I’ve resisted watching The White Queen (2013) for, gosh, pretty much 10 years because Starz shows tend to make my teeth itch a little too much. However, while compiling images for James Frain‘s recent Man Candy Monday, I ran into some images from the show that made me take a good, hard look at the costumes. I think I’m getting softer as I age (or my standards have been beaten into submission over the years), but they didn’t look terribly egregious, so I decided I might as well give it a good, hard viewing, as the only other feature we had done on the show was a quick ‘n dirty review by Kendra a number of years ago.
The real hurdle for me, however, will never be the costumes when it comes to Elizabeth Woodville. It is always going to be the fact that I spent a pretty good chunk of my twenties being very obsessed with her. So obsessed, in fact, that I changed my SCA name to be an homage to her (yes, shocking, I’m a nerd, and if you haven’t figured that out by now, I don’t think you’ve been paying attention all this time). Initially, one of my biggest hangups about watching The White Queen was that I feared it would lean in too heavily on the salacious parts of her incredible life. But then I finally realized that was dumb, because honestly, there was very little about Elizabeth Woodville’s life that wasn’t salacious, or at the very least highly provocative. In a lot of ways, she’s the platonic ideal of a historical smut novel’s heroine, perfectly tailored for all the sex and intrigue that Starz audiences lap up. Regardless of the fact that this show started off as a romance novel written by Philippa Gregory, I had a sudden realization that there was very little Gregory could embellish or sex-up that didn’t happen in Elizabeth’s life.
There are no confirmed portraits of Elizabeth Woodville prior to her marriage to Edward IV in 1464, and precious few after. This portrait was copied in the early 16th century from an earlier portrait and is perhaps the best known “official likeness” of Elizabeth in life. Rebecca Ferguson plays her in The White Queen.
Rebecca Ferguson, who most recently was Lady Jessica in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, is decently cast as Elizabeth. Elizabeth was lauded for her physical beauty, such as her golden hair and fair skin, and of course her voluptuous figure. Ferguson does a good job conveying the early stages of Elizabeth’s future reputation for haughty behavior, unbecoming of the commoner she was born, without making her unlikeable or too much of an ice queen right off the bat. Elizabeth Woodville really rattled the nobility’s ideas about hierarchy just by her mere existence, and she was instantly threatening to almost every member of Edward IV’s inner circle from the very moment he met her. In other words, there was a lot of ink spilled detailing all the ways Elizabeth was a truly terrible person during her lifetime, but very little evidence to back any of it up. One of the biggest accusations leveled against Elizabeth, other than being too pretty, was her insistence on, well, acting like a queen. Which she most certainly was.
How very dare.
So, that’s where I’m coming from with my approach to this series. I expect some interpretations of historical fact to get under my skin, but overall, I’m not sure there are plot point this show can throw out that aren’t actually based on things that happened to Elizabeth or she was at least accused of.
Anyway, you’re not here to listen to my TedTalk, you’re here to ogle costumes. How does the show do on that account? Well, let’s take a look!
Elizabeth with her two sons from her first marriage. The pink kirtle in this photo is one that she wears for most of the first episode, and it’s actually not bad. I just have two nitpicks with it: 1) the slightly sweetheart neckline is not period for this century, and 2) it has princess seams, which are one of those things that maaaaaybe are period for the mid-1400s, but I’m still not fully convinced. Either way, I do like the way the kirtle fits her.
A clearer view of the neckline. I think I get what they’re aiming for … a combination of the wide boatneck-style neckline common in the 1460s and something that plunges lower on the cleavage so we can see she’s respectable, yet sexy. It’s not period though.
This funerary effigy from the mid-14th century gives a good example of how 1) the neckline could absolutely come well off the shoulders during this period, but 2) it came high across the top of the bosom.
Here you can see the princess seams which definitely help make the fitting of the gown infinitely easier, but are also of questionable authenticity when it comes to their placement.
This is the one painting that has spawned so hundreds of debates about the validity of shaping seams over the bosom. Painted c. 1452, the depiction of the Madonna lactans (allegedly a portrait of the French king’s mistress, Agnes Sorel) shows seams that cross the apex of her highly stylized bust and could therefore indicate that such shaping seams were at least known to fashionable upper-class women at the time. There’s not enough supporting evidence outside of this portrait, however, to be totally convincing to me. But I’ll admit, it’s a highly contentious area of costume study, and by no means is the debate settled.
