Saturday, May 31, 2014

Costume Spotlight | The Devil's Whore: Seventeenth-century Masks and Gender Debates

For a few years now I have loved a mini-series called 'The Devil's Whore' that was released in 2008. As the seventeenth century is my favourite historical period, especially in England, and the main period of my own academic research, it's refreshing to not only see a production that deals with the period (this century is severely under represented), but one that does it well.

Essentially, the mini series details the life and times of the fictional Angelica Fanshawe throughout the period of the English Civil War (late 1630s- early 1650s). Through this fictional aristocratic character (Andrea Riseborough) we are brought into contact with Oliver Cromwell (Dominic West), Edward Sexby (John Simm) and Thomas Rainsborough (Michael Fassbender), to name just a few. Recently a new series was released which claims to be it's sequel, called 'New Worlds' (although not nearly as well written, researched or as entertaining as 'The Devil's Whore', and very loosely tied to it).

Although some of the characters are a tad under developed and some scenes lacking in background (I read that this was because it was originally commissioned as a 10 part series that was later cut down to four), this series is beautifully filmed and really brings to life the grittiness of war ravaged seventeenth-century England, thanks in part to the production design and costumes.

The costumes are beautiful and what I love most about this production are the bits of detail that have been added - most of which a viewer would not pick up on unless they knew the period in England quite well.

For example, in the first episode when Angelica is being prepared for her marriage to her cousin Harry Fanshawe, and a man is being whipped in the square outside Whitehall palace, we see a masked woman.

This character in the mini series seems to be a direct reference to a famous etching of 1643 called Winter by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677).

Wenceslaus Hollar, Winter, an etching, 1643. British Museum, London

 Masks were, believe it or not, worn frequently in the streets of England during the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Full faced masks were used primarily to shade the wearer's face from the sun's rays, as the wearers were usually aristocratic women whose pale skin reflected their position in life. Some of these masks have survived and were made from black velvet and silk/leather, such as this one found in the wall of a sixteenth-century building in England. Other masks, such as the one depicted above, and in the film, were used by women to disguise themselves. Samuel Pepys, in a diary entry from 18th February 1667, describes such a woman at a playhouse he attended: 
"And one of the ladies would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him; but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find, out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant 'rencontre' I never heard." 
In the film the girl who is depicted as wearing the mask grabs come pamphlet's of Freeborn John Lilburne, who opposed the powerful rule of Charles I in England. Possibly she was a well-to-do wife or daughter of a cavalier and didn't want to be recognised?

Scenes in the film that depict Angelica Fanshawe in men's clothing, whilst crucial to the story line, were probably also allusions by the screen writers to the gender pamphlet debates of the period.


The anxiety that had surrounded boys playing female parts by dressing as women in Elizabethan playhouses spilled over into the streets of seventeenth-century London in what could be termed a ‘gender crisis’ which was debated through popular media.  Pamphlets from the time reveal fears over its construction on the street by cross-dressing women and men.  In the last years of King James I’s reign (this it, the 1620s) women were accused of dressing and behaving like men and the King even took upon himself to call together his clergymen and to have them “inveigh vehemently against the insolencies of our women, and theyre wearing of brode brimmed hats… [and] pointed dublets…” Popular Jacobean plays such as The Roaring Girl (1607-10) written by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker also reflected these debates.

Front piece to 'The Roaring Girl' by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, 1621

The screen writers of ‘The Devil’s Whore’ were probably more than aware of pamphlets like Hic Mulier (‘The Manlike Woman’), which stated that women had “cast off the ornaments of your sexes” such as “the modest attire of the comely Hood, Cowl, Coif, handsome Dress or Kerchief…  [and]concealing straight gown” and in exchange had taken on a “monstrousness” by wearing “Ruffianly broad-brimmed Hat and wanton Feather… lascivious civil embracement of a French doublet being all unbuttoned to entice…”, and weaved these debates into the story line that concerns Angelica and Joliffe.

Engraving from 'Hic Mulier', 1620, depicting women dressed as men receiving men's haircuts from a barber

Whilst the women's fashions in this film are beautiful, and for the most part, historically accurate, the men are the true peacocks of this mini-series. I love the men's fashions during this period, they were so much more earthy and forgive me, 'masculine', than those of the later eighteenth century.

Van Dyck, 1638 

Men's suit, 1630s, Victoria and Albert Museum

Abraham Bosse 'Valet de chambre' French 1630s

Charles I, 1631

I'd be interested to know how many of these costumes were made specifically for this production, as a lot are usually sourced from costume houses for series such as this.

Anyway, if this hasn't convinced you to watch 'The Devil's Whore' then I'll leave you with a scene from the mini-series!