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Historic Accuracy in Costume Design: The 16th century

I've never been a purist with historical accuracy as long as the changes made have a real reasoning behind (generally a narrative or symbolic one). I will always think that La reine Margot (1994) costume design is one of the most gorgeous and smart designs ever, even if said designs main premise is to purposely bend the period in regards to costume.

But there are certain things that bother me in regards to historical accuracy in costume which I realized when I found myself constantly irritated while watching The other Boleyn Girl (2008). This led me to post a question: when is it right to bend history? why is it interesting sometimes? whilst other times it's simply horrendous?

To me, when these changes are made for the narrative's sake, I'm usually on board (like the 2012's "Anna Karenina" designs, which mixed 1870's fashion with 1950's fashion in order to enhance the sense of theatricality and falsehood in Imperial Russia). But when these changes are done out of a purely modern aesthetic sensibilities, it irritates me beyond believe. In other words; when the changes are only done in order to pander more to the current fashion. These changes are really unbearable.

Unfortunately, one of the time periods that is mostly affected by this pandering is the 16th century fashion which had many aesthetic elements that by today's standards of beauty might be considered too ugly for a modern audience to deal with.

So let's go over those commonly changed elements of the 16th century fashion. These are ranked by how much they annoy me (from least annoying to God-please-kill-me annoying)

Should we do some sort of up-do?

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Most people might not know, but up until very recently in the history of mankind (and by that I mean the 20th century) wearing your hair loose in public as an adult woman was actually frowned upon. Because of this, no decent woman in the 16th century would have worn her hair like that in public.

Yes, we've all heard that non-married women would wear it loose until married. It's actually a lie. CHILDREN did wear their hair loose, but no girl over 12 would have that hairstyle in polite society. Once you became a "woman" you would start using up-do's rather than loose hair.

But what about Elizabeth's coronation painting? She's wearing her hair loose there...

"Queen Elizabeth I" by unknown English artist

Well, the reason is very simple. The loose hair was usually used in art to depict saints and the Virgin Mary. Because of this, Queens (at least in England) were crowned sporting this look. The Queen of England was a saintly figure, and adopting this look turn her, at the eyes of the common people in a saint herself. Still, this was only done in CORONATIONS. Not as a regular style.

"Elizabeth I, The Virgin Queen" (2005) TV mini-series

By the time those collars came to be fashionable, Elizabeth had been queen for a decade, at least. By then, she wore WIGS, not her own hair. And definitely not loose.

Shakespeare in love is a repeat offender on the issue. Viola's character is shown almost every time sporting her golden locks completely loose, and she's definitely not a Saint nor the Queen of England getting crowned. So we'll sin that one.

We'll also sin The Tudors as serial offenders (they are very much present in this list, as you'll see) in this regard. At least in Shakespeare in love they tried to do a Renaissance style of loose hair (albeit only worn in paintings), here... they just go for fashionable 2000's. Good work.

 Even a movie that is generally good with historical accuracy such as is Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) falls for this one.

This is a very common mistake in movies. Mainly because they are trying to pander to a modern preconception according to which women who wear loose hair are prettier than those who don't.

"The Borgias" (2011) TV series

See? You can have a female character with an historically accurate hairstyle and still have her look gorgeous.

Who needs a chemise?

Her hair might be inappropriate,
but at least she wears a chemise

The chemise was a piece of underwear worn to avoid getting contact burns on your skin. The fabric of 16th century dresses was very heavy and generally rough on your skin, so, under the threat of not being able to enter in contact with anything for a week, you should better use a chemise. It was also used because most of these dresses couldn't be cleaned, so they needed to wear something underneath in order to avoid ruining them forever.

This is a mind-boggling common trend. Why is it so hard to have your ladies wear them? And there's even an easy way to make it look as if there is one, when there isn't...

The Tudors, once again, is trying to get the award for least chemises worn in a TV show or movie. In the picture below, can you see the skin on her arm? yes? that's where the chemise should be then.

Another offender in many categories is the Shakespeare adaptation The merchant of Venice (2004). A most abhorrent film in more ways than just the costume design. Still, the lack of chemise is rather disturbing.

