I’ve never been able to track down a copy of Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972), the feature film that sort-of adapted the BBC miniseries The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970). The costumes always looked good-ish, but I just assumed it was a shortened version of the BBC miniseries and called it good. Well, I recently found it available for streaming online (on a less than reputable site, so all I can say is do a Google video search for the title) and color me shocked at how frickin’ stunning the costumes are!
First, the two productions do need to be compared, as the same actor stars as Henry VIII (Keith Michell) and the same costume designer worked on both films (John Bloomfield — who also designed the original Poldark, some Doctor Who, Conan the Barbarian, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, To Kill a King, Being Julia, and A Good Woman).
I’ve only watched two episodes of the Six Wives miniseries, but I can tell you the two big differences are focus and budget. Focus, in that the Six Wives miniseries focuses on telling the story from the wives’ perspective, while the change in title order is a tip off that Henry VIII and His Six Wives is much more focused on Henry’s perspective. The film is told in flashback, with Henry on his deathbed remembering his interactions with various wives in chronological order. That’s not to say you don’t get a feel for the wives, but Henry is a stronger connecting thread. The other difference is budget, and while the Six Wives had quite good costumes but some obvious “we had no budget” tells, Henry VIII and His Six Wives clearly had BUDGET, baby.
This budget shows most of all in the costumes (although also the locations). People, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this good of a look at pre-Elizabethan Tudor costumes in my life (although I’m not an expert, so please let me know if you have other recommendations). Sure, there were a few weirdnesses, and a decent amount of rewearing The Same Thing Over and Over — but what was on screen was RIGHT OUT OF A PORTRAIT. Sadly, the only press I can find with Bloomfield is about Six Wives and how little budget they had, and so all the shortcuts they had to take as a result … but clearly he did not have this same problem on the feature film.
Let’s work our way through the film in chronological wife order, and look at both Henry, the various wives, and the bits we also see of his daughters Mary and Elizabeth.
Catherine of Aragon (reigned 1509-1533)
First, menswear. Very early Tudor men’s dress isn’t the ginormous football linebacker look we’re used to. Yes, there’s still a lot of knee-length coats (“gowns”) and some puffy shoulders, but it’s much more streamlined.
Here’s a very early image of Henry VIII, a few years after coming to the throne. Note the hair length, and the neckline of the (doublet?), as well as the loose overcoat/gown:
Now, let’s look at Michell as Henry VIII in the film:
Early Tudor women’s dress. Note the soft hood, square neckline, soft natural bust curve, wide sleeves, and full A-line skirt:
This slightly later image (from the late 1520s or early 1530s) shows the torso stiffening, forming the classic cone-shape, as well as narrower undersleeves and folded-back (fur-lined) oversleeves:
Here’s a few images of the real Catherine of Aragon. She’s wearing English (“gable”) hoods with the sides pinned up (and a cap in that latest portrait), square necklines, wide sleeves, and a more cone-shaped torso than the image above.
Frances Cuka plays Catherine of Aragon. She’s got the necessary red hair, she’s a touch too middle-aged to play younger Catherine but I’m going with it, I’m loving the hoods and necklines although confused about the round padded headdress (she wears a smaller version of this in Six Wives). (Side note, I am however traumatized to discover Cuka is the grandmother from Friday Night Dinner, the recent and hilarious British comedy show).
Anne Boleyn (reigned 1533-36, but important from about 1522)
Here we get into Super Classic Henrician Costume. There’s a lot of similar lines, but things are getting bulky, particularly shoulders. Henry’s hair also gets shorter.
Pay particular attention to this portrait:
Because they made an amazing copy of it for the film!
Now, Anne Boleyn. Fashions haven’t changed that much since Catherine of Aragon’s heyday, although Anne’s era saw the introduction of the French hood. Nonetheless, Anne did sometimes wear the English/gable hood:
This is a later copy, but a good view of a French hood that Anne may have introduced, but even if not, popularized:
This image (of Jane Seymour) is slightly later, but I wanted to show how the skirt is widening over (small) cone-shaped hoops.
Anne is played by Charlotte Rampling, and overall I thought she was an excellent choice. She really brought Anne’s teasing nature to life, although I didn’t love that they went with the (probably false) “fact” that she had a vestigial sixth finger.
Anne’s first ensemble has her with hair down (groan), although I think she’s at her country home of Hever Castle. From afar, I liked this dress a lot:
Close up, I had a few problems … She wears it again with a SUPER sticky-uppy French hood that would be great if it just laid BACK instead of UP. I don’t love the obviously sewn-on ties at the bodice center front. I can see why this would work well for film, because it doesn’t need adjusting, but this IS such an era of tied-on, pinned-on, adjustable clothes that it felt too theatrical. (Interestingly, Anne Boleyn wears a version of this with real ties in Six Wives). It also makes me think the gown unnecessarily closes in back (back-closing is totally period for this era, but not if you already have a front opening!). I thought the puffy sleeves were beautiful…
But I questioned their accuracy, so I again pinged Kimiko, and she pointed me to two Flemish images with similar undersleeves. Was this a style worn in England? We don’t know!
