Wolf Hall – A Look at the Gentry Women

The hardest thing, in my opinion, is not making flashy upper-class costumes. It’s making believable “everyday people” costumes. While we here at Frock Flicks might quibble here and there about Anne’s wrinkly bodice (let it go, people) or the weird French hoods on the court ladies (sigh), we pretty much unanimously agree that Wolf Hall (2015) nailed the gentry costumes beautifully.

The men’s costumes get quite a lot of screen time (it is, after all, a show about a man and all the other men he worked with and for), as do the costumes for the queen and her ladies, but the handful of women’s gentry costumes in the show are worth paying attention to. So, let’s pay attention to them!

 

Liz Cromwell (Natasha Little)

Liz is Thomas Cromwell’s wife, the mother of their three children. Not much is known about her life before or after her marriage to Cromwell, owing to the fact that she dies before Cromwell’s rise to power, but what is known is that Cromwell made enough money as a lawyer to keep her in good style. In Wolf Hall, Liz is shown wearing simple, neat, and smart clothes made from mostly wool and trimmed/lined in velvet or silk taffeta. She has two costume changes in the first episode, not counting her nightgown.

The Brown Wool Kirtle

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Nitpick: I’m having a hard time placing this outfit within the historical timeline of 1525 to 1528 (Liz dies in 1528). As far as I can tell, this is probably a take-off on a fitted kirtle which exists in the collection of the the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nürnberg (the pattern is given in Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 1560-1620), but dates to about 50 years after the events of Wolf Hall. Like the Germanisches kirtle, Liz’s brown kirtle laces up the back and has detachable sleeves, which are laced on at the shoulders. Despite being back-laced (which in the extant kirtle makes sense, since it is high-necked) this kirtle looks like it could actually fasten in the front, which would certainly be more practical for the wearer. Unlike the Germanisches kirtle, however, this gown has a low neckline, which again makes me wonder why it wasn’t constructed like a two-piece kirtle (with the bodice and skirt being separate) and made to fasten in the front. Not sure why that design decision was made, because it doesn’t fit in with what we know about the clothing of the period.

That said, this is me picking nits, because aside from the construction, I like the overall look of the kirtle. It looks right for the station and age of the character. Better yet, I love the headgear. Its a linen veil that’s pinned over a coif, and you can plainly see where the pins have been inserted. That’s fabulous, as far as I’m concerned. I do want to tuck the stray hairs back under her coif, though…

The Black Wool Gown

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This is by far one of my favorite outfits in the series. Unlike the brown kirtle, this one is straight out of primary source documentation. It’s a black wool gown with wide sleeves lined in black silk, and worn over a red wool kirtle. Rather than being pinned closed, it has ties across the front, which happens to be a look I adore, and I think I need to make one of these gowns ASAP. Liz is wearing a linen apron, so you can’t see much of what’s going on in the front of the skirt, but in one of the screengrabs you catch a glimpse that it is indeed split in front and worn over a red petticoat (possibly the red kirtle, though it’s hard to say).

And again, love the headgear (escaping hair notwithstanding). This time a linen hood appears to have been gathered up in back (you can see the drawstring at the nape of her neck) and pinned on over a linen coif. More pins! I love it!

 

Johane Williamson (Saskia Reeves)

Johane is Liz’s sister, and therefore Cromwell’s sister-in-law, a fact which the first episode kind of glosses over. At first I was worried that I just wasn’t paying attention well enough to have caught the character’s introduction, but now that I’ve watched “Three Card Trick” four times in an effort to make sure everyone in my life has at seen this show, I can safely say it just really isn’t dealt with until later episodes and you’re left to kind of work it out for yourself. Anyway, enough quibbling about the editing of the first episode, let’s talk about what she wears!

