Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Elizabethans: Most Gorgeously Apparelled

Currently on display at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, is an exhibition titled "In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion." Having discussed this very topic in a lecture series for the University Women's Club, I was anxious to see this show on my recent trip to England. While this post is not a review, it is, as promised, a continuation of my lecture series. The content here is very similar to the London show with the exception of the Stuart material.  If you find yourself in London between now and October 6, 2013 be sure to take in this wonderful exhibition.

Princess Elizabeth, aged 13
After the death of Mary in 1558, Elizabethan England entered an age of unprecedented mobility and wealth.  The English, once isolated, are now looking outward to cultural and intellectual achievements of surrounding Renaissance nations. Like her father Henry VIII, Elizabeth is anxious to be seen as an important figure on the world stage and establishing sumptuous court was the way to achieve this notoriety. Novelty and excess in dress, as captured in portraiture, is just one of the defining characteristics of this confident age.

At the beginning of Elizabeth's reign, it was still possible to recognize aspects of national identity in the clothing of her people, but this soon changed due to the foreign influences that were embraced by the Queen and her court. To be at the court of St. James and attendant on her Majesty, it required great effort to source the proper garments and enormous wealth to acquire them. Being noticed at court meant being favoured and consequently advanced. Dress has now become a political tool. The numerous events that filled the court calendar required equally numerous ensembles, which could place financial strain on the wearers. Any repeated wearing of or sacrifice in the quality of personal garments would certainly be noticed and even commented on.

"twere good you turned four or five hundred acres of your best land into two or three trunks of apparel"
Ben Jonson, Every Man out of his Humour


As an international trading center, the city of London was noted for its fine goods. Cheapside was the area where one would find the mercers, goldsmiths, and haberdashers. These men provided the materials which would then be taken to one's tailor or seamster—velvet from Genoa, satins from Lucca, Spanish taffeta and leathers or even woolens from Norwich.  For linen and lace, the best quality came from Flanders. In St. Martins Le Grand, wigs, false hair, and even false eyebrows (made from mouse skin) could be bought! There was also a thriving market for second-hand clothing in Houndsditch and Long Lane. 

The Royal Exchange was opened by the Queen in 1571. The wealthy came here to purchase ready-made goods from the best haberdashers and milliners. Hats, stockings, lace, and all manner of trimmings could be acquired in this bustling complex. Some ready-made garments, such as embroidered linen shifts and shirts, competed with the trade of the seamstresses.  It was here too that one could have their wig remodeled by the"attyre makers" or their lace and linen starched.

The Royal Exchange, 1571

With all of this effort placed on the expense and acquisition of sumptuous clothing, is it any wonder that portraiture at this time pays so much attention to getting the details right? Patterned cloths were scrupulously copied and artists used light to reveal contrasting textures, not rendered in English portraiture so faithfully before. While an individual's complexion might be enhanced, the luster of their gem stones is exact. Colour and symbols provide insight into the mind and allegiances of the sitter as they attempted to leave a personal record for the ages.

Sir Henry Howard, 1555
Foreign influences in dress were nothing new. These had appeared earlier, during the previous reign of Mary I, and her marriage to Philip of Spain. The introduction of Spanish cloaks, the farthingale or the narrower Italian breeches, as worn by Sir Henry Howard in a posthumous portrait, had already been seen at the Tudor court.  By the end of  Elizabeth's reign, these influences will become exaggerated and a distortion of human proportions will be the end result. Elizabeth used foreign dress as much for novelty as for political advantage. When negotiating with ambassadors from the continent, she would often show her favor or distaste for their monarch by her choice of clothing


Detail of a Cloak
Elizabethan portraiture made a grand statement and required the finest and most fashionable of garments. For us today, it is hard to imagine the enormous costs associated with the production of cloth.  Every level of society was involved in the supply, manufacture, and distribution of finished goods.  Exotic fibers and dyestuffs added enormously to these costs. Some cloths incorporated threads of gold or other precious metals. The Renaissance silhouette with its stuffed, padded, and stiffened elements was an ideal surface to display the available fabrics, trims, and jewels.  

