The Women Taking Anne Boleyn Fascination To Lavish New Heights

On TikTok, cosplayers set the record straight about Henry VIII's ill-fated wives.

by Elisabeth Sherman

Caitlyn Davis has been a history buff ever since her third grade teacher gave her books about the Titanic — but when she discovered the story of Anne Boleyn, it was like someone turned on all the lights in a dark house. She was 17 when Showtime released The Tudors, a saucy 2007 take on Henry VIII and his six wives (Anne was his second). A year later, The Other Boleyn Girl hit theaters. Davis had found her inspiration, her muse.

Today, Davis is, unsurprisingly, a historian who focuses on 16th-century England; at Arizona State University, she studied under one of the historical consultants for The Tudors. But on TikTok, she goes by @ladyb1536, “TikTok’s Official Queen Anne Boleyn,” where she has over 40,000 followers. Davis is one of the most prominent members of TikTok’s Tudor cosplay community, which attracts both history buffs and costume enthusiasts — the hashtag #tudorcosplay has more than 5 million views so far, and it’s only growing in popularity.

England and Wales’ Tudor period (1485-1603) was a bloody game of survival, particularly for women in proximity to powerful men. Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, is the most infamous example of this dynamic: Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and became the head of the Church of England so that he could divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry Anne. She gave birth to future queen Elizabeth I, but never delivered the king his much-wanted son. After just three years of marriage (and after Henry began courting Jane Seymour, Anne’s second cousin who became his next wife), she was accused of adultery, incest, and treason, and beheaded.

Misogyny was rampant in the Tudor court, and it still holds our cultural imagination captive. At a time when women were considered little more than childbearers and political pawns, Tudor queens maximized their agency. Using intelligence, tenacity, and cunning, they gained remarkable power and notoriety — not just Anne, but also Catherine of Aragon, who famously rallied troops during a crucial battle, and Katherine Parr, the first English woman to publish a book under her own name. Even more remarkable is that in an age when it was primarily men who fought wars over the throne of England, three of the six Tudor monarchs were women.

Many women who cosplay this period portray Anne in particular, spending thousands of dollars to do so. Henry VIII and his wives are the most popular subjects of Tudor cosplay, but you’ll also see cosplayers portray Mary Boleyn (Anne’s sister), Mary Tudor (Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon’s daughter), and Lady Jane Grey (Henry VIII’s grandniece, who was queen for just nine days).

In between cosplaying scenes from Anne’s life, Davis breaks down each aspect of the 17-day period in May 1536 between when Anne was arrested and executed (her video on why she had to pay her executor went viral). But there’s another reason for her popularity: Davis cosplays what is probably the most historically accurate costume on the platform.

When most of the country was on lockdown around 2020, Davis worked with costumer Amy Gray to recreate Anne’s gown from the Hever Rose portrait. Dated to approximately 1550 by an unknown artist, it’s the most famous depiction of the queen. Over the course of two years, the pair researched every detail to make sure it adhered to Tudor-era conventions: It’s made from silk velvet, the baubles on the neckline are pewter dipped in gold, a honeysuckle and acorn pattern (a motif that Henry adopted to represent his relationship with Anne) is embroidered on the cuffs. The whole dress is held together by gold pins as would have been the custom at the time. Only the fur on the sleeves is fake. It took a month to make entirely by hand, and if Davis hadn’t been friends with Gray, it would have cost her around $8,000 (she ended up paying $3,000). But for the chance to live as Anne — well, it was all worth it.

Spreading the truth about lives and legacies of Tudor queens is a common theme in this community, in order to reclaim the era for some of the women victimized by it. “Anne is a misunderstood figure who has been betrayed by history,” Jasmine Cooper, who cosplays at @jas_boleyn to her more than 62,000 followers. “I dedicate my life to fighting the misogyny and propaganda spread that [she] is homewrecker who committed incest with her brother.” (There is absolutely no evidence that Anne was ever in an incestuous relationship with her brother, George. Some modern historians believe it’s possible she did commit adultery, in order to produce a much-wanted child with another man, since her husband was known to be impotent.)

The Tudor cosplay community is split into many different factions. Caitlin Davis is one of the most historically accurate Tudor cosplayers, while Jasmine Cooper fights sexist myths. Meanwhile, Emilee Shield — @ourshieldmaiden on TikTok where she has around 35,000 followers — is a costume buff, and a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white world.

