the fabric was cut before the team had seen the actors. This meant several outfits had to be tried on and adjusted in one intense session.” So this could have caused the wrinkles in her gowns, since there weren’t multiple fittings (Foy was also pregnant during filming, but in the UK’s Mirror she said, “it was too early to tell anyone,” so this might not have been a factor; she did wear a false baby bump for Anne’s pregnancy scenes).

Still others (let’s call them Team Trystan) note that the wrinkles show up in Anne’s silk taffeta gowns but not in the velvet and wool gowns worn by her or other women.

Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn’s taffeta bodices all look wrinkled, while her velvet execution bodice (spoilers!) is relatively smooth.

Wolf Hall, Mary Boleyn

Mary Boleyn’s velvet gown looks smooth & tidy, even like there are boning channels.

Point is, there are bodice wrinkles, and it can be distracting, and nobody can agree on why they exist. Maybe we should all get over it.

 

Henry & Anne, archery paintig, by William Powell Frith, 1903

This 1903 fantasy painting by William Powell Frith of Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn at the hunt makes more sense.

5. Anne’s Archery  Outfit

WTF is up with this? The thing she wears in this scene really, really does not fit with, well, anything else in the whole show. It’s not 1530s, hell, it’s not any period, it’s a fantasy medieval mash-up with Tudor-ish sleeves, lacing at the sides, and an Elizabethan flat cap slapped on top. As Sarah said, “It looks like something pulled from the stock of a local theatre company’s production of Macbeth.”

Some online suggest that Cromwell’s comment about “where’s Robin?” means that Anne is playing dress-up as Maid Marian, but I think, if anything, he’s being snarky about how bad a shot she is. Anne misses every target she tries to shoot and blames the bow. Besides, nobody else in the scene is in period fancy-dress, so it doesn’t make sense that Anne would be. The gown is just wrongity-wrong.

Also, the snood is recycled from Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, no lie. Did Eatwell run out of time? Was this scene added at the last minute? I hope there’s a good excuse, because otherwise I’d be ashamed that this thing is in Wolf Hall, compared to all the other wonderfully historically accurate outfits.

Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn

No, this is not a Tudor archery gown.

Wolf Hall, Anne Boleyn

Let’s not even speak of The Tudors in the same breath as Wolf Hall, much the less use the same costumes.

 

Did you find any historical costume inaccuracies in Wolf Hall?

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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.”

47 Responses

  1. Kristine

    I love this post. Actually, I love all of your posts. As a former history student, I can never get enough of this kind of thing and I have learned so much from all of you. You have made me want to start re-reading all of the historical biographies on my shelves. Thank you for this daily hilarity. And for all the lovely photos of Sean Bean.

    I did want to say, however, that while I agree Anne’s archery dress was hideous, in the book Mantel did say that Anne was dressed as Maid Marian. It was something directly from the novel – a novel I didn’t completely adore for it’s accuracies, I might add. :-P

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Ah ha! That tiny “Where’s Robin?” comment doesn’t really convey what a whole book scene could. And I still don’t get why Anne would be in costume & nobody else would; sure, masques were popular at court functions, & there are stories of Henry dressing up as characters (more during his early reign w/Catherine), but it was a group activity, either as a play or even a practical joke. To have just Anne dressed in costume is like having Michelle Obama dressed as Princess Leia walking around the White House on a random Tuesday :)

      Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yeah, I’m now convinced that this weird costume choice was because of the Maid Marion comment. It’s not exactly explained well in the show, which makes it sound ambiguous, but it sounds like the scene is elaborated more in the book. Those who read the book would get it, but those who didn’t (like us Frock Flicks folks) seem to have missed a lot of that context so her outfit seems odd and out of place.

      Reply
  2. Michael L. McQuown

    I think dear old Henry was a believer in the slogan “it pays to advertise.” Also, by the time of that portrait, he was suffering from something nasty which might have made his testicles enlarged or sensitive. However, the brayette on his jousting armour is the size of a #2 tin can, so we’re back to the advertising idea. At least he got some competition from Blackadder.

    Reply
    • Louise

      I did see that one of the reasons for large codpieces was because due to “social disease” there needed to be extra room for extra sensitive man parts and bandages.

      Reply
      • Tasha

        Y’all do realize that codpieces are stuffed, and are really just flaps that cover the groin opening on the hose, right? The gentleman’s essentials are not stuffed in there…

        Reply
  3. pandaemonaeum

    I can actually explain the archery dress. It’s a conceit from the book. I am not quoting directly, but one scene, where they’re showing that Cromwell is in the inner circle and continuing to hate on his enemies, he goes out where the Lady Anne is practicing her archery, dressed as Maid Marian. I suspect the gown is a throwback, a costume, to link her to Maid Marian imagery in people’s minds. I am sure there are people here who are more knowledgeable than me about the Tudors and can correct me if I am wrong, but weren’t they big on costumes and masques?