I don't want to know how her boobs ended... really

And once again, The other Boleyn girl is also on the list. I know that for a modern audience this looks better, but it's a really necessary piece of wardrobe when it comes to these dresses.

The lack of chemise ranks low on the things that bother me only because generally it's hard to know if they are wearing one or not. But in the instances where it's perfectly obvious they aren't wearing one where they should... it really bothers me. It's a piece of dress that exists for comfort and it's not particularly strange looking to the modern audience, why then should it be so widely ignored?

How do you wear a French Hood?

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

This is actually a derivative trend from the "woman with loose hair" trend. And it's even more common than the previous one.

So let's step by step. First off: a French hood is not a diadem, it's a hood. So, if you remove the hood part, then it's not a French hood.

This is a French hood.

Painting of Anne Boleyn

The French hood consisted of a rigid coif with a black veil attached to the back, covering the back of the wearer's head. Because of this, the only hair visible was the one at the front.

So, with that clear, you can easily say that the following are NOT French Hoods.

Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)

I really don't know who first had the idea of having women with a hoodless French hood and loose hair, but it's pretty common and it always makes me want to gauge my eyes out.

The Tudors go further and wear them as if they were an Imperial Russian Tiara. And again, hoodless.

But it's The other Boleyn Girl that takes the prize for managing to use it directly as a headband. Well done movie. Really well done.

The French hood not only covered the hair, it also covered the ears. It was not structured as a headband. The coif covered the ears and part of the cheeks and laced beneath the chin. So this is how you should wear it:

Despite the lack of chemise, at least the Hood seems to be good enough
And it might seem stupid, but the veil was always black. Not whatever color matched your dress...

It's actually pretty fascinating to see a movie mess up with the French hood in a scene, then get it right in another and then get it wrong again, but in a different way. Usually movies stay consistent with themselves and whether or not they want to ignore historical accuracy.

No codpiece, for sure

The codpiece was a key element for any 16th century man, and it was popularized by Henry VIII. So then, why so many of his depictions for the screen are lacking a codpiece?

Henry VIII's portrait by Hans Holbein
The codpiece

This is Henry VIII most famous portrait. And as you can see, the codpiece is perfectly visible, and it's also a central element to the get-up.

But despite this, The Tudors, a show about this man, insist on not using it.

Definitely no codpiece

The only movie about Henry VIII where I've seen him wearing a codpiece is The other Boleyn Girl. It's there, but it's rather shy, and you can only see it peak out a moment or two. And no other male character wears it. Mysteries of life.

A similar thing happens in Shakespeare in Love; no character wears it except Colin Firth's villain. Apparently only bad guys and douches wore codpieces.

Will Shakespeare doesn't wear one
But Lord Wessex does

And in The merchant of Venice there is literally nothing to see (forgive the really bad pun, these movies give me a headache). Not one character wears a codpiece. It's a Shakespeare adaptation for heaven's sake! Everyone should wear codpieces.

After years of seeing 16th century set movies with no trace of codpieces, I've reached the conclusion than filmmakers think that their audience will be intimidated by the presence of codpieces and therefore don't use them. I think it's a rather stupid reason to remove such an iconic dress-piece, but whom am I to know...

Shoes are so NOT manly, let's give them boots

Portrait of Francis IX, mid 16th century

This was the standard footwear for men in the 16th century: hose and shoes. Not boots. But somewhere along the line, filmmakers and costume designers decided that hose and shoes were not manly enough, a rather funny fashion that should be changed, and started dressing in boots every single male character in their period pieces.

Every single one of the character in Shakespeare in love wears boots all the time. And they sure look manly, don't they?

Let's clarify something, boots were only used on hunting trips and war, as a way to protect your legs. So, as a gentleman in London, you wouldn't have worn boots to go to court. Am I making myself clear Anonymous?

Not only they wear boots, they also wear black leather (see below)

Nor would they have to wear boots to go to the theater. Right?

The Tudors is another repeat offender (isn't it always?). Henry VIII is always portrayed wearing high black leather boots, even when he's mostly at court.