Later, Anne gets a red velvet dress that has over/under sleeves that are SO spot on:
Finally, there’s a masque (costumed/themed dance performance) led by Anne as the “queen of Ethiope and her train.” The scene takes place as Anne and Henry’s relationship is breaking down, and the point is to show Anne’s love of display and being the center of attention, and not realizing how to handle Henry, who is pushing away.
The scene is interesting dramatically, and such masques — especially with “ooo weird foreign!” references is totally of the period — but there is blackface. Yes, they absolutely would have done blackface in the period without batting an eyelash, and given the film was made in 1971-72 there is zero interrogation of the idea of Othering or the literal blackface, which is super problematic. I’m not sure what the solution would have been — probably just not to do it, since the point of the film wasn’t to explore issues of racial/ethnic/national difference/identity in the Tudor period?
This costume went on exhibit in 2016, and Julia of “Julia Renaissance Costumes” has a great blog post with details:
Jane Seymour (reigned 1536-37)
Men’s costume just keeps getting bigger:
Note the loose overgown — three-quarter length, huge puffed oversleeves, fur revers. The doublet is the slashed piece — over that is a “jacquette” with a U-shaped line that goes over the shoulders and then down to the waist, with an attached skirting. There’s that white sash we saw above. The hat shape is changing, too, to a flatter but upturned brim.
In the film, Henry is still in the same doublet, but with a new hat style, that U-shaped/skirted jacquette, and a new fur-lined overcoat/gown:
Here’s the same doublet/sleeves again, but with a different overcoat/gown:
Then this outfit, which is just gold up the wazoo:
Fashions of Jane Seymour‘s era aren’t that much different than Anne’s — the two overlap, and Jane isn’t around very long. Note the pinned-up hoods, jeweling, turn-back oversleeves, and decorated undersleeves matching the forepart on the skirt:
Jane (Jane Asher) starts off in a very squared-off English hood that again needs pinned-up side flaps and the striped bit covering the hairline:
Her first, still unmarried, dress is WEIRD:
At court, she’s still beige but jeweled UP THE WAZOO:
This next outfit, however, while still in Beige Jane color land, is SO beautiful:
A key moment in Jane’s reign was when she convinced Henry to bring Princess Mary (the future Queen Mary I) back to court. Here’s an image of Mary from a decade later:
And another, less well-known image of a young Mary:
I love that they got that Mary (like her mother AND father) was a redhead! Her ensemble is well done, from the velvet overgown to the damask undersleeves and forepart. Her French hood doesn’t stick up TOO much, so it’s comparatively better to Anne Boleyn’s!
Anne of Cleves (reigned 1540)
The only image I can find of Henry from this bit of the film is from the wedding night, where he’s in a ha-UGE dressing gown:
Anne of Cleves was famously painted in her regional German dress, which has some similarities to English dress but some key differences. Note the higher waistline, sleeve puffs, and of course the amazing headdress:
This painting shows a similar headdress, but large puffed sleeves:
They DEFINITELY went with the “Anne of Cleves was unattractive” interpretation. Actress Jenny Bos is given acne scars, and plays Anne with a country bumpkin-ness. Unlike Six Wives, the filmmakers chose NOT to recreate the classic Holbein portrait. The gown definitely looks Cleves-ish, but the headdress is very different:
Katherine Howard (reigned 1540-41)
By this point, we’ve definitely gotten to Huge and Kind of Scary Henry land. He did get very big in his old age (a leg injury meant he couldn’t really exercise, and he always had a huge appetite). Portraits from this era show him wearing loose gowns:
On screen, Michell as Henry is WELL PADDED and wearing layers of ginormous coats/gowns:
Once again, dress hasn’t change very much, but here are some images of Katherine Howard (or people once thought to be her) for a visual reference:
Poor Katherine (Lynne Frederick) is VERY young and VERY naive. She also gets a gorgeous wardrobe:
Going to her execution, there’s a lot to like about her grey kirtle, pintucked sleeves on her shift, and hair up in a nice (non-unfortunate biggins) cap:
Catherine Parr (reigned 1543-47)
We’re now in huge AND old Henry land:
Basically, Henry sticks with the loose robes:
Not too much has changed in women’s dress in the few years that have passed, although hoops are slightly bigger. This first image of Catherine Parr shows an interesting new woman’s style, the loose gown, which is belted to create shape:
Catherine Parr is played by NONE OTHER THAN LADY CATHERINE DE BOURGH!!! WHO WAS ONCE YOUNG!!!!! AND NOT LADY CATHERINE DE BOURGH!!!!! Aka Barbara Leigh-Hunt. They REALLY don’t get much into Catherine’s experience – she’s just there to reluctantly marry the king and then mother him.
Here’s the real Princess Elizabeth from this era for comparison:
And from a few years later:
If you haven’t already seen Henry VIII and His Six Wives, and you like Tudor costume, make sure you do — it’s totally worth it!