I was totally prepared to not like The Pillars of the Earth (2010) miniseries. I read the book 20 years ago and was “eh” about it, but appreciated the research Ken Follett did in order to write it. And then, because it was Starz, I was not exactly hopeful about the miniseries.
Turns out it’s actually pretty good. The actors are all fabulously cast, and while the costumes look like they were hired out from the local high school madrigal group, they don’t detract at all from the story. In the grand scope of the show, I barely noticed them, owing to the engaging script and competent acting. However, taken individually and out of context they are peppered with stereotypical “medievalisms.” Southwestern motifs? Check. Large dangly earrings? Check. Gold lamé? Dreadlocks? Check and check.
The costumer, Mario Davignon, whose other credits include Romeo + Juliet (1996) and the sequel to Pillars that Starz also produced, World Without End (2012), apparently sourced the costumes from all over — Italy, Canada, the UK, the US, and France. A number of costumes were produced specifically for the series; probably the ones most likely to be ruined (soldiers’ clothing, workers’ clothing, etc.) rather than the costumes worn by the leads. It’s clear that a lot of effort and attention went into getting the feel of the commoners’ world to be genuine, but by comparison, the nobility always felt too costume-y.
Women’s Costumes in The Pillars of the Earth
Aliena – Hayley Atwell
Casting: Hayley Atwell (who you most likely will remember as Bess from The Duchess) plays Aliena, the pragmatic and bold daughter of the Earl of Shiring. I was eerily struck with the fact that she looked just how I had pictured her 20 years ago when I read the novel. Atwell is a strong actress, so she paired well with Eddie Redmayne who is, as we all should now know, one hell of an actor.
- Her hair was down almost constantly and uncovered. Which, I suppose you could argue was acceptable because at the start of the story she’s about 15-years-old and unmarried. But over the next decade or two, she really never graduates into appropriate headgear for an adult woman of the 12th-century. By the time she’s ACTUALLY married, she’s still flouncing around with her gorgeous chestnut tresses floating free. Even hauling wool around and being a badass medieval emancipated woman, it’s like a Timotei commercial.
- Those insanely long dangly earrings. Yeah, they look “medievally,” I guess, but there’s not a whole lot of evidence for medieval Christian women wearing great, big, honking chandelier earrings before, oh, the 16th-century at the earliest. The reason? BECAUSE THEIR HEADS WERE COVERED.
- A whole lot of beading and general weirdness in her gowns that really read more “Southwest revival” than “medieval.” Especially paired with the long, unfettered hair and the fact that Atwell looks plausibly 1/16th Native American.
Ellen – Natalia Wörner
Casting: Natalia Wörner, a German actress I was unfamiliar with until I saw this, is cast as Jack Jackson’s atheist/witchy mother. I have issues with Ellen as a character, but they’re mainly relegated to the fact that she’s the “modern medieval woman” trope personified. Aside from that, Wörner is a solid actress, and her portrayal of Ellen definitely gets my vote for coolest mother-in-law ever. Like the time she pissed on the evil Bishop Waleran. Mad props.
- The chenille hair extensions. CHENILLE. Just … What?
- The fact that she’s barefoot all the time despite living in a forest cave. OK, we get it, she’s magical.
- Metal grommets. Sigh.
Lady Regan – Sarah Parish
Casting: I think they got the character more or less captured correctly. Regan is beautiful, but “disfigured” (some kind of birthmark or scar covers half her face) and relentlessly ambitious. Where I think the script writers went sideways was in turning the fairly nuanced and complicated mother/son relationship between Regan and William in the book into a very in-your-face incestual creepfest. As a result, there’s not a whole lot for Sarah Parish to do with the character other than be scheming while sexually assaulting her son.
- Out of all the characters, I had the least issues with Regan’s costume. Sure, she’s wearing the same damn thing for 20 years straight, but she’s got her hair covered, and she’s not showing any skin aside from her face. Which is pretty much what you’d expect for a 12th-century noblewoman.
- If we’re picking nits here, I would point out that the barbette and fillet is very 13th-century, and the full wimple is something that doesn’t come into fashion until the very end of the 12th-century, but whatevs. I’m just thrilled that the costume department has her mostly covered, especially since Regan is the Evil Scheming Woman Who Uses Sex To Get Her Way.
Empress Maud – Alison Pill
Casting: The only thing I had seen Alison Pill in prior to this was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, so I’ll admit that I was kind of skeptical about the casting choice. That, coupled with some of the costume stills of Maud had me really worried about the entire production as a whole, but I’m happy to report that Pill was fabulous as the Empress, and the truly egregious costume choices that had me worried were only in the show for a few seconds.
- Not too many to point out, honestly. Aside from the low-hanging fruit of the gold lamé gambeson that Maud dons in some kind of dream sequence-y scene, most of her costumes are not bad. I’ll even hold back the free-flowing hair gripe, since she’s THE EMPRESS, and she will cut a bitch if you try to tell her she can’t do what she wants.
- A couple of her dresses incorrectly interpret the bliaut as being a kind of vest worn over a pleated gown. Also, the bliaut is several decades off from making its appearance in England at this point (Maud’s son Henry II married Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is largely credited with bringing the bliaut fashion to England).
Men’s Costumes in The Pillars of the Earth
Despite the fact that I loved the performances of Eddie Redmayne, Rufus Sewell, and Matthew Macfayden, we’re talking about two workmen and a monk. There’s not a hell of a lot to talk about costume-wise. Here’s a brief run-down of their costumes:
The two main noblemen, King Stephen (Tony Curran) and William Hamleigh (David Oakes) have more interesting costumes and, aside from some material choices I disagree with, their overall look is consistent for 12th-century England.
King Stephen – Tony Curran
Casting: Tony Curran was a solid choice to play the mercurial Stephen, who is caught up in a civil war with his cousin Maud over who is the rightful heir to the English throne (Maud was the daughter of Henry I, and of course if she’d been a man there would have been very little contest on the issue). Once Stephen more or less successfully ousts Maud, he spends the rest of the series attempting to keep the kingdom from imploding from the fallout of the Anarchy.
- Mostly in materials used for Stephen’s outfits, not so much the construction or fit. Lots of sari fabrics.
- Bonus points to having Stephen in long, ankle-length robes. I love a man in a good long tunic.
William Hamleigh – David Oakes
Casting: William’s character in this adaptation comes off as far more one-dimensional than in the book, so there’s not much room to really stretch one’s acting abilities. That said, David Oakes does have moments where you can see the tortured young man come through the brutish bully exterior.
- He wears a pretty nondescript tunic and overcoat for much of the series, when he’s not wearing armor. The one stand-out exception is his wedding suit which I think is a pretty darn good stab at 12th-century upper-class menswear.
If you’re interested in more information about 12th-century clothing, check out the following:
What did you think of the costumes in The Pillars of the Earth? Share your thoughts in the comments!