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      Yes, Henry and Anne were very much into playing dress-up, particularly earlier in their relationship. Henry always loved disguises and masques, and Anne seems to have joined in on a lot of those shenanigans as well. The scene fits in with what we know about them as a couple, but it just isn’t that clearly explained in the show, so if you’re not well-versed in Tudor history to know that they enjoyed playing dress-up, or if you haven’t read the book to know that the scene has a lot more description of her clothing choice, then you’re not really sure what the weird costume is all about. Aside from the “Maid Marion” comment, there’s not much else to explain why she’s dressed in something quasi-medieval.

      It also didn’t help that her archery dress was one of the handful of costumes that were publicized before the show aired, so with just the photo of Claire Foy in this bizarre green outfit while everyone is raving about how historically accurate the costumes are lead to a lot of head scratching around these parts.

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Another comment mentioned the book scene, which is great if you’ve read the book, but it’s not contextualized in the show. Plus, Anne’s the only person wearing fancy-dress, so she stands out like a sore thumb (see my reply above re: Michelle Obama & Princess Leia, LOL).

      Plus, let’s not beat around the bush here: the dress itself is lame! It doesn’t look like Tudor masquerade costume; it looks like a modern faux-medieval fantasy gown. It’s weird. Off the top of my head (& before I’ve had coffee, hah), I can’t think of any period images of Tudor masquerade costumes, but there are plenty for late 16th c. & early 17th c., & the designs are based on contemporary clothes shapes, meaning they have a lot of structure, & then add fantasy elements. See Inigo Jones, 1609, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:The_Masque_of_Queens

      Reply
  4. Fiona

    Hi
    Loved the post. I friend who works at the BBC wardrobe said the production lost a truckload of kit due to fire in transit. I don’t know if that had anything to do with some of the issues here…

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      Yep, I read about that — I think it’s mentioned in the History Extra article (if not, it’s somewhere in here http://www.frockflicks.com/wolf-hall-news-roundup/ ). Sounded like all the costumes lost were for female extras, not principle characters. But it was still a huge loss! Outfits were burned or smoke damaged, hangers melted into gowns; but they scrambled & it sounded like they only lost a day of production time by shuffling around some shooting schedules.

      Reply
  5. Heather Rose Jones

    I suspect you’ve hit the nail on the head about boots being for manly men. Perhaps because the authentic alternative is “panty hose and bedroom slippers”? Would modern viewers understand how virile and handsome a well-turned calf could be?

    Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      “Would modern viewers understand how virile and handsome a well-turned calf could be?” — I dream of a filmed production that takes on that challenge!

      Reply
      • Bess

        There is one production which does just that. They have boots on men who are actually riding but shoes on men who at court. Prince & the Pauper 1995 production (Keith Michell reprises his role as Henry VIII).

        Reply
  6. Anne

    Thank you for your always insightful comments. I was having a serious meltdown over the french hoods. Here’s all this press about Wolf Hall being so historically accurate, and I can forgive the codpieces, we don’t want to frighten people after all (oh no wait, yes we do that was the point behind having an armadillo on your crotch). I even gave the wrinkly bodices a pass, but the french hoods….oh please make it stop!!!

    Reply
  7. LadyMeredith

    I totally get the reference to Maid Marion, but those sleeves! Wouldn’t they get caught up in her bowstring? I know I wouldn’t wear them to shoot!

    Reply
  8. Bess

    I doubt the American PBS had much or anything to do with the “smaller” or “non existent” codpieces. BBC have already done this with a documentary (Ruth Goodman and team) on Tudor Farm. Apparently BBC didn’t want ANY codpieces or even a hint of one (so not even a cod flap). Some of the hose made were more Elizabethan in inaccurate bagginess for a pre 1530s period.

    The other issue I would have is it doesn’t look like many of the frocks have proper petticoats or any underneath. Of course, we are not in the farthingale period but we do have ample evidence that the skirts are at least over some other layers.

    Reply
  9. Bess

    Oooh and the other things that really really grated…earrings. Please. NO EARRINGS.

    *goes off to scratch the itch on her palm that is screaming to grab offensive earrings and to yank….hard*

    Reply
    • hadabuck

      I agree that the earrings are wrong, but they are beautiful. So, if you do find yourself able to snatch them off, please send them to me!

      Reply
    • Trystan L. Bass

      They did make the costumes for the principle characters like Cromwell, Henry, Anne, etc. Rentals are usually for extras or for scenes w/out closeups.

      Reply
  10. Readerly (@Readerly)

    I have a third theory about Anne’s wrinkled bodices and her ill-fitting baggy “Maid Marian” dress – I think they call attention to Anne’s flat-chested figure, which is literally the FIRST THING we heard about her in the show! All the court ladies look pretty straight up and down in their tight smooth bodices, but Anne’s wrinkles make it look like she has something missing in the bosom area.

