It’s not very often that English language movies are made about our favorite time and place, but this year’s Tulip Fever is a rare exception. (It’s set in 1636, so close enough.) Based on Deborah Moggach’s novel of the same name, the movie follows the tangled love lives of a young wife of Amsterdam and her maid against the backdrop of tulip mania, one of the world’s first speculative investment bubbles. I’m going to attempt to avoid discussing the plot as much as possible, except to say that it did have a fair bit more tulips in it than you might have expected of a romantic movie. I was mostly there for the costumes.
Costume designer Michael O’Connor really does deserve and A+ for his efforts. There’s very little that beats the pleasure of seeing a costume on the screen and knowing exactly which extant example served as its inspiration. The entire production is lovely, and I spent a great deal of the movie being charmed by the open weave baskets for carrying chickens, the carpets on the tables, the box style beds, and the scales used for weighing tulip bulbs.
For the majority of the movie, the main character, Sophia, wears outfits in this style. Slight variations on this look were in style from the 1610s though the early 1630s. By 1636, this might be a little out of fashion, but this is my favorite look so I’m happy they went with it. It consists of a skirt and a very long waisted stomacher worn under a very open black gown. And, of course, a giant ruff. The ruffs, when worn, are definitely the best part of the movie’s costumes. When Sophia does wear a hat, it is more modest than the Frans Hals painting, but it is made up of both an under and over cap, so I was pretty pleased.
When Sophia and her husband commission a portrait, she also has a new dress made. This dress is in the style that I normally associate with the 1630s, and there is a distinct break from the fashions of the previous decade. In general, it is characterized by the much higher waist, the lower neckline and the fuller sleeves. This is not a look that I am personally interested in reproducing, but it looks like they did a reasonable job.
Unfortunately, once the romance heats up, the costumes start to suffer. There are a great many of scenes that involve sneaking around in various states of undress. There are also a number of scenes in an ale house which serves as the tulip exchange. (I was skeptical, but it turns out that tulips were not allowed on the official exchange market and really were bought and sold in taverns.) The lower class costumes are okay, but not particularly special. There was a fair helping of what I’d call the standard historical movie sins: men in just shirts or vests over shirts, too much undressed hair, and not enough hats. Sophia generally did have her hair up, but while she owned hats and some fabulous ruffs, she often skipped them.
Still, the movie is very pretty and the upper class costumes are very well done. I was impressed. It’s definitely worth watching for the clothes. There’s just one thing that I can’t help but get nit-picky about: huiks. Huiks, the Dutch veil, are particularly near and dear to our hearts here at Clothing the Low Countries. Normally I’d have just been ecstatic to see them in a movie at all, no matter the quality. But this particular huik isn’t just in the background, it’s serves as a major plot device. Not once, but twice. And it makes a couple of mistakes.
These Wensceslaus Hollar prints give you a fairly good idea of what huiks looked like around the 1630s. The huik in the center is the descendant of the duck billed huik, and the one on the right is the final iteration of the pot lid version. The 1630s mini-lid is objectively silly, and the one in the movie was… more so. I cannot find a movie still to illustrate the problem, but it kind of reminded me of the old style bathing caps that you might see in a 1950s synchronized swimming film. The huik belongs to Sophia’s maid, and it probably would have been more appropriate for her to wear the simple veil or the duck billed version. The huik is also, inexplicably, lined in a bright blue, shiny material. Thankfully, the lining somehow never shows from the front while the huik is being worn, and visually it remains its proper all black. Finally, in the movie, the huik is so unique that it is used twice to identify someone. Which is pretty odd because most crowd scene paintings have half a dozen.
Tom Hollander and Alicia VIkander in Tulip Fever
Alicia Vikander in Tulip Fever and Portrait of Aletta Hanemans by Frans Hals, 1625
Christoph Waltz and Alicia Vikander in Tulip Fever and Portrait of Amalie zu Solms-Braunfels, 1631-32