The same goes for The merchant of Venice. The fact that they are cream colored and not black doesn't make it more historically correct.

There's one movie, though that get's it right. Every movie should look up to Orlando (1992) on that regard. Hose and shoes, that's how it should be done.

Leave it open, it looks better

Tom Hardy in Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen

That's not exactly how you wear a doublet. Just saying. A doublet did not serve the same purpose as jackets do today, even though it has a similar shape. It was not meant to open and close accordingly to how cold or hot where you. It was supposed to stay closed at all times. Here you have a couple of examples.

Portrait of Robert Dudley
Portrait of Sir Walter Raleigh

Wearing your doublet open back then would have been the equivalent of dressing up in a tuxedo and leaving your shirt unbuttoned.

The guiltiest movie in this regard is Shakespeare in love, because, if I'm not mistaken, it was the one that began the trend. Apparently they needed Will to be really, really sexy.

If I remember correctly, he doesn't close it not once in the movie. And he's not alone... Ben Affleck's sexiness couldn't be contained either.

And even Elizabeth, the Golden Age falls for this and has Clive Owen running around with a half open doublet, and boots.... At least it's not as open as the ones before. But this would still have been a big NO-NO if you were to see the Queen.

Colin Firth as John Smith in The new world spends the entirety of the movie running around in an open doublet. But in this case (and only in this case) it can be excused. It is true that explorers, once they were lost in the middle of whatever unknown place, would throw etiquette to the wind, and considered that he spends the movie exploring the coast of Virginia and running around through swaps and Indians... I do believe that he would be dressed like a beggar. I somehow doubt Indians cared for Court etiquette. And he's the first one to wear boots right! Explorers did wear boots in their voyages, as it was a way to protect their legs against vegetations, mosquitoes and whatever else that could kill them.

The trend to have the male leads go around with open doublets is purely there to try and pander to our modern canons of sexiness. And as you know, I don't like pandering.

Leather and Black, THAT'S sexy


For the last half a century, dressing your male character in black leather has become synonym of said character being cool, sexy, dark and generally broody. And that's alright if you are doing the costume design for a new Underworld movie. But it's a big, big NO-NO if you're doing a 16th century movie. Again, this is how a doublet looks like:

Portrait of Robert Dudley

So, it would be really good if they stop trying to make them look like biker gangs.

Yes, Anonymous likes the biker look very, very much. Why? That's actually beyond me.

Besides, considering the wealth of these characters, they wouldn't wear such simple doublets. They would wear embroidered doublets with color (wearing colorful clothes was a symbol of wealth) and jewelry sewn into the clothes.

The Tudors has also been recurrent in their insistence with leather. But that, somehow, never surprised me. He's not even wearing a 16th century style...

The Borgias, a show that is otherwise impeccable when it comes to costume design, also falls for this trope. At least they only do it with Cesare, and it's just the pants. Still, you can tell that they really wanted to make him look sexy.

Funny that the most historically accurate show I've ever seen in regards to this is the COMEDY Blackadder. Shame on you Hollywood.

That's how doublets look like.
Shiny and pompous and with as
much jewelry as possible

We've run out of necklaces, hurry, fetch a ruff!

Once more, let's run through the basics: a ruff is not a necklace. Easy. It needs to be attached to the dress. It can't just float around the actresses necks. Elizabeth I, the virgin queen is a repeat offender on the issue.

This is not how you're supposed to wear a ruff. This is how you wear a ruff:

La Conjura del Escorial

Mary, Queen of Scots (2013)

I guess they fall into the whole floating ruff as a way to have the character wear this very iconic piece of dress and still show some cleavage. Right Tudors?

And I don't even know what this is.

Even a quality show such as the TV mini-series Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren falls for this blaring historical inaccuracy.

The fact that filmmakers feel that they need to disregard history in order to show cleavage is a pretty worrying fact in and on itself. People would not watch the movie if there was no cleavage?

How much do you say it takes to embroider the whole thing?

16th century gowns were heavily embroidered. So why so many costume designers insist on embroidering a random element and then say: "yes, that's good enough" is beyond me.