Hook & bar closure at center back. As far as theatrical shortcuts go, it’s not terrible. But I am contractually obligated to point out that It Isn’t Period.
The next dress Elizabeth is seen in is this pale blue crushed velvet houppelande-sort-of-thing. It’s really pretty, but I was unable to find a good full length image of it that wasn’t blurry.
It’s also pretty much tie dyed. I think we’ll just skip to the next outfit…
Which is this gray gown which is starting to mimic the style that was popular during the height of Elizabeth’s power, commonly known as a “Burgundian gown.” I feel like 1463 is a tad early for this look, but the high waistline is appropriate, as this was basically the height of the houppelande era.
This detail from the Moreel Triptych by Hans Memling is dated to 1486, around the time that Elizabeth Woodville would have been deposed as Queen of England. Oops, sorry, there’s no spoilers in history! But you can see this is the style the above dress is aiming to emulate.
Finally, Elizabeth is brought to court as Edward’s bride. She wears this very pretty houppeland, which is my favorite dress so far. Yes, the neckline should be higher, but it’s got at least all the requisite layers and overall look. It reads very Princess Buttercup to me, which I’m not totally convinced is a bad thing, because I loves me some Princess Buttercup.
Edward (Max Irons) wears a lot of a-historical riding/armor getups for most of the episode, but the first and only time we see him in anything interesting is towards the end where he announces to the court that he’s married *gasp* that hussy Elizabeth Woodville. He also definitely suffers from boots not shoes, and contractually obligated leather pants.
And last, but not least, we have Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg (Janet McTeer). I actually don’t have a huge problem with the black houppelande they have her wearing for most the episode, other than the V neckline and 3/4 sleeves are definitely modernisms. And I did catch myself rolling my eyes at the plot point that she’s a witch who can see the future, but then again … those were definitely charges leveled against both her and Elizabeth in real life. So … OK, whatever, rock on with your witchy self.
Words that I actually said out loud during this scene, “THANK CHRIST SOMEONE FINALLY HAS PROPER HEADGEAR.”
Portrait of a Female Donor, by Petrus Christus is dated c. 1455 and shows a the basic idea of what they’re going for. However, unlike in the show, the hair would not be visible from under the hennin and the veil would be of very fine, transparent silk. As far as the hairline issue goes, no one is going to do the whole shaved/plucked hairline on an actress in a STARZ historical drama, so I’m not going to waste my breath harping on modern versus historical beauty standards. It was a weird era for hairlines, let’s move on.
I would not want to be there for Elizabeth’s first meeting with the king’s mother, Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall).
Duchess Cecily is not OK with the new daughter-in-law.
Isabel of Portugal with St. Elizabeth, by Petrus Christus, was painted c. 1460, and shows the evolution between the houppelande of the previous decades starting to morph into the so-called “Burgundian” silhouette of the following decades.
So, all in all, this show gets a solid “I don’t hate it so far” from me. That said, I’ve run across some images from later episodes, and I get the distinct feeling that the costumes in those episodes are going to make my eyelid twitch more than the ones in this episode. But I’m not about to quit watching now!
Have you watched The White Queen (2013)? What are your thoughts on episode one? Share them with us in the comments!
I watched this a few years ago, before they made the sequels, and I thought that it was the best attempt at historical accuracy out of the trilogy (not that that’s a high bar to clear). Not everything is right, but at least there are references to actual things from history, unlike the craziness that came later.
I’m glad that you are finally reviewing The White Queen but Max Irons (son of Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack) plays Edward IV in the series not Aneurin Barnard.
Damn, my bad. I’ll fix it.
This is one of the few PFG adaptations I don’t hate. I actually really like the “witches” angle, since it’s something unique to this series. And Margaret Beaufort is just so insane, she cracks me up. I Stan her IRL, but for some reason, this depiction of her doesn’t make me livid like the others do.
