Corsets, codpieces and going commando — dressing as a Tudor is quite the costume drama. We pile on the velvet and pull up our tights for a big Wolf ball
There is no requirement to read the book first. Political intrigue combined with the triumvirate of Damian Lewis, Mark Rylance and Claire Foy in a study of a court ruled by ambition and desire make the television adaptation of Wolf Hall an instant Wednesday night watch. But what really grabs us is the costumes. In last night’s episode we saw Mary Boleyn stroking Thomas Cromwell’s Italian grey velvet jacket admiringly. This sumptuous fabric was enough — apparently — to make her forget Cromwell is old enough to be her father.
Meanwhile codpieces and corsets trended on Twitter and Pinterest is humming with mood boards about 16th-century apparel. Even Valentino gave a nod to the era in his Paris couture show yesterday. Everyone wants a Wolf Ball. The prize venue is Hampton Court Palace — which celebrates its 500th anniversary this year with the reopening of the wine fountain and roaring fires designed to roast an entire cow.
With all that in mind, we visited the National Theatre Costume Hire Department, where they are dusting off the bustles in anticipation of a Wolf Hall inspired renaissance for 16th-century themed parties (Downton and Gatsby saw similar boosts in Edwardian and flapper garb).
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall’s author, says our fascination with the Tudors comes from our ability to recognise ourselves in them. That includes the appeal of getting trussed up in velvet hats and corsets. Jessica Proudman, who dressed us, says no one is immune. “We get corporate clients interested in dressing up — people from Glencore [the commodities giant], investment bankers, people in oil — more often than not it is the men who are dragged in against their will but end up staying here for ages trying on different hats. Some go for the codpieces, although many are scared.” Prices start at £120 for a consultation and rental.
Henry VIII was a powerful man — the look is not to be taken lightly. Wolf Hall costume designer Joanna Eatwell describes the outfits as walking furniture, and Proudman says costumes are made from upholstery fabric. No central heating meant velvet layers were essential and the corridors of power were wide enough for three-dimensional outfits. Whether or not you follow the example of the Tudors and dispense with underwear is up to you. Proudman says knickers were not necessary until the 1920s — when shorter hemlines came in.
Wolf Hall’s budget was £7 million and accuracy was crucial. Proudman says that unlike today, “there was no shame in wearing a dress multiple times. Fabric was expensive. Once they were worn out, dresses were passed to servants or cut up and repurposed.” Anne Boleyn brought colour to court, ditching the rectangular headgear favoured by her predecessor, wearing yellow and encouraging Henry to do the same.
Here’s how the outfits measured up.
King ‘Bling’ Henry VIII
Watching the first episode of Wolf Hall last week left me with only one question: where the hell is Henry? The famously fickle king, played by dashing Damian Lewis, popped up in a mere cameo, and yet in this mere glimpse there could be no doubt that Cromwell had been upstaged. For while Mark Rylance gives a perfectly subtle turn as the Putney-born lawyer, his drooping, black garb just can’t compete with the clothes of a king. Stitched from premium fabric, draped in ermine and exhibiting incredible attention to detail, Henry’s outfits were lavish, dramatic and expensive — the Alexander McQueen collections of their time — with the ultimate message that there was no one richer in the country.
Even now there’s an undeniable sense of luxury in slipping into imitations. Wandering through the Tudor section of the costume warehouse unearthed golden tunics, fur-lined coats and enough jewels to save Greece. Within seconds of donning the tights, the frilled shirt, the boots, the rings, the belt and the hat, it is impossible not to feel grand. The many layers of fabric doubled my size: I am suddenly broad, more imposing, with a sense of superiority that can only come from having the new-found width of a small car.
Ten minutes in, however, and the golden threads were losing their shine. The sheer weight and extension to my frame affected my balance, and toilet breaks became impossible. Considering the time it took to undress, it’s a wonder Henry had time to romance one wife, let alone six, especially with the inevitable hat hair left by spending an hour in a giant cap. Not even Damian Lewis can pull that off.
Anne ‘Bustcrusher’ Boleyn
A scheming “witch”, with six fingers on her left hand, harsh centre parting and tacky taste in necklaces is an unlikely style icon. But Anne Boleyn had something, at least in her heyday when she snared the King of England.
Recreating her look is a masterclass in layering and patience. Proudman helps me select my undergarments — a long-sleeved cotton top like a peasant blouse to protect my skin from the wire bodice in the dress, detachable sleeves with ruffs and a long petticoat with three wire loops around the bottom. It’s like wearing a lampshade, but having structure makes the outer layers hang correctly. Over that goes another skirt and then the dress, with fluted sleeves perfect for hiding things and a boned bodice that needs lacing. Bras had not made it to England yet because the corset provided all necessary scaffolding. Although Boleyn was considered radical, this was before the age of the heaving bosom — necklines were high and breasts reined in for propriety’s sake. A flash of clavicle was as racy as it got.
It is not an outfit you can simply throw on. Years of experience dressing myself are unhelpful. Proudman helps me with the diaphanous fabrics and corsets that need lacing. Tudor fashion has been called early power-dressing, but in my hot, heavy skirts I feel anything but — my hands automatically assume a demure, cupped pose, moving is a challenge and when I see Joshi and Guy striding around freely in their breeches I understand why men wielded the power back then.
Claire Foy, who plays Boleyn, said filming was tough because, “it gets to July and you’re in a stately home not really able to breathe, and you are regretting asking for the corset to be so tight in the fitting.”
Next time I get a chance to dress like a Tudor, I will channel Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare in Love and give cross-dressing a go.
Thomas ‘Codpiece’ Cromwell
Mark Rylance’s Thomas Cromwell wears layer upon layer of black, and occasionally brown — melting into the poorly lit background stations of Cardinal Wolsey’s scenes of scheming and dressings down. His get-up is understated — more Dutch burgher than grand statesman. He was born to a blacksmith in Putney and his anonymous dress matches his mysterious background as a mercenary and fixer for powerful men.
Having attended a boarding school operated by men in black habits, I am aware of the understated power projected by them. Nothing looks so conspiratorial as two men in dark robes, whispering in the dark corner of an abbey. I also know about the importance of footwear. Do not assume you can get away with a pair of Nike Airs underneath.
So far in the series Cromwell hasn’t donned the infamous codpiece, and Rylance says the show’s props are smaller than in reality. I hitched a black velvet one to my outfit — it was a bit of a let-down, so I tucked it under my habit.
But who goes to a party dressed as Thomas Cromwell? You’d need to be a serious student of court politics or English Reformation piety. Perhaps Rylance’s performance will change that — the new pin-up of macho power and unlikely career success.