This is how costumes should look. Not this, Tudors.

The embroidery is not a random decoration. I understand that there's the budget factor and that embroidering takes a very long time and quite the number of resources. Still, It's better not to put any than just randomly embroidering a flower here and there.

What were they trying to do? This is not supposed to be a Sears Spring season T-shirt. Although, leaving it without embroidery is not an option when you literally use different colors in the exact areas where it should be embroidered. Doing that only highlights what's missing.

The whole green area should be embroidered

And then there's the other version: printing your motifs, a technic so anachronistic that when I see a printed fabric in these movies it makes me want to gauge my eyes out. Besides, if you are going to use printed fabric, you  might as well use a correct print, not jut giant flowers.

Haute Couture, much better than your run of the mill Tudor gown....

Dear Lord, give me strength. This section is especially dedicated to the show Reign (2013), because I honestly never thought there could be a show that disregarded historical accuracy even more than The Tudors. Unfortunately, I was utterly wrong.

The show is an historical/fantasy romance following the life and loves of Mary, Queen of Scotland, during her time in France. Note the fantasy side.

"Part of the reason McCarthy (the creator of the show) chose Mary Stuart 

as the subject is because of her life history and multiple husbands, 

which makes her story "sexier"

McCarthy added that the show is designed to be interesting to a 
contemporary audience, so viewers who aren't familiar with history will be 
able to watch and relate to the characters"

This is pulled from an interview with McCarthy about the show. I really think it speaks on its own. Of course, this attempt to be "interesting to a contemporary audience" meant altering the costumes to look nothing like 16th century gowns.

Are you scared yet? Let's look how Mary of Scots should look.

Portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scotts according to Reign
This goes beyond historical inaccuracy. This is directly disregarding history and throwing it out of the window.

I wanted to finish this article by talking about Reign because I think that it's the final expression of all the thought processes that lead to this systematic historical changes in costume. Let's look again at the interview with the creator of the show:

"Part of the reason McCarthy (the creator of the show) chose Mary Stuart 
as the subject is because of her life history and multiple husbands, 

This is the reason behind many of these changes I mentioned before: the loose hair, the open doublets, the use of leather.... many creators consider that historical fashion is not sexy enough and needs to be changed so the audience goes: "wow, I'd bang this character". And that this, will make their movie more successful.

"McCarthy added that the show is designed to be interesting to a 
contemporary audience, so viewers who aren't familiar with history will be 

able to watch and relate to the characters"

"McCarthy described the show as deliberately taking liberties with history, 
and that it's more "entertaining" than history"

Here lies the REAL problem; the conception that history is boring, and that if it doesn't have tons of murder and sex, it's not interesting. That audiences won't like the movie if they see the character dressed in historical clothes, because it's not hip or cool or sexy.

We'll, as a fellow filmmaker, I regret to inform you that if the story is boring is not the history part that's the problem: the writing is the problem. What makes people love a movie is its characters, its humanity, without mattering if they are dressed in 16th century garment or the latest Alexander McQueen design.

These movies or shows that are so hell-bent on "updating" the costumes are, mostly, terrible products from every angle: from direction, to acting, to writing, to photography, etc. That's the reason why you notice how terrible the costumes are. The changes have no other reason than to make them hip and make an "edgy" show.

So stop worrying over the fact that audiences won't be able to connect with a character dressed with a real French hood or a true Ruff or a closed doublet, and start writing good characters into good stories.


  1. You are wrong about queens not wearing their hair down except at coronations. The rule was that they didn't wear their hair down unless they were wearing their crown. There were many, many occasions where the crown was expected or even mandatory attire for the Queen - investitures of noblemen and knights, receiving foreign monarchs and ambassadors, while acting as Regent, post-christening festivities, etc., etc., etc. It's said that Katherine of Aragon wore her hair down as often as she could.

    1. I was not aware of that. Thanks for the heads up! I'll fix it as soon as possible

  2. Even if the stories in the films and movies are good, I still wish the costumes were more accurate. The time period supposed to take place in the PAST, not a fantasy or modern day world. That's what it feels like when you see costumes and settings that are not accurate which is disappointing.

