Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Tudors: Portraiture & Dress



Over the next few months, I will be posting excerpts from a series of lectures that I gave to the University Womens' Club of Stratford. In that series, I explored the importance of textiles and their representation through fashionable dress, within the context of portraiture. I began my talk with the English court under the Tudors and, over the succeeding weeks, continued up until World War I.  Cultural, technological, and socio-economic matters were discussed to better contextualize the audience's understanding of the material.  Here, I present a condensed version of the series.  I hope you enjoy it as much as they did.


Male costume in the 1500s is characterized by broad shoulders, large padded sleeves, and the codpiece.  It was an extremely virile form of visual masculinity. In the full length Holbein portrait above right, we can see clearly the confident, if not, aggressive stance of the figure. A new development was the shirt which was simply cut but elaborately decorated at the neck, down the chest and along the cuffs with black thread embroidery or "blackwork." Over this was worn the doublet that terminated at the waist.  Sleeves were separately constructed and were tied at the shoulder by cords. Generally this garment tied at the back creating a smooth and taut line across the chest. The use of slashing, thought to have originated from Germany, is clearly seen in both images of Henry VIII. As a lover of jewels, Henry sports diamond and pearl brooches to hold the slashes of the doublet and under-sleeves open and in place. Over the doublet was worn the "jerkin" which was often lined with fur. Most furs came from Russia; lynx and sable were preferred. Domestic furs of squirrel, cat, rabbit, and fox were generally worn by the lower classes. North America would become a great resource for furs in the next century.  

In the image of Henry, Duke of Saxony (lower left), we see another new introduction to the male wardrobe, "Netherhosen". This garment consisted of two parts, an upper and a lower. Here the upper continues to be slashed in the same manner as the rest of his garment.  It covers the thighs and terminates at the knee.  It is basically the "breeches". Hose makes up the lower half and are gartered at the knee. The breeches were also padded in the same manner as the jerkin. When the jerkin was short in length or cut open in front, the codpiece was attached. This devise is probably the most blatantly sexual garment ever conceived for men's fashion. Not only was it padded, it was frequently exaggerated in size. Some even doubled as a pocket!


Henry, Duke of Saxony
The French Ambassadors by Holbein

The cutting of extravagant and expensive fabrics, or slashing, was thought to have started after the victory of the Swiss over Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, in 1477. The victors plundered great stores of silk, velvet, and other expensive materials which were cut up and used to patch their ragged clothes. The style was eventually copied by German mercenaries and then spread to the French court through the Guise family, who were half German, and then on to England through the marriage of Louis XII to Mary, youngest sister of Henry VIII.

Francis I
The Meeting on the Field of Cloth of Gold.
The importance of textiles and their display was demonstrated in 1520 when Henry met Francis I near Calais. The meeting was held to cement a peace treaty between England and France but, in reality, it was an opportunity for the two rivals to strut their stuff. Henry set sail with nearly 3,000 horses and a retinue of more than 5,000 people, including his finest noblemen, clergy, and retainers. His ships were outfitted with magnificent fabrics including banners and sails made from gold cloth. The temporary city camps of tents and pavilions vied with each other for show. The French tents were made of blue cloth adorned with golden stars. Henry not only covered his wooden pavilion with gold and silver cloth, but also lined its ceiling with tapestries. For more than two weeks the king and his nobles competed in spectacle with their French counterparts. "The Tree of Honour" where the two courts would meet daily was decorated with over 2,000 satin cherries, green damask leaves, and silver fruit! The cost to both countries was enormous. Many nobleman were expected to change their outfits twice a day and several were left bankrupt at the end of it all. 

Italian silk damask from Lucca

The importance of textiles in the 16th century cannot be stressed enough. Although incredibly time consuming to create, textiles were a form of currency and are conspicuously displayed in period portraits, in dress and the settings. Acquiring the raw materials and dye stuffs, and the labour intensive weaving of the cloth translated into enormous costs. Henry VIII is believed to have spent 2,000,000.00 pounds per annum on his wardrobe alone and this did not include the sumptuous jewels that he wore.  

Regions throughout the known world exported and traded in textiles: cut velvet from Genoa, wool velvets from Luca, Florentine silks, linen from the low lands, furs from Russia and broadcloth from England are just a few examples.  It is estimated that in Venice alone, 17,000 spinners were employed, another 30,000 in Florence, and 150,000 in Louvain. Dye stuffs could also consume vast numbers of resources. For instance, ten thousand or more snail shells were required to produce just 1 kilogram of purple dye and 70,000 cochineal beetles would only result in 1 pound of red dye.

As early as 1534, we see the introduction of sumptuary laws in England that regulated the different classes and what they might wear. In Holbein's portrait above of the French Ambassadors we can see clearly who out-ranks whom.

Catherine of Aragon
Though born Spanish, here Catherine of Aragon (above) adopts the dress of her new homeland, England. Gothic elements are still apparent in her gable headdress with its stiffened under structure. The decorative jeweled edging around the hood is called a "billiment." Her hairline has probably been shaved to create the fashionable high forehead of the period. Her gown appears to be of velvet and, while this image is not the complete work, her over-sleeves turn back at the elbow to reveal more elaborate under-sleeves as seen in the drawing below. Holbein's image provides us with a unique view of both the front and back of the silhouette at this time. Notice the square decolletage in front is not repeated in the back of the bodice. Instead, it forms a low v-shape to the shoulder blades. The weight of the back of the skirt appears to be supported by a small bustle pad before it falls into a graceful train.  The headdress echoes the style worn by the queen. It consists of a small box-like structure with two bands of falling material. If you look closely, you will notice that the under-sleeves of the garment are not seamed along the outer edge, but rather tie together, allowing puffs of the linen shift to show through.

