I loved The Last King (2003), also known as Charles II: The Power and The Passion, when I saw it way back when. It’s one I’ve always meant to rewatch, both because it was entertaining, but also because I know so much more about late 17th century costume now than I did back in the day. It’s got a great cast — Rufus Sewell as Charles II, Rupert Graves as the Duke of Buckingham, Helen McCrory as Barbara Villiers, Shirley Henderson as Catherine of Braganza — and who doesn’t love the story of the merry monarch and all his wimmin?
Well, I just signed up for BritBox, which is the BBC and ITV’s new streaming channel, via Amazon. Apparently it’s where BBC is going to release all their back catalogue, so it’s already historical costume TV series central, and should hopefully only get better. I saw The Last King there and decided to wind it up and give it a deep dive via a multi-part semi-recap review.
The costumes were designed by Mike O’Neill (Daniel Deronda, North and South, Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren). Sadly the series is old enough that there’s only a teeny bit of press to be found about it, and very little about the costumes. I’m guessing the budget was small, because there are some costumes that are great and others that leave a lot to be desired… and everything is filmed in close-up, which I always think is a way to avoid showing the costumes and/or the lack of extras!
Today, episode one! In this first post, I’m not going to get at all into the men’s costumes in terms of real history. I’ve realized that I often overcomplicate my reviews by doing TOO much research, which then pains Trystan as it slows down the old content-generation! So, we’ll discuss men’s fashion history in another post.
We begin with Charles I being executed in a long shirt. I was all set to give props, as I had a vague memory of Charles’s execution shirt still existing, but a quick search brought up horror of horrors — the shirt that was long thought to be his execution shirt is actually a woman’s garment! That scandal came out in 1998, so WTF, costume designers? Here’s what he is much more likely to have worn, a knitted waistcoat preserved at the Museum of London.
I do question the future Charles II hanging out underneath the scaffold, watching his father be beheaded, and ending up with blood on his face. Not screencapped because I care.
And now fast forward, we’re in the late 1650s in exile in Belgium with our boy Chuckie, the future Charles II, aka Rufus Sewell of Hotness! Lots of plain-ish menswear, which befits the situation as they are complaining about not having money for clothes, but with nice lace collars.
There’s also a LOT of casual hanging around with shirts/doublets worn open. Sigh.
We all think of Charles II with his super long curls, but yes, this shorter ‘do is appropriate for this period!
Henrietta Maria, Charles’s mother and former queen of England — aka Diana Rigg, or Lady Olenna Tyrell to me — is rocking the full-on widow’s weeds. Here’s your first evidence of how we never really get a clear shot of most of the costumes:
And get ready, because here comes Barbara Villiers Palmer, Charles’s first important mistress as king. First let’s look at hair and dress styles of the period.
Here’s what we all should be rocking: a very rigidly boned bodice with a long V in front, almost off-the-shoulder (but not quite!) neckline, wiiiide sleeves, cartridge-pleated skirt open in front over a petticoat. Hair should be pulled back smoothly on top into an arrangement, with shoulder-length (or slightly shorter) ringlets from the ears down.
Instead, we get the fabulous Helen McCrory as Barbara in some cast-off reject from a high school theater. SERIOUSLY PEOPLE, WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS.
Here’s a portrait of the real Barbara, slightly later so the hair is more elaborate. This gown is a little more pretty-drapery-worn-for-having-your-portrait-painted and a little less what-we-wear-every-day.
There’s a great close-up during the make-out session (note: this is a relatively smutty production, yay! Although there isn’t much in the way of naughty bits, so hopefully no one one will faint) where we can see that the back is misaligned, which happens when you either 1. incorrectly spiral lace something, or just 2. fuck things up. (Yes! Back-lacing IS period for this era!)
Charles is hot for Barbara, but she’s not putting out (despite a completely slutty reputation) until… Cromwell dies! Parliament invites Charles to be king! Barbara shows up in a dressing gown with a jangly sash (seriously, there are foley effects for this sucker), and the two get it on.
Chuck heads to England to be crowned wearing a red and gold ensemble that may involve panné velvet or may be some kind of lamé. My jury is out.
Charles’s bestie is the Duke of Buckingham. Both their fathers were executed by Cromwell, they grew up together in exile, but at the beginning of the episode, Buckingham abandons Charles for England. Charles forgives him when he returns, but clearly there is TENSION.
