We have been all over the Starz TV miniseries adaptation of a Philippa Fucking Gregory book, The Spanish Princess. This production purports to tell the story of Catherine of Aragon, the Spanish princess who married first Arthur, Prince of Wales in 1501 and then Henry VIII, King of England in 1509 — the first decade of the 1500s. We previewed the costumes, did a deep analysis of Catherine’s wedding dress, recapped every episode, and discussed how much the production fucked up the actual history (hint: really, really badly). Well, now we need to turn to an in-depth analysis of the costumes. We’ve looked at the Spanish styles worn by Catherine and her ladies, now we’re going to look at all the English styles.
This time, we turned for expert analysis to Kimiko Small, aka Dame Joan Silvertoppe in the SCA, who has spent years researching early English Tudor costume. She hasn’t been watching the show, but I sent her photos and asked her to weigh in, so I’ll be adding her thoughts throughout.
Yet again, the fact that the timeline is compressed messes things up a bit — Catherine married Arthur in 1501, and Henry in 1509, so we’re generally looking at the first decade of the 1500s. However, sources from this era are scarce, so we’ll consider slightly earlier and slightly later years as well.
The Spanish Princess: The Women’s Costumes
Henry VIII’s youngest sister, Princess Mary, gives us a good overview of women’s very early 16th-century dress. This image is from when she married the King of France in 1514, so just slightly after our focal period. Nonetheless, her fitted yet naturally-curved bodice, wide skirt, and wide sleeves, plus draped and not-too-structured hood on the head touches on all the main stylistic points of 1500s English dress:
Now, let’s look at individual characters.
Elizabeth of York
Queen Elizabeth’s costuming annoyed me the least, because they managed to occasionally dress her in vaguely early 1500s clothing — and they got her hair up, even if there wasn’t a hood in sight.
ALL ladies of this era wore “hoods,” or draped head coverings, as you’ll see in every single comparative image.
Kimiko adds: “Starting at the literal top of the head, the older ladies were often well groomed, hair up in braids, or tucked under their headdresses, but Elizabeth of York in a head necklace minimizes her status as queen.”
Despite the princess seam down the front (SO not a 16th-c. approach to dressmaking), I generally liked Elizabeth’s main dress. It’s got a natural bodice silhouette, the sleeves are long, wide, and hanging, and the wide ties at the front can be seen in other images of maternity dress. However, Kimiko says, “The dresses with trumpet sleeves are close. But some, with the cords in front, wear more like a bathrobe, than a proper gown” (note: she might not have realized the character was pregnant).
Elizabeth’s mourning dress confuses me. I feel like someone looked at Elizabeth’s funeral effigy and got confused?
Henry VII’s mother was a mishmash — some things worked, and some were WTFrock.
First, the fact that she almost always wore a hood was a massive bonus. However, most of the time she wore a 30-years-too-early, incorrectly-sticky-uppy French hood of the kind that came into fashion during Anne Boleyn’s time.
She also wears this weird attempt at a Flemish hood, with an overly structured cap and unnecessarily flippy sides:
Both Kimiko and I were happy with Margaret’s gable hood — this was the one and only piece of female headwear in the entire show that was accurate to the period! But, Kimiko notes, “Margaret Beaufort is wearing an almost suitable Tudor style bonnet with long textured lappets in the front. The extra touch of studs on the headdress begs the question why are we going for a punk theme?”
Margaret’s dresses were also pretty close to period-accurate with their natural torso fit, A-line skirt, and wide, trumpet sleeves — if you lost what I call the “welding apron,” aka their bad attempt at a sideless surcoat. Kimiko explains, “The sideless apron, or is it a surcoat? I can’t see the back to know if there is a back, nor a side, so apron is what I will call it. The waffle fabric apron just looks badly out of place. If it is supposed to have been inspired by the sideless surcoat, a fashion of the 1300s, its many decades out of fashion. By this point, it is used as a marker of a queen in illuminations, usually displayed in furs and jewels, may have been worn by royalty in court functions, but Margaret Beaufort is not a queen, and would not have worn it around the house as a general frock. Either way, aprons just do not belong on Margaret.” She also mentions Margaret’s kicky shrug (far left), “The partlet should not be worn as a Victorian bolero jacket with demi-sleeves.”
This gown was probably the best, if only because No Welding Apron:
Poor “Maggie” Pole, mostly lost in WTFrock land.
I don’t remember ever seeing this promo still dress on screen, which is too bad, because it’s the most historically accurate style Margaret Pole wears (despite the sewn-in stomacher):
The rest? I got nothing.
This one is just 100% 1530s (i.e., 20ish years later) Florentine (in no way culturally or geographically near to English fashion):
And this one? The fabric looks Indian (so, 17th century at the earliest, as that’s when Indian textile imports started reaching England), the cut looks vaguely-Elizabethan (i.e., post-1550s).
POOR PRINCESS MARGARET. She’s either 30 years out-of-fashion, or the Queen of Dumpytown. Kimiko agrees, “But poor Princess Margaret. One outfit, which I think was the Burgundian you mentioned, just made her look dowdy in beige, like her bust had nowhere to go but down and out. The burgundy with oversized green tie-on sleeves made her look like a child.”
