Wolf Hall BBC TV – Tudor Costumes Done Reasonably Well!

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We’ve posted before about Wolf Hall, the 2015 TV mini-series in production by the BBC. It’s based on the fiction book by Hilary Mantel, which won all sorts of accolades, as well as its sequel (Bring Up the Bodies). The story focuses on Thomas Cromwell and his role in the Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn divorce/marriage/beheading saga. Clear images of the costumes are being released, and they look surprisingly accurate and attractive!

I’m loving that they cast a real redhead as Henry VIII (Damian Lewis), although I wish they had avoided the Catherine of Aragon black hair trap.

The costumes are designed by Joanna Eatwell, whose previous work includes The Paradise, the 1997 Richard Dreyfuss Oliver Twist, and a whole bunch of things I’ve never heard of.

We’ve seen paparazzi shots from filming, but the production is now releasing stills… and the costumes look really good! Every time I do a Google image search for this production, I have a moment of “ugh” as I come across the various theater versions with lead actresses wearing their hair down under their French hoods — then I realize they AREN’T this BBC production and I say “phew!”

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Henry VIII

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

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Anne Boleyn

Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell

wolf hall jane parker

Jane Parker

wolf hall jane seymour

Jane Seymour

wolf hall mary boleyn

Mary Boleyn

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Anne Boleyn & Henry VIII

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Jane Parker

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Catherine of Aragon

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Anne Boleyn’s coronation (she’s pregnant!)

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Anne Boleyn coronation outfit

Overall the costumes look really nicely done, minus the bodice wrinkling on that one pink dress worn by Anne Boleyn. But otherwise, I’m seeing ouches, and gable hoods, and French hoods with hair worn UP (and only one of those hoods looks like a visor, on Jane Parker), and blackwork, and really nice gown silhouettes.

Of course, I’m not a Tudor expert, so I pinged our own Sarah and asked for her take:

Tudor Expert Sarah here, and the first thing that comes to my mind when looking at the photos is that the costume designer has been paying attention to recent advances in Tudor clothing construction, likely getting their construction info from The Tudor Tailor. This is a Good ThingTM, and I hope more productions follow suit going forward. Extra props for Anne Boleyn’s white satin coronation gown unlaced (or rather, pinned) to her kirtle over her pregnant belly. Nice touch, which you NEVER see in dramatizations of this part of her life. *high fives the costumer*

Also, I will disagree a bit with Kendra about the wrinkly bodice issue… IF you’re doing things the “historically accurate way” by layering the gown over a kirtle, you get those wrinkles across the bodice. I put “historically accurate way” in quotes because there’s still a lot of back and forth amongst costume historians about how much stiffening and what sort of stiffening was used in bodices prior to the adoption of corsets* (so, pre-1580). What is known is that according to wardrobe accounts, which vary as to how much detail was included, stiffening in the bodices of gowns was limited to canvas, pasteboard, or buckram (which is not the same sort of thing as our modern buckram– jury’s still out as to what, exactly it was like and how stiff it was, but near as anyone can tell it was a glue-stiffened plain weave fabric which was probably linen or a combination of linen and cotton). So, the wrinkling seems to be something that, based on the accumulated research, was common. Contemporary English artwork, of course, omits wrinkles by and large, but this was a period of highly stylized artistry so it’s not too much of a leap in logic to assume that artists just didn’t faithfully represent what they saw.

Second thing that comes to my attention is that it’s a toss-up with the French Hoods. At least the actresses are wearing them, and they aren’t either a headband or a fabric covered visor, but they’re still not quite right. Maybe that’s just me picking nits, since the hoods are 75% of the way there in terms of correct shape and size, but there’s still just a hint of “artistic license” creeping in that makes me twitch.

Thirdly, the costume of Henry’s with the brocade jerkin (see above) is pretty good, but it falls into that decidedly ren faire trope of embroidering/outlining/jeweling only one single motif in the center of the chest (or on women, the center of the forepart). I’m not expecting accuracy in film, trust me, but that’s one of my big peeves in 16th century costuming that just screams “I couldn’t be arsed to finish the embroidery on this outfit.” All I can say is that back then, if there was embroidery, it was all over and not just focused on one 12″x12″ area of the bodice.

Fourthly, there’s been some online discussion about the lack of codpieces on the men (see below), but I’m just glad they didn’t go with the “cod flap” thing that we see in so many films of this era. Overall the lack of codpieces is pretty low on my hierarchy of Things That They Always Get Wrong In Sixteenth Century Film Costuming, so I’m not getting my knickers in a bunch over it.

My overall take? It looks pretty good. Although I don’t know WTF the designer was going for with this outfit:

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

It’s so jarringly different compared to the other gowns we’re seeing so far, so I’m wondering what predicated the decision to have this gown thrown in there. It looks like something pulled from the stock of a local theatre company’s production of Macbeth. In fact, I recognize the trim around the neckline and wrists from Heritage Trading Company on eBay. Score!

