Everyone has fixated on one thing about this three-part miniseries Anne Boleyn (2021) — that Jodie Turner-Smith in the title role is Black and the historical figure she portrays is not. But I’m pretty sure that folks complaining about that haven’t watched the show because there’s plenty to discuss, pro and con, about it without even noting Turner-Smith’s or Boleyn’s skin color. Sure, it’s a factor, but not at all so massive as the internet made it seem.
There are only two legitimate complaints I can find with this miniseries after watching it: 1) it is another look at a very over-examined historical figure — yes, it’s a distinctly different look (no, not due to race), but it’s still talking all about the Same Old Historical People We All Know, and 2) the costumes are often ridiculously weird interpretations or misunderstandings of how Tudor upper-class gowns work. This being Frock Flicks, I’m going to address the second issue mostly, but let’s get the first one out of the way.
The show covers only the last six months of Anne Boleyn‘s life up to and including her execution in May 1536. The first scenes are at the time of Catherine of Aragon‘s death, when Anne is heavily pregnant with a hoped-for son. Henry VIII has started a mild flirtation with a very young Jane Seymour, but the focus is still on Anne. In fact, it’s not just here but the whole three episodes are very specifically and very consciously told through Anne’s point of view, in a way that I don’t think any other Anne Boleyn movie or TV show has. Henry is a bit player here. Jane has a bigger role than Henry does since, for Anne, she’s both a companion and competition.
The crux of the drama comes when Anne loses her baby. We forget that this woman spent three years almost constantly pregnant — she was crowned queen on June 1, 1533, Elizabeth was born September 7 of that year, Anne had at least one stillbirth or miscarriage in 1534, and her final pregnancy in January 1536 ended with a stillbirth at about 4 months. Jodie Turner-Smith took this role shortly after giving birth herself and, according to interviews, that influenced how she approached it. She saw Anne as a mother, which is something film and TV haven’t done much of. She told Harpers Bazaar:
“I became a mom, and now that’s the most important lens that I see her story through. This is a mother who was trying to survive for herself and for child, and who was trying to leave a legacy for her child that made it so that she could have a seat at the table. And, I mean, she succeeded.”
In Glitter Magazine, she continued on that theme:
“Choosing to kind of tell the story in the way that we did, we thought, ‘What about understanding her, trying to understand her as a woman whose ambitions really stemmed from her desire to make sure that her children would be safe?'”
Not only has Anne not been seen as a mother, she’s just reduced to a baby-maker. Turner-Smith commented on this in Collider:
“It also made me upset, what was done to her. What also upset me was how little has changed, just in terms of this idea that a woman’s value is placed in her womb and a woman being treated as nothing more than a vessel, not as a thinking, feeling individual with agency, to be treated with care. All of these things infuriated me. Henry has been lionized throughout history, when he was a sadistic, selfish little man. I was excited to tell a story that was more, instead of sensationalizing this person. It was talking about her humanity.”
Given that we rank Henry VIII among our top 5 historical manchildren, I absolutely agree with her perspective.
I do think Jodie Turner-Smith is an excellent actor for this version of Anne Boleyn because of the story the female writer and director wanted to tell. Race and skin-color don’t play a particular part in this story, but motherhood really is a key theme and Turner-Smith portrays this eloquently. Despite how much I know about this history and how many times I’ve seen it depicted onscreen, I was definitely engaged by her performance and this take on the tale.
Except for the deeply annoying costumes! Oh yes, now let’s talk about that.
Costumes in Anne Boleyn (2021)
The story is set very specifically in 1536, so there’s no fudging the costume period. And I’ll agree with costume designer Lynsey Moore when she says in a Guardian interview: “The costumes are not historically accurate, by any means, but the Tudor essence of the silhouette is there, with a modern spin on it.” Everyone in the miniseries is wearing the basic shape and style of the period, sure. It’s just very basic.
At least some of this is due to the fact that this production was filmed on a budget and during a global pandemic. In a PopSugar interview, Turner-Smith refers to the costume designer “doing excellent work on a very, very tiny budget.” And in a Bustle interview, the designer Moore, said:
“We started filming just on the cusp of the second lockdown, and there was a quick decision that this shoot was suddenly just going to happen. So we had five weeks to prepare, which for a period drama is unheard of!”
Got it. Some slack has been cut.
And clearly this designer had a plan and coherent concept, so she wasn’t just throwing actors in random Tudor-esque ye olde-timey outfits like, say, The Tudors (2007-10) did. Also in that Bustle interview, she described her color theory:
“The focus in this production is that for once, it’s not about Henry VIII, it’s not about the men: it’s about the women. So, the men are on the outside of our focus as an audience, almost. They are the black tones, the dark shadows, and their costumes are not really to be noticed at all.
Anne has her in a circle of the women around her — her ladies in waiting — and they’re in these kind of faded, beautiful washed-out tones. Then you’ve got these acidic bright jewel tones that capture the eye in Anne’s wardrobe: she needs to be the centre of focus. The idea is that the audience’s eye is always drawn to exactly where it needs to be.”