Murex, which produced an imperial purple, was the most expensive dyestuff and sumptuary laws regulated who could wear this colour. Red, the deepest hue acquired from the cochineal beetle, was a costly alternative and appears more than any other colour in portraits of the period. This hue was so highly valued that Catherine de Medici chose the deepest red for her burial clothes. When the Spanish took over the New World in the 16th century, they maintained a virtual monopoly on this dyestuff. Pound for pound, it was more valuable than gold. It would take 70,000 insects to produce one pound of the dye. New hues were eagerly sought; explorers and travelers made it a point to look for new sources.

The primary hues were often diluted in intensity to create a larger range of colours. The paler the tint, the cheaper the finished goods. The names of these colours read like a paint chart today and are quite romantic. The deepest red, Lustie Gallant, could be toned down to a Maiden's Blush. Catherine Pear, Carnation, Flame, Incarnate and Peach are just a few of the other reds available. Tawny, a variety of greens, blues and, of course, black and white can also be seen in contemporary portraits. Yellow was seen as a positive colour and represented hope and joy. The meaning of colours could be varied and, when worn in combination, quite confusing.

Elisabeth of Austria, 1570
Eleanore of Toledo

Il Tagliapanni, 1570
Tailors made clothing for men as well as women. It was important to be familiar with the cut of Italian, Spanish, and French fashions. These tailors had a reputation for dishonesty as it was felt that they exaggerated the fashions to increase their own fees. They were paid for their labour and any extra fabric that might be required, such as linings and fastenings. They "lined their pockets," so to speak.  Customer demands were substantial and even unreasonable. A one week delivery was not unheard of, particularly in the mourning trade.

"The Queen would fain have a tailor that has skill to make her apparel both after the French and Italian manner...."


Sources for embroidered decoration came to England from the printers of Nuremberg. Plant and animal forms were both popular, as well as emblems and mythological figures. Natural history books, emblem books, and herbals were all sources for the professional and amateur alike. Below, we see the Tudor rose of England, the Scotch Thistle, and the Lily of Wales within a knot of strapwork. Such a composition would be just as appropriate on the ceiling of a great chamber as on this tapestry.


In her portrait of 1560, Bess of Hardwick still represents the earlier Tudor court of Mary I in the manner of her dress and style of portrait. Her taste appears to be somewhat conservative with her French hood which was introduced 30 years earlier by Anne Boleyn. The fur lined gown, more loosely cut, has short slashed sleeves and a front opening fastened by aglets. The ruff is small, no more than a frill, and in its earliest state. Redwork embroidery decorates her sleeves, ruff and cuffs. A rope of pearls around her neck, numerous rings, and two link bracelets are a forerunner of the taste for jewels associated with Elizabethan age. In the first two decades of Elizabeth's reign, fashion will move at a quicker pace, including less rigid styles, "pinked" surfaces, brighter colours, and lots of surface decoration in the form of embroidery, braids, and gems.
Bess of Hardwick, 1560


Having a younger queen on the throne also had an enormous impact on English fashions of this period.  Active in her youth and having the powers and rights associated with that of a man, meant that it was only reasonable to expect appropriations from the male wardrobe. Details such as a front fastening bodice, similar to that of a doublet, horizontal trims of braid resembling martial decorations or pork pie hats can be seen in female dress.  
Elizabeth I, 1575
Elizabeth Knollys,  Lady Layton
Lady Kytson, 1573
Elizabeth I
Sleeve Detail
Note the detail of the sleeve on the right. The painter has faithfully captured the stiffened casing that runs along the outer edge. Insertions of whalebone, strips of wood or even metal would be used to support the silhouette. As one fashionable 14 year-old girl requested of her father in a letter of 1597,

"....sleeves set out with wires for stickes wil break, and are not stiffe enough."