Anyway, I’ll turn it back now to Kendra…

There’s a few bits of info on the costumes in this article, including the fact that the codpieces were downsized, and “no zips or velcro” were used! (Well thank god).

*Yes, we know that “corset” is not a period accurate term in the 16th century, but we’re going for easily understood terminology, and not many people outside of the historical costuming world know what a “payre of bodies” is.

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

12 Responses

  1. Kendra

    I said it on FB, but I’m amused enough at myself to say it again: I think that last Anne Boleyn costume must be from the fantasy musical sequence! I’m suddenly picturing the Camelot song from Holy Grail…

    Reply
  2. Mary Eveland-Goehringer

    Beautiful work – would like to hear more about you! Thanks for adding me to your list.

    Mary Eveland-Goehringer

    Reply
  3. Mark Calderwood

    Found this blog today, and have to say have had a great chortle. As a history and art lecturer who likes to get a bit interdisciplinary, I use film quite a bit as supplementary material- but I can never stop myself from commenting on the level of costuming.

    Since the Henrician period is my special field I’m very much looking forward to Wolf Hall, and found the comments very interesting. One thing I would add though, is that I’d cavil at describing art of the Henrician court as ‘stylised’ except perhaps in social function. Portraiture was far from stylised, in particular portraiture by Holbein, who captured textiles with masterful precision: wrinkles in sleeves, folds in garments, textures and symbolically significant patterns. But so far as I can recall, the wrinkles across the front are not seen, even as wrinkles and folds elsewhere are, albeit minimised by wearing heavy fabrics.

    It’s interesting to compare these clothes to the BBC’s very recent ‘Tudor Treasure: a night at Hampton Court’ documentary, recreating the christening of Edward VIII. Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjoLrOH6xDQ#t=188

    One of the costumers at Hampton Court does an all too brief walk-though on a Tudor gown ostensibly for Lady Mary. The most startling thing was how solid the layers were, and how thick the clothing layers were- I would think 3 layers of heavy brocaded or velvet fabrics would eliminate any wrinkles, especially with the weight of the skirt dragging it down.

    But only a minor thing among an otherwise fascinating and very funny blog!

    Reply
    • Bess Chilver (myladyswardrobe)

      I was one of the re-enactors in the Tudor Treasure documentary wearing my own Tudor gown. The costumer responsible for sourcing all those costumes was Ninya Mikhaila of The Tudor Tailor. She made the Lady Mary gown for the lady who wore it. Its actually a replica of the Catherine Parr gown except she has simpler undersleeves and an English Hood made to make it more 1530s than 1540s.

      I think you have it right, the sheer weight of the correct fabrics would help to minimize the kind of wrinkling we are seeing on some of the Wolf Hall clothing – they all do seem rather thin and unlined which may not be the case and simply be the choice of fabrics. My own gree 1530s gown is made of a modern upholstery wool satin…lined with itself at the front and velvet (cotton) on the sides and back of the skirt and the turn back sleeves. The stomacher has never properly sat flat and smooth over my original kirtle – I always had a but of a wrinkle in it but the latest kirtle I didn’t have the same problem so I wonder if it was partly because it wasn’t lined (the stomacher) and the original kirtle shape.

      Reply
  4. Michelle

    I can’t help but laugh that now thanks to Wolf Hall, Joanne Whalley has now played Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary (The Virgin Queen), neither of whom were brunettes. Of course once you see how well she plays her character and how gorgeously the costumes fit her you kind of forget that she isn’t exactly picture perfect for the role.

    Reply
  5. lesley from kent

    I can’t see the line of the shifts at the neckline, am I just needing glasses? And Anne Boleyn’s sleeves – wasn’t she noted for wearing her sleeves just a little bit longer than most, covering the first part of the hand completely, resulting in the rumour she had a residual extra little finger?

    Reply
    • lesley from kent

      Oops – I was in a rush last night. The shifts I’m not catching are in (or rather not in) the Court gowns, the other ladies (ie Cromwell’s household) all seem to have them and their gowns appear authentic. More haste less speed, sorry.

      Reply
  6. Woderose

    We’re getting this directly after Grantchester ends — now I have a reason to look forward to it, other than Damian Lewis. :)

    Reply
  7. ladynonesuch

    Tha oddness of the Anne’s last outfit above was because it was a costume. She was dressed as if in the time of Robin Hood for that archery amusement.

    Reply
    • I

      Thank you!! Was just about to post this. It was such a nice callback to a small detail from the book.

      Reply
  8. Katie

    I’m actually going to defend Joanne Whaley as Katherine.of Aragon. It isn’t unusual for hair to get darker as a result of pregnancy, and the actresses’s hair isn’t jet black, its more of a very dark auburn, which along with the light skin and eyes makes sense for an older, mature Katherine.

    Reply
    • Olivia

      Same here — I rejoiced at Whalley’s hair color. It’s light enough to very plausibly have dulled from red to a muted brown with age.

      Reply

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