Shield is a competitive cosplayer — she was the Needlework category winner in the Cosplay Central Crown Championship in 2022, and won judges’ choice awards at Geek Girl Con in 2018 and 2019. Every weekend, she has a cosplay-related event or photo shoot on her schedule, and she creates content for her TikTok channel daily, so it’s a hobby that takes up most of her time outside her work in the gaming industry. Even the majority of her friends are people she met while cosplaying.

For a 2012 competition, Shield designed and sewed a Tudor-inspired gown modeled after Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, in order to honor a woman who she says “exemplifies what a queen should be.”

“She’s politically educated and she’s running the country while her husband’s in battle,” Shield says. “And I have a soft spot for characters who follow the rules, and don’t end up with a happy ending. She did everything right, and still ended up divorced.”

Between gathering materials, making the pattern, and sewing, the gown took her 500 hours to make. But Shield isn’t interested in detail-for-detail recreations of historical gowns, an expectation that she says is tinged with classism, which is especially notable in the cosplay community. Because cosplay focuses on specific characters or historical figures, almost all participants dress up as Tudor royalty, which requires elaborate costumes and jewelry. That bare minimum requirement, plus the pressure to be historically accurate, might reasonably lead curious newcomers to believe that this hobby is prohibitively expensive.

Shield uses a sewing machine, rather than sewing by hand, and doesn’t bother with the hand-woven linen or silk that would have been used in Catherine’s time. She repurposed thrifted curtains to make her Tudor-inspired gown, and never competes in costumes that cost more than $100 to make.

Shield has faced plenty of pushback while trying to carve out a space for herself as a woman of color in the historical cosplay community. She was driven away from historical reenactment by people who told her that in order to participate she would need to dress as an enslaved person.

“I want to make these communities more accessible for people,” Shield says. “In a sea of white faces, seeing somebody who has brown skin is huge. It would have meant so much to me.”

Shield isn’t the only one who has noticed how important historical accuracy is to Tudor cosplayers. Many help spread the true stories of women with bad reputations. But they also contribute to the community’s propensity for gatekeeping.

“The Tudor [cosplay] community specifically is so fetishistic about accuracy,” says Sumalee Eaton, who sews costumes for theatrical productions on cruise lines, and cosplays as Anne Boleyn and Alicent Hightower from House of the Dragon at @sew.sumalee. “There has been a lot of misinformation and exaggeration spread about the Tudor dynasty, and armchair historians who are passionate about ... setting the record straight.”

“It’s hard to wear that many layers of clothing and not feel regal.”

Ever since Eaton watched the 2001 documentary The Six Wives of Henry VIII in middle school, she harbored a “secret wish” to create her own Tudor gown. But she felt that if she wasn’t using historically accurate materials and sewing her costumes by hand, then they weren’t worth sharing online.

Then in 2022, at the suggestion of a friend, she created a gown also inspired by the Hever Rose portrait. While some Tudor cosplayers argue about the shape of a French hood and whether or not their costumes should feature metal grommets, Eaton fastened her dress together with a zipper. It’s made from magician’s flocking velvet, the cheapest kind money can buy because it’s machine-washable. And the girdle belt that adorns the front of the dress? She constructed it with clip-on earrings held together by fishing wire.

Her video explaining why her Anne Boleyn costume is a “catfish” has more than 260,000 views. She made it in order to pull back the curtain on how a seemingly elaborate costume can be out of affordable materials, to show novices that cosplaying doesn’t have to be intimidating.

Cost and accuracy are afterthoughts to Eaton anyway. The gown lends her Anne’s strength and confidence. As she wrote on Instagram, “I am incredibly aware when I wear that costume of how much space it takes up, and that is powerful.”

Eaton thinks that a big part of the reason Tudor cosplay has surged in popularity is because the silhouette aligns with modern beauty standards. The French hood accentuates the angles of the face, the decolletage is on full display, and, as she puts it, “the waist is snatched.” An interest in British history, and the accompanying fashions, is only being stoked by a deluge of period dramas, including Bridgerton, its spinoff Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, and Outlander which is also getting a prequel of its own.

Perhaps another reason Tudor cosplay is appealing to more and more women is because it affords them the rare opportunity to personify a queen at her most glamorous and extravagant, to draw every eye in the room to her and part crowds as she walks.

“It’s hard to wear that many layers of clothing and not feel regal,” Shield says. “It’s an experience that a lot of people only have on their wedding day. I love being able to feel that way whenever I want.”