Buckingham and Barbara get it on, despite being cousins. There is implied cunnilingus, of which I approve. Babs wears a nicely made, if very 18th-century, pair of stays. Here’s a pair of late 17th-century stays for comparison — notice they come up much higher and are generally boned more vertically.
We finally get to see what Queen Henrietta Maria is wearing, and, sigh, apparently she also only owns one dress.
Let’s look at the real Henrietta Maria in this era. She’s still wearing a very 1640s-50s style, with a squarer neckline and higher waist, but ok, good enough for government work.
Barbara has a son:
She throws an absolute HISSY FIT, which is apparently her prime method of getting her way, about getting a title and stuff(TM) for her son. Get excited about this sort-of-mantua, because she’s going to be wearing it for pretty much the next few years.
Here’s a posed shot (with MUCH better hair, let’s hope this is forthcoming):
What I think they’re going for a mantua, which was a new style introduced in the 1670s — so we’re about a decade too early, but it works okay for me because it’s very much a dressing-gown-turned-actual-dress, and that works for Barbara’s slutty character. The mantua was based on men’s dressing gowns and Middle Eastern/Asian robes, and was basically a long, loose, pleated gown that was made a “dress” by wearing it over stays and petticoat, and cinching it at the waist with a belt. It would get far more complicated in the 1700s, but it was pretty simple in the 1670s-90s. Here’s a lady from the following decade wearing a mantua:
And here’s something similar without a sash — this may be more of an overrobe than the mantua-the-dress.
Charles’s first (illigitimate) son, the Duke of Monmouth, is an all-grow’d-up 14, and both Barbara and I notice his hotness.
There’s lots of parliamentary infighting. Thankfully there’s also some great costume detail to look at:
It’s time for Chuck to get married, so they send to Portugal for rich Princess Catherine of Braganza! All the court lines up for her arrival:
And here we go, the old trope — or is it a truism? anyone know? — of the Iberian (Spanish or Portugese) all dressed in a-century-out-of-date styles and all black.
And here’s Princess Catherine, in the craziest, most fabulous hair EVER. I am in love!
Did Catherine really show up in such outlandish clothes and hair? Why is she dressed so differently from all of her Portuguese peeps? Re: wearing a very different style of dress with huge, square-ish hoops, it sounds like yes. Re: the hair, I’m not so sure. Supposedly Charles called her a bat, a line they use in the show, but the source sounds pretty friend-of-a-friend to me.
Obviously the costume designers were referencing this style worn in Spain:
However, the only images I can find of a pre-marriage Catherine show her in a slightly different style of dress, with mellower hair:
Here’s that costume on exhibit. There’s some really lovely details, particularly the lace, trim, and pearls on the bodice:
It’s time to shag, but Catherine only speaks Portugese and is terrified. Charles is kind and leaves it for another night, but Catherine is clearly confused and upset.
He heads to Barbara’s place instead. Babs talks him into making her first lady of Catherine’s bedchamber by freaking out and wearing a panné velvet robe.
The menswear is all working for me for late 17th century, although I haven’t yet looked into the history closely. There is a shocking lack of hats, however.
Catherine keeps her hairstyle, learns English, starts wearing more English-style dresses, and reaches out to Chuck:
She’s been super quiet and shy, until she learns about the whole king’s-whore-is-going-to-be-my-first-lady-in-waiting thing. She bursts in on a council meeting and freaks the fuck out in Portugese, and it is faaaabulous! I love getting to watch the hair move!
Catherine throws furniture and dishes at Charles, and it’s just super satisfying to see her bust out.
Barbara wins this war, however, while wearing an actually appropriate-to-the-1660s-dress.
Compare the little you can see of that dress with another portrait of Barbara. At least the lines are right?
Catherine is suddenly in still weird, yet mellower hair. I’m confused, because NOW her hair looks like that real portrait of her I posted above.
Now we finally figure out who that well-dressed lady was — Anne Hyde, wife of Charles’s brother James, the Duke of York. Or, as I know her, Lydia from Berkeley Square. James wants to divorce her, despite her having historically accurate hair, but Charles says nope.
Here’s the real Anne Hyde, wearing “pretty classical drapery”:
Suddenly Catherine gets all Historical Manic Pixie Dream Girl, running around with her hair down, in a panné velvet men’s suit (huh?), playing with dogs, and being all cute. Charles is intrigued. The two shag, and she’s into it, and they connect. There’s hope for this marriage!
The two get close:
But never fear, Barbara lurks — in the same mantua she’s been wearing for however-many-years — ready for the king to get bored.
Onwards to episode 2 of The Last King!