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The Other Boleyn Girl: A look into the "Cranach" Gown

The Other Boleyn Girl is a feature film directed by Justin Chadwick that premiered back in 2008. It's based on a novel by Philippa Gregory and it's a movie about the two Boleyn sisters: Mary and Anne, whom both became the mistress of the infamous Henry VIII. It’s the story of a sibling rivalry that plays out during one of the key moments of the history of England; Henry’s break with the Catholic Church.


The Boleyns are an impoverished English noble family that wants to climb the social ladder of the Tudor Court. For that, they will push their daughters into the King’s bed. First Mary, and then Anne. But, whilst Mary is a sweet and tender girl who does only what her father asks of her, Anne, ambitious and cunning, goes the extra mile. She goes behind her sister’s back and starts courting the king. She then decides to refuse the King, who at this point is madly in love with her, unless he marries her. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that he's already married to Katherine of Aragon. Anne convinces him that if he marries her, she will give him the male heir he so desperately wants. Driven by his lust, Henry decides to divorce his wife, but the Pope refuses to approve it.  In his wrath, Henry decides to break off ties with Rome and name himself “head of the Church of England”. This allows him to divorce from Katherine but also unleashes great conflict within the country. Nonetheless, he marries Anne and crowns her Queen of England. Unfortunately, she gives birth to a girl, not the promised heir. Henry, accuses her of being a witch and adulterous and has her head chopped off.

It must be highlighted that this movie a highly fictionalized version of history. All these characters did exist, and the pivotal key facts did happen, but after all, it is a Hollywood version of their stories (which means that a real complex and interesting story is played out as a mere tumultuous romance).

Despite all this, my main problem with this movie is not the “soap opera” feel of the story; is the unoriginality, lack of effort of the dress designer and the questionable choices he makes.

It’s not a terrible design (it’s not like “The Tudors” TV show), it’s just lazy. It feels like they opened the studios’ dress catalog and picked those that fitted the time period, and didn’t put any effort into thinking what was best for each moment.

But, to add insult to injury, two of the dresses they picked are terribly misplaced; it’s the ones I call the “Cranach” Gowns. These appear early in the movie and only in a couple of scenes, but these actually manage to bugger the life out of me.

Both Portman and Johansson are dressed in "Cranach"'s gowns

The problem with these gowns is not that it’s out of period (which it isn’t) it’s that is out of place: this is a German - Saxon Renaissance dress, not English. 

This is a style of gown that has been introduced to the public by Lucas Cranach The Elder’s paintings. The 16th-century German painter always depicted females with this same style of dress.

Three Saxon Princesses by Lucas Cranach The Elder

This type of gown has become very recognizable: its red velvet bodice trimmed with gold which is laced tightly across the stomach, revealing a smooth white underneath and its extremely full skirt that falls in tubular pleats with a wide brocade trim at the bottom, are its most distinct elements.

Here we can see a whole body
take on the dress

From Cranach’s work, one might be lead to believe that the women of the early 16th century Germany were all running around in these tubular pleats. But many people have questioned whether this style actually existed at all, or whether it was only a product of the painter’s fanciful imagination. Why would anyone think that? Because no actual gown has survived to this day. The closest looking gown is one that belonged to Mary of Hapsburg and dates back from the 1520s.

This dress belonged to Mary of Hapsburg
and dates back from the 1520s

While this gown has a certain resemblance to a Cranach Gown, it’s still not similar enough to pose a defining proof of the existence of this type of dress. The gown differs, especially, in the type of sleeves and bodice. But, taking into account that Cranach himself did do different versions of the dress, this may be, after all, a “Cranach” gown.

A slight variation in the style

The dress in black velvet is not
common in his paintings

Despite this, I do believe that the “Cranach” Gown did exist, even though it might have been nothing more than a short-lived trend highly concentrated in the Saxon Electorate.

But I'm going way off topic now. Let’s go back to today's issue: the gowns in “The Other Boleyn Girl”. 

Both characters wear different spins on the Cranach Gown: Portman’s gown has a high neck, whilst Johansson’s gown has a neckless bodice (much more common in Cranach’s paintings). 

Portman's (Anne Boleyn) "Cranach"'s gown
This Cranach painting is wearing a dress
almost identical to Portman's
Scarlet's (Mary Boleyn) dress is also a variation
of Cranach's Gowns
Although Scarlet's dress is much more simple,
the bodices are pretty similar
The collar area of both dresses is almost identical

I must grant them that they do look really nice. These are not cheap dresses. And whoever designed them, did pay attention to detail. But all this effort is useless. Both dresses stick out like a sore thumb for one simple reason: these are not English Tudor gowns. This is a movie about Anne Boleyn, she should be dressed in English fashion. If they wanted to use the "Cranach" gown they should have done a movie about Anne of Cleves.

These are English gowns of the Tudor period:

This is a portrait of young Princess Elisabeth,
the future Elizabeth I

Another portrait of young Elisabeth

The differences are pretty easy to spot. The bodice is completely closed (no lacing) and the sleeves are always wide and plain. There are no tubular pleats skirts either, these are heavy skirts that fall down regally. And the head coiffure is clearly different. This kind of coiffure was very distinct by its shape; this coiffure was also common in France and Spain, but it was differently shaped.

Funny enough, the rest of the gowns in this movie do fit this description.

This one is actually very similar to the
second portrait of Elisabeth

Mary and Anne wearing the "typical" Tudor dress

Anne with her iconic green dress. Note how
different it is from the Cranach dress

All in all, I really don’t understand why they used these specific dresses for this movie, knowing that they were the only ones that actually steered away from the historical accuracy of the movie.

But right now, the question most of you will be asking is; is it really that important? 

It is. This is, after all, a historical piece. Why do it if you are going to ignore the period? This only makes sense when, as a director, you create a world detached from its historical reality. Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina” is a fine example of this: it’s all shot within a theater as if the character are actors playing their roles (as to criticize the stiffness of Imperial Russia). The moment you do that, “historical accuracy” flies down the window and you can have as much freedom as you want in your costume design (the movie, in this case, mixes 19th-century Russian design with 1950s American design which creates a very unique and interesting world). But if you’re striving to do a regular historical piece, as this movie does, then you cannot take these licenses. Even if most people won’t notice.

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