Many times over the years, we’ve snarked TV shows and films for their wildly inaccurate takes on the iconic 16th-century head covering, the French hood. This was an item worn by upper-class women in Europe from about 1510 up to 1600, although it was most popular at the French and English courts around the 1520s to 1550s. This headgear is often associated with Anne Boleyn, who supposedly brought the fashion to England — that’s probably not true, though she may have made it fashionable. While I don’t know that an actual version of this headgear survives, there are TONS of portraits and images from the 16th century. The French hood appears as one of the most common types of head covering for upper-class women and even more middling-class women later in the century. But movies and TV have a really hard time reproducing it!
Instead of getting a sleek, flattened crown shape trimmed in jewels and with a dark fabric veil that covers the hair, we end up seeing sparkly headbands, sticky-uppy visors, and so much free-flowing hair. This Renaissance head covering is not the easiest thing to make but it’s not the hardest either, especially with all the visual evidence. So let’s take a deep-dive into what the real deal looked like and how movies and TV get it wrong and, sometimes, right.
French Hoods: Some Historical Background
The basics are that it’s a hat worn midway back on a woman’s head, with only the very front of her hair showing, and the rest of her hair is covered by the “hood” portion. This hood extends into a fabric veil that hangs down to the woman’s back. The part of the hat on top of her head is typically built up of several layers that may or may not be permanently attached to each other (there’s much conjecture among academics and reenactors, and I’m just going to side-step the entire issue because it’s not useful for film and TV). Not every French hood has every single layer — it seems to have changed over time, plus different women’s hats could be as elaborate as they wanted. After all, this is a style worn by countless people over most of a century! And in portraiture from later in the century, few layers can be seen.
Another key feature is the trim. Because this is high fashion, upper-class women had this headgear trimmed with one or more lines of jewels that could be removed, and these were thought of as a separate item of jewelry called “billaments.” Later in the century, when French hoods began to be worn by the middling class, they tend to be plain black and unjeweled.
Here’s our most popular French-hood-wearer, Anne Boleyn. Note the placement of the hood midway back her head and how it lies relatively flat to her head. There’s a front pleated layer, topped by a dark layer that has two rows of pearl trim.
Now here’s a broad overview of the fashion and its evolution. At the start of the 16th century, a style of head covering worn by women in European courts is the type of hood on Juana I de Castilla. It’s often layered over another hood and / or a cap. The front edges could be elaborately decorated. This is the precursor to the French hood as we know it. Note the long “hood” at the back covering the hair (which would be styled and pinned up underneath; if not for modesty, just because it gives you something to better pin all that stuff into, yes, I’ve worn it, it works!).
These hoods continue to be worn in the 1510s, around Spain, France, and the low countries. This next portrait, widely thought to be of Catherine of Aragon as a young girl, shows her wearing a black velvet hood edged in gold trim and layered over a red hood edged in a different gold trim with a gold pleated frill peeking out from below that. (Note: the round gold outline is part of the portrait but not part of the headdress; I’ve outlined where the hood is — that’s visible when lightened.)
Starting in 1520s France, we can see the classic “French hood” shape coming into being, where the top edge is rounder and closer to the head, but also a bit farther back off the face and tucked up close to the ears. But check out all those layers on Marie d”Assigny’s hood, including a very delicate, sheer, innermost layer. That’s evidence of the origins of the style.
I thought this 1530s English portrait was notable for the height of Lady Audley’s hood, which is accentuated by the thick upper billament. We snark the sticky-uppy French hoods that look like visors plopped backwards on a lady’s head, and while that’s not accurate either, there are certainly period images showing hoods that don’t just lay down flat on the head. Height can vary a bit.
This 1540s English portrait of Margaret Wyatt is a good example of the layers that can be added to a French hood. All about the customization, yo’. Lots of variations can be found.
Even before she was QEI, Elizabeth brought the bling — see how that upper billament dangles off of her hood? Talk about royal excess.
