totally random

Costume in Historical Fiction

So I love historical fiction. I prefer the well researched, but give me decently written shlock (such as The Other Boleyn Girl) and I’ll read and enjoy it for what it is despite the historical inaccuracies. But something has been getting on my nerves lately, and it’s time to rant!

The latest trend in historical fiction book covers, at least for those books about women, seems to be “photograph of woman in ‘period’ costume, with face cropped or obscured.” Gone are the days of using a portrait of the subject on the cover, or even a somewhat-of-the-era painting. Now, I was okay with this trend as I read The Other Boleyn Girl – nice silhouette, even if that stomacher is large and I’m not too sure what’s going on with her hood. Liked The Queen’s Fool – pretty shade of green, kind of Florentine-esque sleeves, there’s boning in that bodice yay!

But I started to get irritated when I read The Boleyn Inheritance — I’m guessing that’s supposed to be Jane Boleyn or Catherine Howard (it had better not be Anne of Cleves!). Why is her hair down? Why does her bodice fit her so loosely? What’s with the bustline of her lady in waiting?

But I’m drawing the line at Carolly Erickson’s The Last Wife of Henry Viii:

Could they have bought a cheaper fabric (what, Joann’s upholstery remnants too expensive?)? What’s with the crappy rickrack trim? The lack of undersleeve? The bodice silhouette (Were they going for the “most wrinkles on a badly fitted, no underpinnings bodice” award?)? THE CRAPPY PLASTIC PEARLS SEWN TO THE NECKLINE? Pant. Pant. I am filled with hate.

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  • Reply Alyssa January 7, 2008 at 10:20 pm

    You may be filled with hate, but you are clearly made of Awesome. I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets irritated with these covers. I hadn’t seen the last one in your post before, but it is truly atrocious.

  • Reply sewphisticate January 7, 2008 at 10:38 pm

    I think they used the costumes from Showtime’s Henry VIII as inspiration. PVC rocks!

  • Reply Mae January 7, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    ….Wow. That is just… wow.

    Kinda like patrons trying to be fancy at RF. :(

  • Reply anthony C January 7, 2008 at 10:46 pm

    ohh i saw this book at Barnes and Nobles the other day and had the same thoughts of the cover “Widow of the South” i mean is it THAT hard to find something decent? they don’t have to buy patterns from butterick or go to goodwill…

  • Reply jenlemus January 7, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    That one hurts my eyes.

    And I thought the ones with portraits from 400 years later (Regency 16th Century courtesans! Really!) were bad, or even where they’ve combined 2 portraits from 200 years apart (Elizabethan and 18C!).


  • Reply sewaddicted January 8, 2008 at 12:02 am

    Some of the fabrics on other covers have had me want to buy the book, just for the pretties. When they’re as bad as this one, well :grrrrrrrr: how cheapa$$ and I always think less of the contents.

  • Reply Kendra January 8, 2008 at 3:16 am

    What I don’t understand is why they don’t go to a decent costume shop (opera, theater) and rent something! God forbid they go to Cosprop in the UK for somethign really nice!

  • Reply Lauren Reeser January 8, 2008 at 4:34 am

    Hi! You don’t know me, but I have to say you are ABSOLUTELY RIGHT! I was appalled at The Boleyn Inheritance image, and can only guess that they used the newest “Elizabethan” Simplicity pattern, which in itself has so many things wrong. Your pick for all-time-worst tops it, though. WOW…it’s enough to make one stop reading the stuff…or maybe the bad cover images match the bad writing :-).

  • Reply RFLupin January 8, 2008 at 6:08 am

    I know very little about that era of fashion history, but even I went “Whoa. On crack much?” when I saw the last one. Looks like they took a paper bag and attatched some faric to it and, TA DA! We have achieved a cover!
    And something in the same vein, have you seen the covers for the books written by Libba Bray? They’re a triology, the first one being called “A Great and Terrible Beauty.” (The third one came out just after Christmas and I’m still hacking my way through it. There’s much in the way of Great Personal Angst by the main character.) Anyway, two of the three covers have a sort-of back view of a girl in a corset, and the fit looks off to my relatively untrained eye. They edges are really close, and on the first one, they’re doing this weird “let’s make a V” thing. It bugs me, but the books are entertaining regardless.
    And a last note here- I really enjoy visting your site; it is extremely informative and inspirational. Yay for you!

  • Reply Anonymous January 8, 2008 at 6:53 am

    I am such a sucker for period costumes that I will gravitate towards these books in order to examine the clothes on the covers, only to turn away in disgust. This one takes the cake, and your description (JoAnn’s remnants being too expensive) cracked me up. :-)

    Lauren from

  • Reply Kate in England January 8, 2008 at 3:42 pm

    What’s really depressing is they probably paid someone a lot of money to make that, and to ‘style’ the cover… le sigh.

  • Reply Kendra January 8, 2008 at 6:28 pm

    The saddest thing is that Carolly Erickson is a historian-turned-fiction writer, so her stuff is actually decently researched! There’s no need to make it look like such trash via the cover. I wonder if the authors get any say in their cover images?

    Jen: yeah, I used to think the 50-100 years out of date painting was bad, but I’d take that any day!

  • Reply Bunny January 8, 2008 at 8:14 pm

    LOL. Thankyou! *heart* it when you rant. The JoAnn upholstery joke roars. Hahaha!

  • Reply Christine January 10, 2008 at 11:25 am

    I agree wholeheartedly, there is no excuse when there are so many Opera and theatre sources to hire a decent costume. The author must have been SPITTING when she saw the proof of the cover. But then everyone is not as knowledgeable or obsessed as we all are, and probably think near enough is good enough. I can certainly understand why the “model” didn’t want her face shown, LOL, not really a picture to add to HER portfolio, is it?
    Christine in Sydney Australia.

  • Reply Andrew January 16, 2008 at 9:17 pm

    Oh you should see the Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette!

  • Reply Anonymous January 17, 2008 at 5:52 am

    I realize I’m probably taking it too far, but the one that drives me absolutely nuts is “Pope Joan” by Donna Wolfolk Cross. The cover is actually quite attractive. It features a portrait of a young woman in a red doublet bodice by Clouet. But the book is set in, I think, the 10th century.

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