I Like Big Cuffs And I Cannot Lie: Anne Boleyn’s Hanging Sleeves
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. Of course, she dressed in this manner only when she was very young; later, when she lived in England, her costumes were very different. She had one serious defect which, however, she managed to conceal with her long sleeves. It was a deformity of the little finger of the left hand which some chroniclers say was divided and formed two fingers.
— Agnes Strickland, Lives Of The Queens Of England
While Agnes Strickland’s description of Anne’s clothing has largely fallen by the wayside (although the silver stars and watered silk do make an appearance in Jean Plaidy’s books at least), one of these wardrobe items has flourished in fiction — that item is, of course, the “hanging sleeves” with which Anne supposedly concealed a sixth finger. The allegation that Anne had polydactyly was of course first promulgated by Nicolas Sander in the late 16th century, later to be partially rebutted by George Wyatt’s assertion that at most she had a “double nail”, but neither of these gentlemen mentions anything about her sleeves. (Sander does assert that Anne wore high-necked dresses in order to conceal a wen, and “in this she was followed by the ladies of the court” — unlikely, judging from portraits of the time). As far as I know, Strickland is the first author to make a connection between a sixth finger and hanging sleeves. Which leaves us with a number of questions, including “To what degree was this based in reality?” and “What exactly is a hanging sleeve, anyway?”
Last things first — according to Herbert Norris’s Tudor Costume And Fashion hanging sleeves were “long loose over-sleeves, cut as an oblong about twenty-five inches wide and forty inches long, although sometimes falling to the hem of the skirt … these oversleeves were gathered or pleated into the armhole, starting from the shoulder and going round the back to the armpit.” (p.627) If you’re having trouble visualizing (as I did), a portrait showing such sleeves prominently can be seen here. These sleeves were designed as a sort of counterbalance to the leg-of-mutton sleeves popular during the latter half of Elizabeth’s reign and were rare to nonexistent before 1580. Anne could not have worn these, and even if she had, their design seems an unlikely one for covering up extra digits — unless, of course, they were meant to be so distracting that people wouldn’t look below her shoulders. As far as I know, only one book has given Anne “hanging sleeves” which meet the real definition of such, and that’s Anne Boleyn (1932).
Why did she wear sleeves falling in drapery from the shoulder, which gave her the look of a winged thing as she glided to and fro through the great halls at Blickling and Hever Castle? Her disgrace — as she thought it, in sickening, angry solitude. On the left hand a little blemish — a tiny indication of a sixth finger beneath the fifth.
This hanging sleeve had one predecessor — in The Favor Of Kings (1912) Anne conceals her “double nail” with a “newfangled pointed sleeve” which is regrettably not elaborated on. Many, many other “hanging sleeves” would follow, most of them designed by Anne herself, but their descriptions have little to do with Elizabethan hanging sleeves, or the turned-back sleeves with enormous cuffs popular in Anne’s day and most famously seen in Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour. In Brief Gaudy Hour (1949) her sleeves sound like what Norris describes simply as wide sleeves — narrow at the shoulders, but enlarging below the elbow. “With the help of her sewing woman she designed a full, hanging sleeve which afforded cover for her blemished left hand. Lined with silver taffeta, such sleeves were immensely effective against her gown of midnight blue ….. a new French fashion was born. The Boleyn sleeve.” In Murder Most Royal from the same year, the description is straight out of Strickland: “The sleeves of her surcoat hung below her hands, hiding them … even now the ladies of the court were striving to copy those long hanging sleeves.” Surcoats, according to Norris, were more of a Spanish fashion, as were long cuffs or “flounces” (216) so while it’s not chronologically impossible for Anne to have worn one, for someone brought up to French fashions it does seem unlikely.
Other hanging sleeves are even more chronologically distant than the Elizabethan variety: “Her gown was a rich ruby red, with most unusual long sleeves that reached almost to the floor,” we learn in Reap The Storm (1998), and The Boleyn Wife (2007) tells us how Anne designed “a new style of sleeve, worn long, full and flowing, over wrist-length undersleeves” — these are not the only books in which Anne sounds suspiciously like she’s wearing a bliaut, which, attractive as it is, was about as close to her era’s fashions as Tudor fashions are to us. And in Sow The Tempest (1962) Anne “affected long ruffles to her sleeves,” which doesn’t give us a very clear picture unless it means that her undersleeves (as in Jane Seymour’s portrait) simply covered her hands a bit more than usual.
Anne herself is usually the designer of these sleeves, unsurprisingly — it’s a good way to establish her as a clever, fashion-forward character. In The Concubine (1963) Henry Percy remembers the young Anne: “Young. Gay. And she never had any money. Her father — well, you know him, avaricious and mean. He could never realise that a girl at Court needed clothes. So she used to contrive things; she could do marvels with a yard of ribbon … and never sorry for herself about it; she’d laugh, particularly when other women copied her tricks.” Very occasionally, someone else is the designer: in Anne, The Rose Of Hever (1969), it’s Marguerite D’Alencon’s dressmaker who does the honours. “I have a clever dressmaker who will make you a gown with long hanging sleeves,” Marguerite tells Anne, but what exactly these sleeves look like we never learn.
While the real Anne Boleyn seems to have been the fashion-forward type, she was not the means of introducing any major fashions from France to England, let alone inventing any: the French hood and the turned-back sleeve — items she would have actually worn — were known in England well before she rose to prominence. For an interesting discussion of the progress of English fashions in the 1520s and 1530s, this is a good starting point — it’s mostly about the supposed sixth finger, but also goes into the fact that there was no “Boleyn sleeve”.
Or rather, there wasn’t a “Boleyn sleeve” in the sixteenth century. A tantalizing mention of one lies somewhere between Agnes Strickland’s nineteenth century embroidery and Barrington’s 1932 Elizabethan hanging sleeves. On February 11, 1910, The Tacoma Times printed a column of notes on the latest dress fashions, including this eye-catching item:
Many variations of the puff sleeve or that of the Anne Boleyn sleeve are in evidence, bands of lace or satin being used between the puffs. Others have full sleeves above the elbow, and still others have elbow puffs. Deep cuffs seem to be the fashionable feature of the new sleeve types. (p. 4)
Are they referring to puffed and banded sleeves like the ones evident in this portrait of Diane de Poitiers? The references to deep cuffs remind one of the dress a la Espagnole mentioned by Norris, but the paper provided no pictures and I haven’t yet been able to find any elsewhere. But it’s plain that idea of Anne Boleyn’s having a special sleeve was well-known enough to make sense to the average reader of fashion columns, even though Anne Boleyn (1912) doesn’t give her any kind of extra finger and The Favor of Kings (1912) only allots her a “pointed sleeve” with no puffs or bands mentioned. And that sleeve has been very hard for her to shake; she has one, usually of her own design, in between one-third and one half of the novels written about her. It’s such an elegant device in so many ways — it shows her as talented, fashion-setting, creative, able in a minor way to turn straw into gold. It also presupposes a physical flaw or two which make sure that she isn’t too perfect, in fact, may have more to overcome than many of the people around her. Neither Sander nor Wyatt nor Strickland could have intended it, but their cumulative efforts produced some lovely grace notes in quite a few books.
The sixth finger and the sleeve are losing popularity now, and in the interests of accuracy, I’m glad to see it. But I will rather miss the “Boleyn sleeve” in all of its variations.