This style of headwear would be seen less in portraiture after the 1550s in France, and below is the dowager queen with a last gasp at the fashion both in pink and with pearls on the main crescent part of the hat, in addition to elaborate billaments.
The fashion continued strong in England through the 1560s and even included pretty pointed styles (also in pink, matching her gown).
And heights continued to vary, as this 1570s English portrait by George Gower shows. It was fashionable for the hair in front of the hood to be curled or styled over pads, and that bit of puffy height means you’d want your hat — and the jewels on top of it — to be a little higher to be seen. It’s all part of the look!
Films and TV shows have plenty to work with for historical references and styles, and as you can see, they don’t have to make all their French hoods look identical because there was variety within geographic areas and over time. Even if a costume drama mixed and matched headgear over the 16th century, I’d be fine with it because that’d be 10x better than what we usually see!
And while I alluded to historical construction techniques, aw hell no, I’m not expecting that from movies and TV. I won’t bother with that myself — I’ve gotten amazingly good results from the theatrical-but-well-researched patterns designed by The Tudor Tailor. Any costume shop could use those designs and turn out French hoods that bear a striking resemblance to the portraits above. But instead we get so much shit like…
French Hood Failures on Film & TV
Let me catalog the ways! We’ve mentioned some of these before, but not all and not in one place. Plus, now that you’ve seen what French hoods should look like, you may understand our disgust better :)
French Hoods as Headbands
This is the lowest bar, where a production forgets that a “hood” is part of a French hood. There should be some kind of fabric veil hanging down behind the hat part and covering the hair. It’s not just a crescent that sits on top of the head — that’s a tiara or something!
No, a French hood is not a headband, and if you want a tiara, wear a frickin’ tiara!
Loose Flowing Hair & French Hoods
This is another side-effect of not having an actual hood on your French hood — we see a lot of women’s hair. We shouldn’t though.
Refer back to the historical portraiture above. Notice there are no long locks of hair hanging free. Newp!
French Hoods That Stick Straight Up
This may be the worst or maybe funniest offender in filmed French hoods. Yet it’s also somewhat arbitrary. Only sometimes is it sticking straight up — sometimes it’s just too high or sticking out too far. It’s just big and weird. Like art or porn, you know it when you see it. We often say it’s like a visor worn backwards on your head:
And while Beyonce can make that fashion, AFAIK she still doesn’t have the power to go back in time and make this historically accurate for the 16th century. Thus, French hoods that stick up are wrongity-wrong in our book.
Crazy Sizes of French Hoods
This doesn’t happen too much, but it’s worth noting that size matters. A hat should not overpower the wearer’s face or head, and that goes for a French hood as well.
Gotta get the proportions right! Every now and then, a French hood is too small:
But more often, they’re too freakin’ big!
Just WTF French Hoods
Sometimes, movies and TV shows just have no clue how to interpret historical headgear. And it shows up very poorly onscreen.
These last few are from documentaries, and they still haunt me.
Historically Accurate French Hoods in Film & TV
Now, for the big question: do historically accurate French hoods exist onscreen? Well … kinda sorta, not quite completely. The sticking-upness is always going to be a judgement call, so these are my picks for least egregious on that count. What I’m mostly looking for is a moderate height, not angled too sharply up, with a nod towards layered creation, and a fabric veil/hood covering the hair.
Unfortunately, sometimes when I found accurate headgear, it was not paired with accurate clothing (or makeup). Few productions get everything right!
It’s sad that with so many 16th-century costume dramas having been made over the years, so few have gotten this typical item of women’s headgear correct. I guess part of the problem is that early productions made historically inaccurate versions, and those bad French hoods were recycled endlessly. But I’d hope that some bigger budget films or TV shows over the years would have splashed out for a few new and more historically researched French hoods! Especially when you look at what great quality gowns have been made, the headgear doesn’t always match. Oh well!
Does historically inaccurate headgear bug you too?