The 2015 BBC miniseries Wolf Hall has AMAZINGLY good and historically accurate costumes, let’s just get this on record first thing. If you listen to our podcast, you’ll hear us rave about how much we freakin’ LOVE the show and the costumes. It’s beautifully done, and costume designer Joanna Eatwell did a brilliant job recreating the 1530s clothing for Thomas Cromwell and the court of Henry VIII. This series sets a high bar that future 16th-century movies and TV shows will be judged against. It’s the Elizabeth R for a new generation.
All that said, Wolf Hall is not perfect. This is still a theatrical production, and Eatwell and her staff obviously made concessions for television, for directorial choices, budget and time constraints, or other reasons we don’t know about. I get it, I live in the real world too, and on Frock Flicks, we’ve discussed why designers may mess with historical design. When this is done purposefully and not to mislead people or to dumb down history, then we’re generally fine with it and not going to snark the production. And I’m not about to snark Wolf Hall here either!
What I think is useful, however, is to point out the few places Wolf Hall doesn’t show the most accurate historical costume — because this series WILL be copied and used as costume research by the masses, trust me. This will become one of the standard references, much as (less accurate) movies and TV shows like Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, and even The Tudors were before it. Those looking to Wolf Hall for costume inspiration will be getting things 99% right, and I’ll be extremely happy to see them at the next Renaissance faire or Society for Creative Anachronism event. But if they want to go for 100%, then maybe this list could help!
Without further ado, here are my top five costume inaccuracies in Wolf Hall:
1. Too Small Codpieces
Apparently, Americans are scared of big codpieces. Or so sayeth Mark Rylance (who plays Thomas Cromwell): “I think the codpieces are too small,” he said in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper, “I think it was a direction from our American producers PBS — they like very small codpieces which always seemed to be tucked away.” Well, this American right here likes big codpieces, and I cannot lie! Hmph. I need to have a word with someone at PBS; I donate, they should listen to me. C’mon, fellow PBS fans, let’s tell them not to shrink Henry’s junk for Wolf Hall, Part Two!
OK, in an interview with the BBC’s History Extra, Joanna Eatwell says: “The codpieces were not consciously made to be too small.” She added, talking to Vanity Fair, that “The codpieces are there, but [the male characters] have their skirts and jerkins covering them because they are gentlemen of a certain age and you don’t see them.” Pshaw, the iconic Holbein portrait (excerpted above) is dated to 1547, when Henry was in the last 10 years of his life. Whatever codpieces are tucked down there in Wolf Hall look small compared to period imagery. C’mon, Henry VIII is the guy who made it famous, so throw him a bone (pun intended).
2. Weird French Hoods
Some of the women’s headgear is really good and beautifully historically accurate. And some of the headgear sucks. It’s weirdly inconsistent! The French hoods on Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, Jane Seymour, and Jane Rochford are the least accurate, and the later two are particularly bad (which is noticeable because they have a lot of screen time).
The first offense is that the court ladies tend to have sheer veils attached to their hoods. I’ve looked at a ton of period imagery for French hoods, and I can’t say I’ve seen any sheer veils. They’re typically opaque black or another solid dark color. Not sure where this sheer thing came from. Much, much later in the century, you see a lot of sheer, floaty stuff combined with headgear, but it’s in addition to, not instead of, the dark hood, at best.
Some people online have suggested that the sheer veils were done for theatrical reasons so as to not obscure the women’s faces. But contrast that supposed problem-and-fix with the many, many scenes of Cromwell and another guy talking in a practically pitch-black room, barely lit by a fire and/or a few candles. You can barely see their faces in the gloom. Double standard? The production deliberately obscures the men’s faces FOR historical accuracy, but tries not to obscure the women’s faces and is LESS historically accurate? That doesn’t make sense. Many of the women’s scenes are in light-filled rooms where a dark veil covering the back of a lady’s head wouldn’t obscure much. So I’m not buying this excuse.
Another suggestion is that the sheer veils are to show off the women’s styled hair. Huh? Why? I mean, yay, it’s styled, that’s period, but the hood is supposed to cover it. Still not buying the sheers.