This dress is 1460s-70s-ish:
And her range of Dumpy Dresses(TM), compared with actual period sources to once again show just how totally unrelated they are:
Finally, Kimiko makes me laugh by adding, “Crescent rolls should be enjoyed as food, not sewn on coifs to wear.”
The Spanish Princess: Men’s Costumes
Predictably, we’ve got less to say, just because 1. we’re tired, and 2. boys = zzzzz.
Kimiko says, “Arthur was the only male I studied. In general he looked acceptable. But the various cosplay leather armor makes me think he’s auditioning for the role of Medieval Green Arrow, complete with unattached arm bracers. It doesn’t improve much when he’s wearing the sleeveless gown that still shows the arm bracers. And somebody get that young man a proper hat! He’s a Prince, not a pauper.”
Agreed! Minus the lack-of-hat, Henry looked acceptable when wearing surcoats:
And completely ridiculous when he didn’t:
Fine? His hair could have been longer, as could 99% of the men. Props for 1. any hat, and 2. getting the hat style pretty close!
And a final shout-out for the historically-accurate bowl haircut, even if I have my doubts about the layered back.
Dear god, does this mean I’m done covering The Spanish Princess??!!
1600s? Are you having auto-correct problems?
This copy editor doesn’t do math!
The costumes are yuck. I mean how hard is it to schedule an appointment with the Textiles and Costume Department with 1)V&A, 2)Museum of London, stroll around the National Gallery and other museums studying the paintings and portraits?
Grade for designer F for failed.
Heck, if they just bothered to do their research on the fucking internet, it would’ve looked better than this!
i like how you say heck but also fucking (ale chápu to :D)
Thank you for doing the dirty work so we don’t have to.
The only possible explanation for getting everything so wrong is They Just Didn’t Care.
Yeah. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for the vast majority of costumes what people actually wore was considered largely irrelevant.
Is it just me, or do many of these costumes look like they were sewn by a middle school home ec class out of super cheap fabrics? Aside from the historical inaccuracies, they look really cheap and poorly made.
One of the cutters, Denise Heywood has a FB page and has some process shots of her stuff (including the finale wedding dress). Her construction looks pretty on point and if I didn’t know they were for something historical they are pretty on their own (though she didn’t design them)
You can also make good costumes lool shitty with bad styling and boy is this show guilty of that!
Poor Princess Margaret especially with that Laura Ashley Does Drapes Burgundian gown. Ugh. And her medieval fantasy look was probably more historically accurate when she was in the Narnia movies (her co-star, Anna Popplewell of Reign, definitely was more historically accurate in Narnia,but then Reign may have actually set the lowest bar).
Poor Princess Margaret! Poor, Poor Princess Mary! All she got was stupid crushed panne velvet, and don’t get me started on Margaret Pole. Margaret’s outfits were too WTF to be derpy like Princess Margaret. And now a short rant on the names in this PFG-verse: Maggie Pole?, Lizzie?, I don’t Fucking Think So! How fucking hard is it to differentiate them by saying Lady Margaret or Queen Elizabeth! These nicknames suck all the dignity from these characters, not that they deserve any, but still!
It’s kind of sad to think what could a good costume designer do if they bothered to make them work with period appropriate designs (at least enough for the general audience). It makes me long for the historically accurate awesomeness of Marie Antoinette (by Sofia Coppola).
The early Tudor silhouette is, as we see, very attractive with it’s fitted bodice, square neckline, full skirts and trumpet sleeves. Good tailoring and good fabric is all they need to be quite stunning. But apparently The Spanish Princess couldn’t afford good fabric so they tried to distract with stupid, overdone designs.
They could have done better with judicious editing, slapping hear gear on, and proper use of stays. Also stay away from the decorators fabrics and using wool, linen and more vibrant colors would have helped.
And what was with all the neutral prints? I swear ‘Maggie’ looked more like a Bronte sister in some of her costumes than an important 16th c. noblewoman
Is it just me or is that high-waisted beige/gold gown of margaret pole’s taken from The white queen set? In which case,, wtf?
I feel like they threw a bunch of colours and weird line patterns on the costumes to distract from the low bling-budget. The Elizabeth mourning gown with yellow and green stripes and Prince Henry’s red like doublet or whatever it’s supposed to be with the arrow-y patterns both look kind of arts and crafts.
Also, why are all the hats so round? i like whenever they use the period hats but they look rounder than most of the portraits where they are a bit squarer. Correct me if I’ve got a bad impression of what they would look like in real life.
A bearded Henry VII feels like a bad joke from fairy tale land
Thank you so much for this site!!! I’m just now watching The Spanish Princess because I am forced to be at home due to Covid-19. I came across this site searching for others who are appalled by the historical inaccuracies in this ridiculous show. You guys hit the nail on the head. I’m laughing so hard at your snark. Finally!!! a site that gets it!
I just can’t concentrate on the series, as the costumes are so unaccurate. It seems that designers are ignorant. They think that it is enough to throw a long dress.
Are there any good examples of the drappy gable hoods in film or tv? I mean the type that Elizabeth of York is wearing in that 1502 portrait. I only ever really see the more Henrican gable hoods.