Anne Boleyn – the Glass of Fashion

“She was unrivalled in the gracefulness of her attire, and the fertility of her invention in devising new patterns, which were imitated by all the court belles, by whom she was regarded as the glass of fashion” / Nicolas Sander “The Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism”/

Although Nicolas Sander is the author of many myths about Anne Boleyn, he certainly was right when he described Anne Boleyn’s immaculate taste for fashion. Anne Boleyn  had olive skin and ‘black eyes’ – features not so popular in 16th century England where pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes were the most desirable traits in a woman.

Nicolas Sander, who was no contemporary witness of Anne’s life at court, wrote that she had many deformations like projecting tooth, six fingers on right hand and a large wen under her chin. But the next sentences are describing Anne as;

“(…) handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth, amusing in her ways, playing well on the lute, and was a good dancer. She was the model and the mirror of those who were at court, for she was always -well dressed, and every day made some change in the fashion of her garments.” (Nicolas Sander “The Rise and Growth of Anglican Schism” p. 25).

Although for centuries historians are echoing the statement of Agnes Strickland that:

“In Anne, the more powerful charms of genius, wit, and fascination triumphed over every defect which prevented her from being considered a perfect beauty, and rendered her the leading star of the English court” (“The Lives of the Queens of England”, p. 578)

I believe that Anne was a beautiful and charismatic young woman but her unconventional beauty did not make her the perfect courtly beauty. However she attracted attention with her intelligence, temper and something that today we call “sex appeal”.

French influence

There is no exaggeration in Sander’s words that ‘every day Anne made change in the fashion of her garments’. Agnes Strickland described Anne’s dress:

“While at the French court her costume was a cap of velvet, trimmed in points, a little gold bell hanging from each point; a vest of the same material with silver stars, a jacket of watered silk with large hanging sleeves that almost concealed her hands, and a skirt to match. Her feet were encased in blue velvet slippers, with a strap across the instep, fastened with a diamond star. Her hair fell in ringlets about her shoulders.” (p. 381)

Josephine Wilkinson in “Anne Boleyn: a young Queen to be” states that such a gown was probably designed for a special occasion, perhaps a pageant but it is also possible that Anne liked to experiment with her fashion.

Anne Boleyn was sent to France in 1515 and there she was observing how the fashion developed. When she returned from France in 1521/1522 she was considered to be more like a Frenchwoman than an Englishwoman. Anne was fond of French fashion and she manifested it almost all the time – she favoured French hoods rather than heavy and unflattering English gable hoods.

Before she became Queen

Before Anne Boleyn became Queen of England, she was Henry VIII’s fiancée and he often showered her with magnificent gifts. Henry’s Privy Purse accounts have survived for the years 1529-32 and they reveal what Henry was buying for Anne. Professor Eric Ives writes that “much of the expenditure went on clothes” (p. 156).

Those are only some of the expenses from king’s Privy Purse:

Holbein's 'Unknown Lady' with inscription 'Anna Bollein Queen'

December 1530 : ‘Itm the same day paid to Adington the skynner for furres & furrying of my Lady Anne’s gownes’

May 1531 : ‘Crymsin clothe of golde for my Lady Anne Rocheford’

June 1532 : ‘twelve yards of black satin for a night gowne for my Lady Anne’

Anne Boleyn and Henry enjoyed hunting and this activity required a special costume and accessories. Henry presented Anne with hunting gloves, dress and her own set of arrows.

In September 1532 Anne Boleyn was made Marquis of Pembroke in her own right. This was a magnificent ceremony and an occasion for Anne to shine:

“There, her hair about her shoulders and her ermine-trimmed crimson velvet hardly visible under the jewels” (Eric Ives, “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, p. 158)

In 1532 Henry VIII purchased a beautiful black satin nightgown for Anne. Back then nightgowns had the role of modern day dressing gown and it was a common practice to receive guests in one’s nightgown. What is very interesting, one of Holbein’s drawings inscribed as “Anna Bollein Queen” shows a sitter in a nightgown, undercap and chemise. Although many historians dismissed the possibility that the sitter is indeed Anne Boleyn, there is still a little room for speculation.

Anne the Queen

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn

On her coronation day in June 1533 Anne Boleyn looked very beautiful:

“going under a rich canopy of cloth of gold, dressed in a kirtle of crimson velvet decorated with ermine, and a robe of purple velvet decorated with ermine over that, and a rich coronet with a cap of pearls and stones on her head; and the old duchess of Norfolk carrying her train in a robe of scarlet with a coronet of gold on her cap, and Lord Burgh, the queen’s Chamberlain, supporting the train in the middle.”