  3. You know, ruffs can be worn without being attached to anything. They use this for every ruff I've ever seen a tutorial on how to make. You know how? STRINGS ON THE BACK. THAT'S HOW. THEY JUST TIE THE STRINGS TIGHT ENOUGH THAT THE RUFF WON'T FALL DOWN, AND THAT'S IT. Stop making it sound like wearing a ruff seperate from clothing is defying the laws of physics and breaking the rules of your little anal worldview.

    1. Hi, first of all, we are weren't saying that it's wrong because it's impossible. We are aware that the ruff is a separate piece of clothing held with strings on the back. What we meant was that it was not worn as you would a necklace. The main reason why it became a separate piece was so that it could be cleaned without having to clean the entire gown with it. We know it won't fall down. It's simply not accurate at all to wear it as shown in the movies mentioned above.
      Secondly, we do our research, I won't deny that sometimes we get things wrong, but I don't believe is the case this time. We dedicate a lot of work to this blog, and we write out of deep love both for historical clothing and movie costume design. We do this because we love it. So we are truly sorry if this article offended you at all, but there is no need to be this rude.
      We are always open to corrections, what's more, we encourage them and always adreds them, we've always done it. We love to keep an open conversation with our readers because there is always something new to learn or improve. But in order to make this communication really work, there needs to be some level of respect on both sides.
      So, once again, sorry if we didn't explain ourselves clear enough or were offensive in some way. I hope we've clarified our stand on what we meant about the ruff.

    2. The article was clearly discussing how to wear a ruff as part of an historical outfit, not how to PUT ON a ruff! I can't even imagine how you understood it this way, or how you didn't question the ridiculousness of the idea before writing such a heated comment with insults and uppercase sentences and everything lol.

    floating ruff

    1. That's not floating, it's part of her chemise. She wears a white "dress" to which the ruff is attached under her main dress. The chemise isn't very visible in this painting, but it's there. A ruff like that would never have been able to stand up that straight against her neck without A some support from a dress that is heavily weighed down by a heavy overdress and B lots and lots of glue.

  5. Reign was a show geared towards teenage girls, who don't really care about historical accuracy. It was about the story of the women itself and old style clothing would have gotten in the way of being able to connect with the character. Perfectly acceptable to do this and Reign, I think went out of its way to break the mold, deliberately and without speaking down to the audience. The art of storytelling doesn't have to be bound by historical fact in all areas.

    It upsets you because you like watching historically accurate period films for the costumes themselves and for some reason you feel like they should cater to your needs only. These films and shows simply arn't geared to your demographic, yah nerd! They're to make money and connect with most other people on the planet.

    I would also prefer very realistic costumes but I am non-autistic enough to understand why the producers and directors do what they do. Remember even players in the middle ages wouldn't have worn AUTHENTIC clothes for the characters they played, they would have worn STAGE costumes that were perhaps a little more colorful, less rich and practical for the art of theatre!

    1. I would kindly point out that had you bothered to read any other of our articles in this blog you might have realized that we KNOW and LOVE the fact that Costume Design sometime chooses to put the story and intent before historical accuracy. But in the end, it's all about intent. And we do think that Reigns "intent" doesn't justify such an enormous deviation from historical accuracy.

      We perfectly understand the role that target demographics play in shaping a media product. We just believe that "it's just for teenagers" does not justify horrible visuals and cheap and lazy storytelling. And yes. What Reign does is talking down to the audience. Teenagers aren't stupid. Media treats them like they can't handle anything. Saying "It was about the story of the women itself and old style clothing would have gotten in the way of being able to connect with the character" is nothing but a cheap excuse that treats young girls as if they are stupid. If clothes keep you from connecting to a character, you have a serious problem with your empathic capabilities.

      Also, why bring up players in the middle-ages. I do not think is that much to ask that media evolves with time. People in the middle ages also put women in barrels and threw them in the river to see if they were witches. Do you also use that justification when someone mentions genre discrimination? Just wondering...