    Reply
  11. zeiserl (@daszeiserl)

    I am not a costume expert, but some of the plants were horribly wrong. No one ever pays any attention to the plants.

    Reply
    • Sarah Lorraine

      We’ve been hearing a lot about how the set dressing is also a big mish-mash of periods, too. Sadly, we are pretty much limited to the costumes on Frock Flicks, but we always appreciate it when experts in other areas chime in!

      Reply
  12. Michael L. McQuown

    An interesting theory, Readerly, but I can’t see Anne allowing her maids to get by without fixing it. I’m equally surprised that wardrobe didn’t fix it.

    Reply
  13. hadabuck

    OH THE BOOTS. Thank you, thank you. No one around here understands my utter contempt for boots in the hall or boots on the dance floor. I love this series, but the BOOTS. I do like the way Damien Lewis sprawls on that throne, though.

    Reply
  14. Ellira

    Holy cow those French hoods. They’re so distracting. I think even before my obsession with historically accurate clothing those hoods would have made me wonder.

    Thanks for this analysis. I need to put this show on my to-watch list!

    Reply
  15. jennythenipper

    They do the boots versus shoes thing in Regency era things all the time as well. Everyone dancing in boots! It drives me insane. I think it just looks feminine to modern eyes to see a man in stockings and slippers. The hoods I think just look too nun-ish to modern eyes so they make them sheer and put on a headband with some bling to make it sexier. And codpieces? To modern eyes they are distracting and look comic, not sexy. So they get toned down to the point that they don’t exist. That archery dress is also the least flattering thing she wears. She looks so flat chested in it, no wonder crom makes fun of her.

    This was such a wonderful, funny read! Thank you.

    Reply
  16. Eleanor

    The Tudors’ costumes were inaccurate, but even the worst ones I like better than anything in Wolf Hall. It just looks cheap and even though it is technically more accurate, it looks unauthentic.

    Reply
  17. Karen Hayes

    YES, thank you! Have pity, as I am vastly older than you all and so have suffered for literally decades over the French hood-in-film dilemma. It remains my absolute favorite article of Tudor clothing so I am militant on the subject. If I recall correctly, the ones in “A Man For All Seasons” and “Anne of a Thousand Days” (late 60s/early 70s) were beautifully done. Those in the drecky “Other Boleyn Girl” drove me nearly mad, perched on top of the head, shaped like the St. Louis Arch! Ears did NOT show.

    As for the superb “Wolf Hall” I agree that they were badly-made, especially the indifferent way the veils were attached. And what’s with the milkmaid braids?! Judging from contemporary art (I SO love Holbein) hair was not meant to show under the French and gabled hoods, except on the brow. At first I thought the rumpled bodices were some sort of lattice pattern. Perhaps the costumers were going for a handmade look, but that does a disservice to what must have been the most excellent Tudor needlework. “Maid Marion” was just bizarre, especially that ridiculously baggy snood.

    I’ve just found this fascinating site and I’ll be checking it often. Thanks again!

    Reply
  18. Patricia Barker

    Why did Henry only have one hat? Same hat in every scene at every stage. I reckon he’d have had a couple more. One for special.

    Reply
  19. longthreadlazygirl

    A) I got to the part about people using The Tudors as a standard reference and got the vapors. I had to rest my eyes and start over later.
    B) I shot traditional bows for years and I can only imagine those sleeves getting fouled in the bowstring and throwing things off. If I was going to have to wear that dress, I would tie them behind me, not let them hang like that.

    Reply
  20. Hillary

    I adore “Wolf Hall” (the books and the series), but as soon as I saw Anne I thought “Sweet fancy Moses, what is on her head?!” >.<

    Reply
  21. Ken Theriot

    Can you settle an argument between my wife and me?:). There is a scene where Rafe Sadler is outside wearing straight black trousers. He is outside and I think had just ridden in, so he is wearing boots as well. Are these trousers correct for the period? Thanks!

    Love your site!

    Ken

    Reply
  22. Nicholas

    Sorry for this, it’s off topic, but you mention “The Tudors” series at the very end, and this unhappily came to mind. When watching “The Tudors” (I had to stop, I didn’t like it) I noted a glaring costume inaccuracy, one of many: Cardinal Wolsey was Chancellor of England. Sir Thomas More became chancellor after Wolsey’s death, but who do we see wearing the chancellor’s chain of office when the two of them are several times shown together? Thomas More.

    (Then there was that episode of “Vikings” where we see an 8th century priest wearing his stole over his chasuble while saying Mass. We see the same thing in the film, “The Field”, set in 1930’s Ireland, a priest with his stole over his chasuble: something not done until the 1960’s….:)

    Reply

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