Although many documents from Anne’s time as Queen were destroyed, luckily there is an account of Anne Boleyn’s expenditure for clothes in period from January to April 1536. Professor Ives describes:

“This tells of Anne buying gowns in tawny velvet with black lambs’ fur, in velvet without fur, in damask, and in satin furred with miniver; a russet gown in caffa (heavy silk), two in black velvet, one in black damask, one in white satin and a second with crimson sleeves; a gown in purple cloth of gold lined with silver, and new carnation satin from Bruges to insert into the sleeves of a gown of tissue. There were eight nightgowns, two embroidered and another in russet trimmed with miniver; and three cloaks – of black Bruges satin, of embroidered tawny satin and of black cloth lined with black sarcenet – while Arnold the shoemaker had eight lots of black velvet to make shoes and slippers. Thirteen kirtles included white satin and white damask, black velvet embroidered and crimson satin ‘printed’, with matching sleeves.” (p. 252)

In Henry VIII’s inventory there were at least two pairs of sleeves for women (very important part of the gown) identified as belonging to Anne:

‘one of white satin embroidered over with purled gold acorns and honeysuckles tied with ten pairs of aiguilettes of gold’ and the other ‘of cloth of gold embroidered with a great trail of purled gold with honeysuckles tied with ten pairs of aiguilettes of gold’. (p. 253)

Anne’s gowns very often adorned with jewels:

such as the nineteen diamonds set in trueloves of gold which Hayes supplied in January 1532, along with twenty-one rubies and twenty-one diamonds set in gold roses and hearts. Anne’s liking for French hoods was costly too, at £9 for the jewelled billament.” (p. 253)

Can you imagine Anne Boleyn in such sophisticated dresses?

Anne cared not only for her own fashionable look, but she also supplied her almost three year daughter Elizabeth with elaborate gowns. Professor Ives described how in three months period Anne supplied her daughter with:

“a gown of orange velvet, kirtles of russet velvet, of yellow satin, of white damask and of green satin, embroidered purple satin sleeves, a black muffler, white ribbon, Venice ribbon, a russet damask bedspread, a taffeta cap covered with a caul of gold. Anne, apparently, was especially fussy about her daughter’s caps: one made of purple satin required at least three journeys to Greenwich to get it right.” (p. 253)

Upon her death Elizabeth had a wardrobe of 2.000 gowns and she certainly shared her mother’s taste for fashion. Some sources claim that Elizabeth felt the need to buy herself new dresses because after her mother’s death, Elizabeth had to wear her old clothes – often the ones that she already grown up from.

Arrest, trial and execution: the meaning of Anne Boleyn’s attire

Anne's execution in "The Other Boleyn Girl"

Anne Boleyn certainly knew the rule ‘dress to impress’. Fashion was a part of demonstration of power and wealth. Anne knew that perfectly well. When on 2 May 1536 three men came to tell Anne that she was accused of adultery, she was allowed to return to her chambers for lunch. But the first thing she did after returning to her rooms was to get changed into a new dress. She was probably aware that she will be arrested and she wanted to look every inch a Queen. She chose a splendid gown of crimson velvet with a cloth of gold kirtle. 

On her trial Anne Boleyn wore “a gown of black velvet over a petticoat of scarlet damask and a small cap sporting a black-and-white feather” (Alison Weir, “The Lady in the Tower”, p. 270)

Even on the day of her execution Anne Boleyn looked immaculate in her black damask gown lined with fur, mantle trimmed with ermine and English gable hood. She wore also a crimson kirtle.

Every part of Anne’s gown had its meaning:

-          Although through her life Anne favoured French hoods, on 19th of May she wore English gable hood; although many described her a “Frenchwoman rather than an Englishwoman” and she was famous for her pro-French views, on the last day of her earthly life she wanted to accent that after all she was wholly English, and the Queen till the end;

-          Ermine fur was reserved for the Royal family: Anne emphasized the fact that she was dying every inch a Queen;

-          Crimson kirtle probably had a meaning as well – crimson was associated with Christian martyrs and thus Anne used it to emphasize her innocence. Years later Mary Queen of Scots will do exactly the same thing by wearing a scarlet bodice and petticoat on the day of her execution.

We can certainly say that Anne Boleyn was ‘the glass of fashion’ and that she made a great impact on the whole English court.

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11 Responses
  1. Phyllis Wolf says:

    Greatly enjoyed the article on the fashion of Queen Anne! Most interesting; I can only wish we had more portraits of her that exhibited her tastes in fashion, especially garments with symbolic images.

    Hope I am chosen for the give away; I am trying rebuild my Tudor Library after having lost it. It takes much more money now than it did year ago to replace the 200+ books I had on British history. I collected everything from historical fiction (I love “what if” stories) to serious works by respected historians.

    My first book was given to me by my brother. He had taken a history course in college and the required reading list included Frazer’s “Mary, Queen of Scots”. He gave it to me when I took the same course so I could save a little money by not having to buy the book. I was hooked after the first chapter!

    Best regards and I look forward to further exploring your website. It looks marvelous! Simply marvelous!

    Phyllis Wolf

    • Sylwia says:

      Hello Phyllis, thank you for your comment! :-)
      The give away will take place on 9 March :-)
      That is so sad that you have lost your books! How did it
      happen if I may ask?

  2. josine demelenne says:

    like this .josine

  3. Stephanie says:


    You know that I am a fan of your beautifully written articles! Thank you for posting an article on Anne’s fashion! :-)

  4. Areti says:

    God…every time I read and learn more things about her the mnore interested in her I become! What more can I expect for this woman..? She is indeed a figure much more to be admired than liked! <3 I wish that justice will be made for her some day and all those 'evil' comments about her will vanish! :|

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