      P.D: really shows depth and maturity using the term autistic as an insult.

    2. Dear OP, these design decisions (or lack of design decisions for that matter) aren't made for the "smart" purpose of appealing to a younger audience or for the sake of "breaking molds", they're made out of sheer laziness and greed. It's like those people thought "Why bother design costumes (any costumes) that vaguely look like they come from another era (any era) when we can just pick up some random designer dresses from Bloomingdales on our way to the set? So what if this isn't a modernized adaptation, it's still easier and sexier, right? Plus, the audience is dumb enough to not know the difference anyway!" How can you not find that offensive?

      @Alba Tejero I salute you! This comment just shows how little people like to think of teenagers or the average audience in general. This person doesn't just not realize how offensive this is, but actually defends it as a valid excuse for making terrible tv.

      P.S: They used the term autistic AND nerd as insults. Very smart and mature indeed.

  6. I thought this little essay was brilliant and it made me laugh out loud. I hate historical inaccuracy largely because I think that it usually reflects mere laziness. I know that film and tv costumes are costumes and probably set to reflect the personality of the character but the ubiquity of the biker look across time periods never ceases to amaze me.

    Musketeers had a brilliant story line - if somewhat reiterated across series but it seemed that accurate costume was only given to some extras and none of the main characters. La Princess Montpensier seemed generally reasonably costumed but cup hilt rapiers in the 1570's, really! Henri IV also seemed reasonable and the wedding festivities scene in La Reine Margot looked fabulous but somewhat less accurate. I could go on but generally European films and even some Russian (1612) seem a bit better than most Anglo-American films/series even when they have great scripts and marvelous actors and just do not need 'sexing up' or to surrender to a contemporary aesthetic.

    Armour and weaponry and military inaccuracies are my main bugbear I have to admit.

    Also it might be noted that the concept of 'the materiality of gesture' in experimental archaeology should be considered by any film creator. I.E. the clothing, especially footwear, you wear influences the way you move and the way you move both expresses and influences the way you feel implying that if you really want to be in character as a historical character the clothing you wear and the implements you use should be as accurate as you can possibly make them. As for other guides then you have only to look at the records of dances and the various treatises on very late 15th and 16th Century European Martial Arts such as by Marozzo, Meyer, George Silver and Saviolo etc.

    If you want to give people a real feel for the period and truly enhance the story accuracy matters.

    Keep up with the good work and all power to your arm.


    1. Thank you so much!!! We've gotten so much heat with this particular article... sometimes people can't handle sarcasm :D. Thank you for the love and we really hope you continue to enjoy the blog! Cheers!

  7. What a great, informative, funny article! But I have seen pictures from the 16th century that have ruffs but still show cleavage. I know I have actually seen a picture from that time where a woman had a dress that not only had a ruff not attached to her dress, but her bodice was cut so that her breasts were shown! To be honest, maybe that was the only time I saw an unattached ruff from the 16th century, I just thought I saw more.

  8. I completely agree with what you said about Reign, even though I still watched it as my little bit of utter (very pretty) trash tv. And I don't know if you saw the last season, but the costumes became infinitely better! They're still guilty of the "no chemise" and "no updo" sin, but they must have had either a massive budget increase, or they decided to listen to their more historically-interested fans, or both. The gowns from season four are gorgeously embroidered also.

    For your viewing pleasure:

  9. Oh my god, this made me guffaw! I had to move into a different room.
    But—I'm not sure if anyone else has mentioned it—but I believe the leather garments are not doublets, but jerkins, which were usually made of leather, although I'm not sure whether or not they were black, and my feeling is that they were usually a light-medium colour, but could be black, as in this painting by Moroni, though it's unclear whether the jerkin is of leather or cloth:
    I totally agree though that there is a gratuitous preponderance of dark, menacing leather in period films and shows of this era, especially The Musketeers, and used not only for jerkins but also and inaccurately, as you mentioned, for doublets.

  10. Ooooooh! Love this blog! Finally someone said "the emperor is naked" to the Tudors (horrible costumes btw). I am suscribing myself right now!


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