Thursday, May 14, 2015

The History Nerd's Guide to Wolf Hall Pt 1 - Costume

Like everyone else that goes apeshit about stuff on PBS, I've been devouring Wolf Hall. Everything that's been said about it is true. It's beautifully put together, astonishingly faithful in its details, beautifully acted, all of it. It's lush and alien and fascinating and the final episode is brutally riveting.

But on another level, as a history nerd, the show is a candy store of references.  It's like Wreck-it-Ralph for people that own copies of 'The Tudor Tailor' and obsess over Renaissance music and Holbein paintings.

About those paintings. It's been said that the shots are composed like paintings. And one of the main reasons for this is a number of the shots -are- paintings. A lot of the costumes for characters are just whatever that character is wearing in their portrait. What follows is me gushing about the details for several paragraphs, with a focus on costumes. In the next post I'll talk about set design.

Hobein's potrait of Thomas More, 1527. Currently in the Frick.
Thomas More as portrayed in Wolf Hall

TV Thomas More has the same outfit as he does in his portrait - same hat, same gown, same velvet doublet. He has the same haircut. The same iconic stubble. For someone whose seen the painting, the recognition is instant:"Oh, that doublet" - maybe because those sleeves are one of the richest portrayals of fabric in Western Art. It also stamps the character, indelibly, as Thomas More. Just look for the sleeves and there he is. Now, sure, this is a great Easter egg for Holbein fanboys and girls. But the way the show uses this costume is brilliant. On the one hand, that red silk velvet is a the second or third most expensive fabric available - behind cloth of gold (which is what it sounds like) and broacde. On the other hand, with his careless food stains and bad posture More manages to make a fur-trimmed gown and that crimson silk doublet look schlubby, like it's the Tudor equivalent to the hoodie of some guy that lives off of Soylent. He wears velvet, but his attitude proclaims to the world 'I am above this.'  This shows the way in which his character has one foot in power politics and another foot planted (perhaps hypocritically) in an idealized spiritual life.

Thomas Cromwell, as painted by Hobein 1532-33
Thomas Cromwell sits for his portrait in Wolf Hall

This is an even more explicit shout out, since we see Holbein painting the portrait in the show. Again, the costume is nearly identical. A great detail is the torquoise ring on his left index finger. The show makes it particularly significant by making it Wolsey's final gift to his protege. Unlike More, who was born to a knightly family, the commoner Cromwell wears a sumptuous but restrained black gown. True blacks were expensive but they were not showy. This gown a way for Cromwell to proclaim himself as a man of substance without stepping on any titled toes - in addition to being a faux pas, sumptuary laws made it illegal for commoners to wear richer fabrics. Another great detail in the screen cap is the quill, which has had its barbs cut down (to hold more easily) and the letter, which is folded up in the correct pre-19th century fashion. As a footnote, I'm thankful that Mark Rylance is better looking than the historical Cromwell.

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