Hans Holbein the Younger

Anne Boleyn
In the portraits above and below of Henry's next two wives, we can see that female dress has changed very little through the 1530s. Anne's choice of headdress, the preferred style of the French court where she spent much of her youth, is a more flattering, youthful style than that worn by her predecessor Catherine or by her successor Jane (seen below). It would be the style retained for all of her short reign.  Ladies' maids copied the style of their mistresses and these stylistic changes could become quite costly for their families. After the execution of Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour returned to the use of the English hood. This would have been more of a political statement than a personal choice. The square neckline of the bodice is still apparent with the display of her shift clearly visible and accentuated by jewels.  Fashion was slow to change during the first half of the sixteenth century, but by 1536 we can see from Jane's portrait the introduction of a decorative forepart to the skirt. This will remain a characteristic well into the reign of Elizabeth I. Generally, the fabric chosen for this part of the garment was more elaborate than the gown itself and it usually matched the decorative under-sleeves which are still cut in the manner of Holbein's drawing.  

Jane Seymour
Anne of Cleves by Holbein
Regional influences in dress would have been quite apparent to the eye of the Renaissance viewer. In the portrait above of Anne of Cleves,  Holbein has focused his talents on the fine linen of her headdress. Cleves was a dukedom in the lowlands where fine lawns and veiling would have been manufactured. In the anonymous portrait below, previously believed to be that of Katherine Howard, we see a preference for the French hood and dress as demonstrated by her open collar. The wonderful sleeves, accentuated with gold braid and tied with "aglets," draw our attention to her finely embroidered and more noticeable blackwork cuffs.

Unknown Woman
Man's blackwork trimmed shirt

Typically, portraiture of this period pays a great deal of attention to detail. While likenesses might not always be accurate, though most certainly always flattering, it is possible for the costume historian to accept the details in dress without any hesitation. The detail above of the bodice clearly shows a "bodie" or bodice opening in the front. It could also have laced up the sides. The suppression of the bust and the tubular nature of the torso indicate the fashionable use of stays that were an introduction from Italy during the late 15th century. With the adoption of the Spanish farthingale as early as 1545, there is an account in the Royal Wardrobe of one ordered for Princess Elizabeth. The female sitter is portrayed in full length; this pose will continue well into the next few centuries whenever attention is placed on the skirt.

Both portraits below are of Catherine Parr, Henry VIII's last wife. In the full length version we can clearly see the employment of the farthingale to extend her skirt and display the beautiful textiles that made up her gown. Cloth of gold, woven in a damask pattern and possibly from Florence contrasted with the cut velvet of her forepart and under-sleeves, once again of Italian origin. Her sleeves are padded or possibly stiffened with wire to create their shape. They are lined with Russian lynx. In the half length portrait of Catherine, the style of her cap borrows from men's fashion. It is similar to that favored by Henry as seen in the portraits above. The neckline of her dress is lined with "reticella", a type of drawn work that came from Italy and is the forerunner of lace. Sometimes this work could be worn as a separate filler, much like a dickie, as seen in the detail further below. The same influence can be seen in the portrait below of a member of the Medici family.


Medici Portrait


Reticella Work
Mary I, Hans Eworth
With the death of her brother, Mary, the eldest daughter of Henry VIII, became queen in 1553. In the half length portrait above, Mary may well be wearing her wedding attire. Symbolically she holds the Tudor rose in her right hand and a pair of gloves in her left. Just prior to their marriage, Philip II presented Mary with the large brooch with pendant pearl drop called, "La Pellegrina" (owned by the late Elizabeth Taylor).  

In Mary's Wardrobe of the Robes from 1554, there is a reference to a "French Gowne of Murrey vellat." We know she wore a gown of this description, lined with brocade, at a reception the day before her marriage.

In the seated portrait below, Queen Mary wears the same dress and again displays the Tudor Rose. In her left hand, she holds a Bible, a obvious reminder of her reign and desire to return England to the old faith. The girdle that she is wearing around her waist seems to be the same as in the half length portrait.
In both images, the artist has placed her against a background of green padded velvet (above). She appears before a railing of similar material which might indicate a kneeling posture, as if she is in a position to receive communion, a visual indication of her devotion to Catholicism. Below, her chair is completely upholstered in velvet and decorated with gold bullion fringe and embroidery. This style of chair, a savonarola, is Italian in nature and demonstrates again her alliance with the old religion. The bold flat bands of decoration in her skirt resemble the 'strapwork' designs of the period, as seen in, the heavy ironwork and knot gardens of the age.




Textiles and power are inextricably linked in Tudor portraiture and are displayed with a confidence and self awareness that is typical of the new Renaissance individual. As we move into the latter part of the 16th century and begin the reign of Elizabeth I, we will see the introduction of novelty and foreign fashions combined in a uniquely English manner.











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