The Underwear

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Johane is first introduced in the scene dealing with the deaths of Cromwell’s wife and daughters, and she’s dressed, or rather, undressed. I think we are supposed to infer based on her pair-of-bodies and petticoat that she was in the process of getting dressed in the morning when she was called to her sister’s bedside as she lay dying with the sweating sickness. I am duty bound to point out that at this point in history (1528), separate pairs-of-bodies did not exist. Or at least, we have no extant evidence or records of them existing prior to the late 1570s. The dominating theory today is that Tudor women’s bodices were shaped by layers of unstiffened undergarments and probably contained a glue-stiffened fabric interlining in the bodice itself to help hold the flat shape. What is interesting about this undergarment is that it has no visible boning stitches, so in my mind, the costumers appeared to be adhering to the idea of a stiffened kirtle, but it still looks more like a separate pair-of-bodies to my eyes.

Gray Wool Gown

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Johane’s gray wool gown is pretty clearly modeled after the Holbein drawing of a “court woman” holding her skirts up, dated 1530 and held at the Ashmolean Museum. You can also see it in the photograph of costume designer Joanna Eatwell in her interview with The Independent, which is helpful because you’re given a full body shot of the outfit that shows a red petticoat, a second black petticoat, and that lining on the skirt is gray and is actually pulled up and secured to her waist by a belt like the Holbein drawing, and a handful of other details that are lost in the show.

 

Alice Williamson (Louise Kimber)

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Alice is Johane’s eldest daughter, making her Cromwell’s niece. You only see her for any length of time in the episode “The Devil’s Spit” where she sits silently as the petulant mystic Elizabeth Barton is questioned about her treasonous “prophesies” against the King and Anne Boleyn. You do get a nice shot of her outfit, though, so I’m including it here. You can also see the transition here as her family’s fortunes rise through Cromwell’s influence. When you first glimpse her, she is in a neat wool gown like her mother’s, but a couple of years/episodes later she’s wearing a smart silk gown in fashionable black satin, with a lovely black and silver silk damask forepart and black velvet lined sleeves. If anyone has the source for that damask fabric, I’m all ears.

 

Alice More (Monica Dolan)

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Alice is Thomas More’s second wife, stepmother to the four More children from his first marriage. History paints her as rather bawdy, despite the fact that she was one of the more prestigious catches in the country when More swiftly married her following the death of his first wife. In the show, she’s given some interesting dialogue that hints at this reputation for being interested in all manner of things pertaining to sex, which, if you didn’t have much of an idea about her history before watching the show sort of comes out of left field. She’s introduced at a dinner Cromwell attends at the More family’s estate, sitting at the foot of the table playing with her pet monkey. Art historian nerds of this period will immediately recognize both the outfit she’s wearing and the monkey as a direct reference to the Holbein sketch of the More family c. 1527, which shows More’s annotations for Alice at the far right, including the addition of the pet monkey climbing her skirt. Another reference point for her outfit is the Holbein studio portrait of her, dated to 1530.

 

Jane Seymour (Kate Phillips)

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When the show at last reaches the eponymous Wolf Hall, home to Jane Seymour’s family, you see how the gentry dressed away from court, even during a visit from the king. The various outfits worn by Jane while she’s attending Anne Boleyn are all velvet, but at home, she wears a smart wool outfit which would have been less cumbersome and bulky than her velvet court gowns. I think the implication is that she’s actually intentionally downplaying her appearance to provide a visual contrast to the flashy Anne Boleyn whom Henry has grown weary of. Clearly she could afford a silk gown, as her mother’s dress demonstrates the family’s rising fortunes, but she opts for a plain brown wool kirtle. Strategic. I like it. What I don’t like is her headgear. It’s that frill at the edge that’s all wrong … It’s not supposed to be a ruffle, but a pleated organza edging. It’s hard to do, I know. But it is possible (I will point anyone curious as to how to achieve the correct pleated look at Kimiko Small’s French hood dress diary for a clever method involving a micro-crimping iron).

 

Did I forget any gentry women? Share your favorites in the comments!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

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Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

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