I have the same feelings towards this Margaret! I think in the White Queen she is just so boringly evil with no depth but in this one I found her religious fervour to be somewhat interesting and yes she also has pretty funny scenes lol. I guess the approach feels more nuanced and not just “Elizabeth Woodville/Elizabeth of York good Margaret Beaufort bad”. Her costumes are kinda crazy though.
*Evil with no depth in the White Princess I mean.
I think it’s a testament to the actress that she played her so much “zealot” to the hilt, we actually loved seeing her do it.
PG loves the Yorks, so the Yorks are well treated in this show:)
If you have the audacity to be a Lancaster/Tudor on the other hand…
“I can excuse nepoticide, but I draw the line at being welsh” (PG’s line of thinking🤣)
I like the costumes, it’s luckily prior to my own era of interest, so I can go “pretty!” without thinking about accuracy
I’m not a ricardian, so eeeh, it’s not my fav show for plot reasons, and I haven’t rewatched since its release, but if you like Dick the third, or is neutral on him, then I think you’ll enjoy this more than I did:)
That’s not entirely true – the only form of nerd I dislike more than a Ricardian would have to be those smug, snob-bothering, ill-willing Oxfordians and their nonsense (May they all be slapped with a dirty glove: HUZZAH for the Swan of Avon!), but I rather enjoyed THE WHITE QUEEN and happily attribute to it my rather sizeable soft spot for the work of Ms. Rebecca Ferguson and Mr Max Irons.
We must have been divided at birth! Richard must have known from the hour he decided to depose his nephews he’d have to kill them too or his throne would never be safe.
I’d mind Oxfordians less if they hadn’t chosen the most worthless nobleman in late 16th century England as their faux Shakespeare.
My standard reply to Oxfordians is why did the Earl publish crap plays (I had to read some in graduate school) under his own name and great plays under a pseudonym. They have no answer.
Good One! In fact the entire Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare edifice falls down very the simple fact writing lays was not declasse. There was no reason for the author to try to hide his authorship.
Now, now–there are Ricardians here, nerdish and non-. But while I doubt the guy killed his nephews, I also doubt he was a perfect lamb. Successful royals, such as Edward IV, had to be pretty ruthless.
Also, this is ground zero for my ongoing battle to convince myself that NO, it’s not just me, Ms. Ferguson really DOES look uncannily like Ms. Ingrid Bergman…
She is Swedish.
Even if I didn’t hate PG for practically everything she has ever written or ever said, I don’t think I’d ever get past the promo shot of Rebecca Ferguson enthroned, using as a sceptre a 20th-century field marshal’s baton with the figure of St George just casually snapped off so that there’s still a bit of dragon sticking up that they couldn’t be bothered to sand off!
Even when they remember the hairpins, the hair’s still too modern! (And of course only the older ladies get headdresses, natch)
Maybe Agnes Sorel’s breasts really did look like that! That would certainly get the king’s attention.
Lots of Linen and Velour? I don’t hate these costumes, they’re something Vaguely Medieval-ish? I can’t wait to be disappointed once we get to the other players! I remember something about the girls getting one dress for an episode or 2?
Le Sigh. Max Irons. I’ll be over here fanning myself.
Also, Janet McTeer just adds value to anything.
A contemporary noble wrote Edward IV that though Elizabeth Woodville was beautiful and virtuous she was not of suffiently high birth to become queen. This is interesting because it implies that even an opponent to the marriage had no fault to find with Elizabeth but her birth. Her reputation for arrogance seems entirely based on her insistance of being treated with the same ceremony as earlier queens which was completely understandable and necessary but resented because of her birth. Like other unpopular consorts Elizabeth was blamed for any unpopular thing her husband did but there’s no reason to believe she had great influence over him, certainly not to the point of making him do anything he didn’t want to. Naturally Elizabeth took an interest in promoting her family but it’s clear Edward chose to promote the Woodvilles as a counter to his troublesome, over mighty subjects.
Frankly my impression from contemporary sources is of a woman in slightly over her head trying to deal with unreasonable hostility and major threats to her own safety and that of her children.
This series was an entry for me into the era, and I really don’t hate it, especially compared to the sequel series that feel so contrived. Maybe it’s the acting caliber? Anyway, very interested in your take!