If you’re a historical costume purist and you attend a renaissance faire or Society for Creative Anachronism event and wonder WTFrock are some of these people wearing, well, you might as well blame Hollywood. Because a lot of people get their idea of 16th-century costume straight from the screen — and movies and TV sure as hell know how to get the Elizabethan era wrongity-wrong. Here are our top nine elements that make for bad 16th-century movie costumes.
1. French Hoods and Loose Hair
The biggest offender of them all is The Other Boleyn Girl, but this is a phenomenon that predates the 2008 movie by several decades.
There’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1969):
Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970):
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008):
2. Codpiece Optional
Look, we all acknowledge that the codpiece is goofy as hell, but 16th-century menswear looks weirder without it.
There’s The Tudors, which seems to leave codpieces off of every costume worn by the actor portraying a man who arguably made the codpiece famous:
Shakespeare in Love (1999) omits codpieces for every man except to make a weird visual statement by including one on Colin Firth’s character, Lord Wessex. All the other men don’t appear to have them:
3. Floating Ruff
Hey, people who design costumes for movies, a ruff is not a necklace. I repeat, a ruff is not a necklace. Just fucking leave it off if you’re not going to attach it to anything! I’m looking at you The Tudors:
And in the first half of Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot (2004), we are treated to not only a floating ruff, but one that is pretty clearly made from the sort of lace you’d get on sale at Jo-Ann’s:
It pains me to point out that Elizabeth I (2005), starring my forever #1 actress crush of all time, Helen Mirren, even features a floating ruff:
4. Renaissance Haute Couture
It seems like every 16th-century movie that’s been made in the last 15 years has had a director go on the record decreeing their intention to shake history up a bit by combining modern “sexy” aesthetics into the costuming. It’s gotten to the point that we’ve pointed this out in our podcast at least three different times. Let’s just be honest… It’s no longer “shocking” or “edgy” when everyone is doing it.
Reign is the newest offender in this category, since the entire show is predicated on the idea that 16th-century clothing is lame and in order to be relevant to the hearts and minds of young women today, the actresses in the show have to wear some kind of weird combination of haute couture and quinceañera dresses. In fact, there’s an entire section of the popular website Shop Your TV dedicated to sourcing the clothing from Reign (be prepared to have serious sticker shock). On the one hand, it’s fun to imagine how historical figures would have dressed if they lived in this day and age and had access to Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga. On the other hand… At some point you have to ask why the hell this was even put forward as a “historical” show, since the vast majority of the script bears no real resemblance to history and everyone is wearing modern clothing. Oh, and MARY WAS A RED HEAD.
On a side note, I was chatting with a young lady at a B&B in Napa a few months ago. I told her I’m an historical costumer and that lead to a discussion about how much she loves Reign but was actually curious about how to find out more about Mary, Queen of Scots (I suggested she start with this book). I began summarizing Mary’s early life in France and got carried away, mentioning Francis dies and leaves her a young widow, and the girl clapped her hands over her ears and shouted “NO SPOILERS!”
sigh Sorry, sweetie. History doesn’t come with spoiler warnings.
Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) is another one of those films that falls into this category. Some of the costumes were a marked improvement on its predecessor, Elizabeth, but some are just WTF.
5. The Invisible Chemise
Once upon a time, when I was young and dumb, I actually tried to wear a gown without a shift. It did not go well. Face it, the undershirt is there for a reason, and that reason is to avoid chafing your entire torso. Also, it protects your precious silk gown from getting disgusting levels of dead skin, sweat, and fabric-eating bacteria ground into it.
La Reine Margot is probably the most notorious offender in this category. Isabelle Adjani is absolutely stunning in this film, but the lack of chemises are worrisome from a practical standpoint.
And there’s The Tudors. OF COURSE.
It’s not just for women, either.
6. Boots Not Shoes
So, here’s the thing, if you’re the average 16th-century nobleman, you wore boots for specific activities like riding, hunting, fighting in wars ‘n stuff… Y’know, the kind of activities where you want your nice wool or silk stockings to stay clean and your legs protected from the elements. When you were indoors, you wore hose and shoes, because boots weren’t practical for indoor or light activities. Besides, you spent all that money on nice cordovan leather shoes, and you want to show off your shapely calves to the ladies, and boots just obstruct the goods.
Hollywood, however, thinks you should wear boots for every occasion. If you’re a leading man, you’re not going to be caught dead in hose and shoes (unless you’re an extra). You need to proclaim you manliness by wearing boots all the time! Even in bed! Because who knows when you’ll have to jump onto your faithful steed and ride off to battle in a manly fashion at a moment’s notice?
Notice the fact that the hot young thang is in boots while the older men are wearing proper hose and shoes, in this still from Anonymous (2013):
And The Tudors:
Look, here’s how it works. Horseback?
Presenting yourself to the Queen in Orlando (1992)?
Wooing a fair maid in Young Bess (1953) —
7. Open Doublets
I think we mainly have Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love to blame for this trope. Fiennes spends a good chunk of this movie running around with his underwear hanging out of his doublet. Trust me, this would have been the 16th-century equivalent of leaving your fly unzipped.
Rufus Sewell, who is probably the only redeeming thing about Dangerous Beauty (1998), a movie so bad we couldn’t even podcast it, even lets it all hang out:
And then there’s Tom Hardy in The Virgin Queen (2005):
8. Random Embroidery
One of those bad 16th century movie costume tropes that seems to have a significant bleed over into historical reenactment costuming. I say this with love, but if you’re going to embroider or embellish your outfit, don’t just do one giant motif in the center of your bodice/doublet/skirt.
9. Biker Doublets and Leather Pants
First of all, yes, men wore leather doublets and jerkins in the 16th century. HOWEVER. They didn’t really look like the renaissance take on a biker jacket, unlike what costume flicks would have you believe. They looked like this:
They don’t look like this:
In the trouser category, there’s Cesare Borgia in The Borgias, who strides around in tight leather pants:
Is nine enough? What else makes for bad 16th century movie costumes? Share the things you love to hate in Elizabethan-era movies and TV series!