However, that’s a minor nitpick. The larger historical fashion crime is the style of the hoods themselves: Mary and Jane Seymour are wearing the typical movie/TV “headband” French hood, while Rochford is wearing the “visor” variant, ugh. Anne’s hoods vary from headband to a theatrical take on the period fashion made up of multiple layers. But none of them are fabulous.
Honestly, the middle-class headgear, like that on Cromwell’s sister-in-law is much better! Those look like they were made in a truly historical style. The gable hoods throughout the series are also quite historically accurate. But for these principle characters, we get French hood clichés. When so much is so good in this production, that they didn’t get such an iconic piece of headgear right on the woman who’s often credited with bringing it to England makes me a little sad.
3. Boots, Not Shoes
We’ve mentioned this before in How Movies Get 16th-Century Costume Wrong, and I’m sorry to say that Wolf Hall repeats this trope. During this era, boots are supposed to be for activities like riding and hunting, and indoors, men would wear shoes. So are they trying to show that Henry is so manly and active, he could jump on a horse at any minute? Even when he’s inside doing court biz?
OK, whatever, except that every important male character (and pretty much every man in the background) except for TWO wears boots — only Thomas More and Anne Boleyn’s executioner wear shoes, not boots. Yes, I checked. If you can see a man’s feet, he’s probably wearing boots, other than those two guys.
Even the musicians in Anne’s chambers (including doomed Mark Smeaton) are wearing boots. Musicians! Those aren’t exactly the type of fellas who’d run off on horseback at any minute. Seriously, they all should be wearing shoes.
4. Inconsistent Bodice Wrinkles
I know, I know. Everyone’s argued this one to death, but that’s why I had to include it. Some (let’s call them Team Sarah) say the wrinkles are due to the costume designer using more historically accurate bodice construction, layered over a kirtle, not a corset (which wasn’t necessarily used until very late in the 16th century), so you’re less likely to get a smooth front. Portraits showing perfectly smooth bodices are probably just artistic license.
Others (let’s call them Team Kendra) inform us that the designer had only one day of fitting with Claire Foy, who plays Anne Boleyn, and according to the History Extra article, the “costumes were made to a set of measurements taken on trust, and the fabric was cut before the team had seen the actors. This meant several outfits had to be tried on and adjusted in one intense session.” So this could have caused the wrinkles in her gowns, since there weren’t multiple fittings (Foy was also pregnant during filming, but in the UK’s Mirror she said, “it was too early to tell anyone,” so this might not have been a factor; she did wear a false baby bump for Anne’s pregnancy scenes).
Still others (let’s call them Team Trystan) note that the wrinkles show up in Anne’s silk taffeta gowns but not in the velvet and wool gowns worn by her or other women.
Point is, there are bodice wrinkles, and it can be distracting, and nobody can agree on why they exist. Maybe we should all get over it.
5. Anne’s Archery Outfit
WTF is up with this? The thing she wears in this scene really, really does not fit with, well, anything else in the whole show. It’s not 1530s, hell, it’s not any period, it’s a fantasy medieval mash-up with Tudor-ish sleeves, lacing at the sides, and an Elizabethan flat cap slapped on top. As Sarah said, “It looks like something pulled from the stock of a local theatre company’s production of Macbeth.”
Some online suggest that Cromwell’s comment about “where’s Robin?” means that Anne is playing dress-up as Maid Marian, but I think, if anything, he’s being snarky about how bad a shot she is. Anne misses every target she tries to shoot and blames the bow. Besides, nobody else in the scene is in period fancy-dress, so it doesn’t make sense that Anne would be. The gown is just wrongity-wrong.
Also, the snood is recycled from Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn in The Tudors, no lie. Did Eatwell run out of time? Was this scene added at the last minute? I hope there’s a good excuse, because otherwise I’d be ashamed that this thing is in Wolf Hall, compared to all the other wonderfully historically accurate outfits.
Did you find any historical costume inaccuracies in Wolf Hall?