Frances Kingsmill, 1580
Notice the similarity in the pattern of Lady Kingsmill's sleeves to that of the Queen. Were they both purchased ready made from one of the seamstresses in the Royal Exchange, a later gift from the Queen herself or possibly a flattering copy by the artist?
Fan handle


While novelty in dress was the desired effect, the Elizabethan silhouette maintains a degree of uniformity among portrait sitters. The image of the Queen above is very similar in costume to that of the unknown woman below. Following the fashions set at court, this young woman wears her hair in a  similar style to that of the Queen. While we know that Elizabeth was wearing wigs at this time (1580), to hide her own hair loss, it is interesting to speculate if the girl below is also wearing a wig, in this instance as a purely fashionable accessory. The artist has chosen to place the obviously wealthy sitter in a natural landscape, with an unlikely mountain range in the background; perhaps this is a reference to Arcadia. Her dress consists of an overdress over a contrasting lining, cut decoratively to display the pattern created by the cuts. The effect is further enhanced by the reverse effect in the sleeves and forepart which have been embroidered in black. Her partlet, like the one worn by Elizabeth, has been embroidered as well in black, but is more transparent than the fabric used for the sleeves. Both women wear a lavish display of jewels. The style of dress here is distinctly Italian in its use of padded epaulettes and the Juliet cap.

Unknown Woman, 1580
An important accessory at this time, gloves were made from the finest of Spanish leathers and perfumed. They were often given as lovers gifts and were popular tokens to the Queen. The elongated fingers created the illusion of delicate and fine hands. The sleeve guard was usually elaborately embroidered and beaded with seed pearls and gilt purl as seen below.


Something of the personality of Robert Dudley, once the favourite of the Queen and rising to the status of Earl in 1575, has been captured by this unknown artist.  The pose is commanding and his gaze addresses the viewer directly. In the upper left corner of the painting, the artist prominently displays Dudley's new coat of arms. Such an advance in status would demand the commissioning of a new suit of clothes and this portrait captures this moment. The pink silk satin of his garments is trimmed with gilt lace on the newly fashionable peascod doublet and padded hose. The hose are "paned" to reveal the lining beneath and the doublet has been "pinked," slashed on the bias to achieve the same effect.  The high collar and starched lace hold the head erect and lend an air of haughtiness to the sitter.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester
The French farthingale that appeared in 1580 eventually gives way to the more exaggerated wheel or drum farthingale as seen below. This most inhibiting and bizarre of foreign fashions restricted movement even further. Radiating horizontally from the waist for up to 48 inches before it fell vertically at right angles to the floor, a pleated flounce softened the edge of the frame to hide the ridge made by the steel support. Padded sleeves and a long pointed bodice terminating at the groin made mobility impossible. Seen near the end of the Queen's long reign, now in her 60's, it must have been a very awkward garment for the aged to wear.

Elizabeth I, 1599
There has long been a debate as to whether this under skirt has been embroidered or stained (painted) on silk. The motifs are both symbolic and exotic. The pansy, a particular favorite of the Queen, was known by a variety of names: love-in-idleness, heartsease, and cupid's flower.  On her shoulder, she wears the Eglantine rose which represented the honour of the virgins. Pearls, sourced from commercial beds in China, lavishly decorate her dress, shoes, and gloves.  Pearls also symbolized virginity.

Detail
"For if delight may provoke men's labour, what grater delight is there than to behold the earth apparelled with plants, as with a robe imbrodered works, set with orient pearles and garnished with great diversitie of rare and costly jewels." John Gerard, General History of Plants

In 1599 an inventory was made of the Great Wardrobe, a separate government department under Elizabeth, and it showed that the Queen owned some 1,326 items of clothing. This office employed seamstresses, tailors, and embroiderers working full time to make, remake, and mend existing garments.  Keeping the stock clean and aired was also their responsibility.

When Thomas Platter saw the Queen in 1599 he found she was:

"most lavishly attired in a gown of pure white satin, gold-embroidered"

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, she left a nation financially and culturally richer than the one she had inherited. Under her Stuart successors, styles will be slow to change, but portraiture will develop a more sophisticated style.


1 comment:

  1. The lily of Wales? More likely France as appropriate for the stitcher.

    ReplyDelete