‘Wolf Hall’: Intelligent, Subtle, Artistic—But Meticulous Costumes Have Stolen the Show

March 4, 2015 Updated: March 4, 2015

We’ve seen the hotly anticipated release of Hilary Mantel’s books and the stunning success of their adaptations for the stage. Now the TV adaptation, starring Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis, is drawing to a close.

The final installment of the BBC’s six-part “Wolf Hall” sees the fall of one queen and her retinue. In a brilliant shift of emphasis, the death of one queen marks the rise of another. Thomas Cromwell now stands, again, at the beginning of a tangled series of webs and relationships he is expected to manage, tease apart, and carry, on increasingly sagging shoulders.

It is no secret that the mastermind behind the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn will be the next to fall victim to the complex power relationships of the Henrician Court. Kosminsky’s masterful and dazzling adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels to date neatly sets the stage for, presumably, a television sequel as eagerly awaited as Mantel’s own conclusion to the tale.

“Wolf Hall” has stood apart as intelligent, subtle, artistic viewing. All kinds of aspects of the show have been analyzed and admired, but what particularly stood out to me as outstanding was the costumes.

Looking Back in Time

The quality and authenticity of the settings has been commented on widely. Much praise has been heaped on the use of locations such as Montacute for “authenticity.” A closer look shows that the care and attention paid to the environment went beyond the superficial use of locations, permeating every aspect of the storytelling. Some commentators, notably Catherine Fletcher, have referred to the challenges of getting the material and visual culture of the Tudors right, and “whether screen history engages with what we know.” The answer is definitely an emphatic yes.

The care and attention paid to the environment went beyond the superficial use of locations, permeating every aspect of the storytelling.
The costumes and fabrics in “Wolf Hall” reflect the very best of contemporary scholarship on the look and feel of Henry’s Court. Take, for example, the meticulous attention that has been paid to the dressing of the protagonists, notably Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas Cromwell.

Anne wears the French hood contemporaries always commented on, dressed in very strong colors, while Henry VIII, on the other hand, wears garments of considerable intricacy, often cloth-of-gold, decorated with sumptuous embroidery, and supplemented by jewelry. Anne’s clothing is laced; Henry’s is fastened by buttons. Anne’s clothing is best shown off inside, Henry’s emphasizes his athleticism and outdoor sportsmanship.

Cromwell perpetually dresses in black, but a closer look reveals the change in the status of the man, as wool and linen give way to increasingly voluminous fur-lined cloaks and of the most sumptuous black dye. Black was the color of the professional man, so Cromwell denotes his status in his dress throughout “Wolf Hall” as the professional who faithfully serves his master. In doing so, he gains in significance and draws ever closer to the center of power.

As the series progresses, Henry’s and Cromwell’s relationship becomes increasingly tactile, as Cromwell stands closer to the monarch and spends less time observing in the shadows. Of course, this new visibility means he makes himself vulnerable—and we all know how this will end.

Storytelling With Costume

But I don’t only admire the costume for its accuracy. Like the use of dress in contemporary Tudor portraits, it has also been used here to add additional layers to the unfolding of the narrative itself.

Watch for example the way clothing is used to tell emotional stories. In the case of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, their early scenes show a couple often dressed in vivid, brilliant, and often contrasting colors, the other figures of the courts appearing colorless and pale in comparison to the drama that attaches itself to the protagonists.

Clothing is also used to tell emotional stories.
Then there follow scenes where Anne and Henry wear complementary colors, fashioned from similar material, their common purpose reflected in their garb. Toward the end, Anne dresses increasingly in red, often holding flame-haired Elizabeth in her lap, with Henry choosing muted colors, which makes the closing sequence of the series all the more shocking. Note how the somber colors worn by Anne and her ladies-in-waiting on Tower Green give way to the exuberant gold and red of a jubilant Henry, who again dons his courting robes from earlier in the series, this time in honor of Jane Seymour. Color and clothing makes power relationships visible.

Many of the scenes are framed enclosed by walls, by hedges, by courtyards. Events unfold that are only ever visible to a small group of spectators. Rare indeed are the occasions when the actions in Wolf Hall are played out in bright sunshine and to a crowd, and for those crowds of onlookers, of eyewitnesses, the clothes of the protagonists tell the story they remember.

The intricacies ad subtleties of the dangerous power games at the heart of court remain largely invisible, and of course, they center around the ever still and always dark-clad figure of Thomas Cromwell. The colors of the courtiers swirl and change around Cromwell, yet he alone never changes his colors (so to speak) and remains the emotional anchor and center of Mantel’s complex story.

After all, as Stephen Greenblatt once wrote, the Tudor Court is about self-fashioning an identity. Performance is at the heart of these relationships and they become nowhere more visible than in the small details of the fabrics of “Wolf Hall.”

Gabriele Neher is an assistant professor of the history of Art at the University of Nottingham in the U.K. This article was previously published on TheConversation.com.