Yet like so many costume designers, she has to publicly decry “accuracy” in favor of “relatability” as in:
“When I met Lynsey [Miller, the director] she was on a similar page to me, and she wanted to create something a bit different. This is a fresh perspective, from a different angle, and design-wise a chance for us to present something new for a contemporary audience. But obviously, this is a time period. A lot of research went into it, but also, because we decided that it was going to be contemporary, it’s not shackled too much by historical accuracy.”
A little bit more research might have helped Lynsey Moore avoid the biggest, most obvious mistake in this production’s costumes, plus it would have helped her and the cast. I wonder if anybody knew anything about how Tudor upper-class women’s gowns actually were constructed. It seems they were going on an old theatrical idea that everything in days of yore laced up the back. But they found that this would be a problem because, according to Lynsey Moore in Bustle:
“It takes a long time to lace people in, but Jodie was breastfeeding throughout the day, so it meant her costumes needed to be able to enter from the front. So I asked myself how we could use this to our advantage, and rethink all the costumes — not just Jodie’s. We didn’t have the money — or time — to have multiple dresses made and fitted, so in a way, that one requirement led the whole concept down a different route.
It meant that all the ladies in waiting have one style of dress, with interchangeable pieces that can make it look different according to the scene’s needs, which in the end was ideal because it was a very short shoot and we didn’t have time for much else.”
The costume designer thought she was solving an issue on the set by creating these “interchangeable” stomachers to slap onto the front of all the women’s gowns. Well, I have news for her — not only do they look hideous, they’re also historically inaccurate, AND, if you’d made the gowns in a simple and historically accurate fashion, the gowns could be just as, if not easier, to open up the front for breast-feeding! Because, you know, women in the past had that very same issue to deal with.
I also found on her Instagram where Moore mixes the breast-feeding idea with design choice and budget:
“[Director] Lynsey Miller wanted each Lady in waiting to be assigned a colour. There was only enough money to have one dress made for each lady in waiting and the tight scheduling didn’t allow for lengthy costume changes between scenes. This gave me the idea to create pieces (sleeves, stomacher and skirt apron) from alternative fabrics that could be mixed and matched to create multiple outfits from one core dress. The pieces could be poppered on or off to facilitate quick costume changes and for Jodie Turner Smith to breastfeed during the shoot. The interchangeable pieces were central to the look of the gowns and I chose to make them severe and geometric in shape which created a modern kaleidoscopic feel.”
Ooof. I think she went too far. And “poppered on or off,” that’s got to mean snaps, which is probably why they stick up and gape so much. Hooks or pins can be more snuggly fitted, in my experience, and they don’t cost more or take much longer to use.
Let’s talk about actual stomachers (and I swear I’m going to do a whole post on stomachers next Snark Week!). These are, essentially, triangles of fabric that pin into the front sides of a gown to close up a front opening. If a gown opens in the back, you don’t have a stomacher because there’s no point in gown having two openings (as we’ve ranted about before). Stomachers were not commonly worn until the 1580s or so, well after Anne Boleyn’s period. Look at a bunch of Tudor gowns in period portraiture, and they do not have a contrasting center triangle. For example:
Even more noticeable in a light-colored gown:
Since the front of these gowns looks flat and there’s no obvious opening, you probably think they close in the back. Well, not necessarily. In fact, in some portraits, you’ll get a hint at how they do open. This painting of Anne’s successor shows a faint line along the right.
It’s a bit more visible here, as a white dotted line on the left. I added a red arrow as well.
These lines are where the gown closes in the front! Yep, costume designer Lynsey Moore didn’t need to add clunky, ugly, inaccurate stomachers. She could have just had a closure on the side front. Heck, sneak some velcro in there if you want, I’m not that picky (and velcro might be flatter than whatever bulky snaps they used). It’d have to look better than these triangles of upholstery fabric, smack dab in the center.
I’m thinking it’s not a great mystery how Tudor gowns are constructed in theatrical circles because Jean Hunnisett includes this in her classic text Period Costume for Stage & Screen: Patterns for Women’s Dress 1500-1800 (1990). Prior to writing her book series, Hunnisett had a long career designing and making costumes for the BBC and many UK theaters and opera houses, as well as teaching period costume cutting at the London College of Fashion. She built costumes for the series Elizabeth R (1971) and The Slipper and the Rose (1976), and she designed the ladies’ costumes for Joseph Andrews (1977). Hunnisett shows this design for Tudor upper-class women’s gown closures:
This is a theatrical riff on what the period portraits show — front-lacing is covered up by a piece of fabric that attaches on one side, here with hooks and eyes. Lace it from the bottom to top, and you have easy access for breast-feeding because you only need to un-hook one side, unlace a the top few rows, and there you go. You could even replace the lacing with a zipper if it still seems too difficult for a lactating person’s frequent access.
Hunnisett is not the only one who’s noted this historical construction technique. In 2006, Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davis published The Tudor Tailor, where they not only show this style of Tudor gown, they provide patterns to recreate it!
Historically, that side flap would be pinned shut. Which, btw, you can see in Wolf Hall. But that production did go to great lengths with its costumes.
Still, the basic historical construction isn’t any more or less complicated than whatever front-closure-with-giant-stomacher thing that’s going on. With as much ease of access for breast-feeding and no clunky, weird look.
Oh and The Tudor Tailor even points out that, while a full undergown, called a kirtle, was usually worn below the heavy gown that closed, as above, this kirtle could have various types of bodices. Sometimes, to reduce bulk (or hey, maybe for breast-feeding? who knows!), the kirtle could be made where the front was mostly cut away, so it became like a skirt with suspenders. See the various examples here:
Again, Tudor women had more options than sticking a giant triangle on the front of their gowns. As an access feature, this costume designer’s theory is busted. As a design feature, well, it just looks ugly and distracting!
What’s even more odd to me is that the gowns in this Anne Boleyn miniseries seem to be constructed in several different ways and a couple come close to a historical method. If the costumers had stuck with that style and ditched the stomachers, the whole lot would have looked heaps better! Anne’s maternity gowns early in the series are most like this historical construction.
Anne’s maternity gowns are also cut at a more flattering bust point. Some of her other gowns are too high and wide — probably because of or emphasized by the stomachers.
Once Anne is no longer pregnant, here come the stomachers.
Yes, it was totally a historical thing to wear the same forepart (the embellished petticoat front that showed where an overskirt split in front) and sleeves (which pinned into the large oversleeves) with multiple gowns. Makes sense that the costume designer would do it here to get more looks out of the same costumes on a show with a tight budget. I can see wanting to extend that idea to the bodice because TV has a lot of closeup shots of faces with necklines and not as many full shows showing skirts. But it’s soooooooooooooo clunky here! I might possibly get on board if it was done more elegantly. Even when the stomacher matches the gown, the oversized shape and weird fit are noticeable.
Once Anne is arrested and taken to the Tower of London, she wears several black gowns, including this rather lovely damask print. I don’t hate it — the fabric isn’t historically accurate but it vaguely evokes the period more than some of the weird stuff in this show.
Finally, getting dressed for her trial, she’s shown wearing historically accurate layers! I don’t know why the series busts out this detail at this late point, but here it is. She’s wearing a kirtle that laces up the front, over a smock (with tied wrists even!), and then a black velvet gown over that.
OK, so that’s all the bad / annoying stuff about Anne’s costumes. One good thing is Anne’s hair. This is probably the main way race impacts the production because it’s obvious that this Anne Boleyn has natural kinky Black hair and wears it beautifully. It is her crown, as much as, and sometimes more than, any crown given her by Henry. Jodie Turner-Smith discussed this with Glamour Magazine UK:
“When I went into Anne Boleyn, we spoke extensively about what my vision was, and it was interesting to see how closely it mirrored the production team’s. I was very excited to see that. It was really important to me that Anne had Afro texture hair. In my mind I was like, my queen Anne, this is a woman who I did not want to put on European texture hair. I wanted kinky hair that she’s been growing her whole life.”
Of course this is not the hair we see in period portraits, Turner-Smith is not playing Anne Boleyn in whiteface. She’s bringing her whole self, including her hair, to this portrayal, so that means Anne has this kind of hair. Thus, the question becomes, how would Anne Boleyn’s hair be styled if it were this texture? I think the series answered that pretty well. In Harpers Bazaar, Jodie Turner-Smith credited her stylist:
“My hairstylist and makeup artist, Jody Williams, bless her heart, was so talented and skilled and collaborative, and we just really had a lot of fun with that.
I wanted her to wear a bonnet when she slept, so we did that, too — she had her hair wrapped.
I just felt like, when we have the opportunity to tell a story and we’re gonna do identity-conscious casting and cast somebody who’s not white, then why don’t we add the nuances of a person who’s not white? That means not European hair, having kinkier hair and styling that and seeing that life.”
I’ve ranted before about how French hoods are not headbands, and I still don’t love the look. But I’ll admit it makes more sense when you have textured hair that’s not going to be tied back under a little veil.
The only time Anne (or any woman, for that matter) wears a semi-correct veil with a French hood is at her trial and then execution. It’s a sheer white veil, and that light material on top of her large coil of hair keeps the effect from looking like some massively out-of-proportion headdress.
As the main character, Anne Boleyn got the best materials for her costumes. She wears some really gorgeous satins and lots of rich velvets. Compare that with the flotilla of crappy upholstery remnants worn by the rest of the women. Yeah, filming during lockdown sucks!
And everybody just LOL at the so-called French hoods one last time:
Will you be watching Anne Boleyn, in spite of the costumes?