During the 15th and 16th centuries in England and Europe, individuals became conscious of their self worth. This was reflected in the assertion and art works by brilliant technicians who produced works that entertained the notion, as Sir Kenneth Clark (Civilisation) put it, that ‘can reconcile the two parts of our being, the physical and the intellectual.’ At this time the most respected non-aristocratic groups in society were the clergy, scholars and merchants, all of who paid particular attention to their public image. The fashion for collecting portraits is a sixteenth century phenomenon. An English Tudor or early Stuart era magnate pacing his ‘long gallery; could contemplate the characters of his friends and be inspired by their virtues.
The long gallery was a unique room in English architectural design history. It usually had elevated views of the gardens and surrounding landscape and was converted into a picture gallery as time progressed. It was a place where you could show off portraits of your family and famous patrons or friends as an aspect of your status. They also no doubt made good subjects for conversation and gossip on cold and rainy afternoons.
The Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace at London has been the revered venue for some of the finest exhibitions of design, decorative and fine arts as well as costume, including jewellery and objects, especially those that document the evolution of style taking into account the intellectual and philosophical mores that led to their societal and cultural development.
A showing of superb costume, as represented in portraits of monarchs and nobles at court, will be presented by the Royal Collection Trust from 10th May to 6th October 2013 in the Queen’s Gallery. In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor & Stuart Fashion exhibition will reveal the sumptuous and superb costume, including jewellery that belonged to British monarchs during the 16th and 17th centuries. It is sure to be a sell out event.
Over 60 paintings, as well as drawings, garments, jewellery, accessories and armour will be on display, with iconic works featuring fabulous costume by renowned artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, Joos van Cleve, Nicholas Hilliard, Anthony Van Dyck, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger and Peter Lely, all of whom were royal portrait painters. What a show it promises to be.
At the moment the courts of the Tudor and Stuart Kings seem to be the flavour of the month, with a number of shows about that era on the go. Also the superb television series made over the past few years such as The Tudors, The Borgias and now Da Vinci’s Demons, must also be contributing to the growing interest in an age that was certainly not for the feint hearted.
During the 15th and 16th century a great outpouring of art and economic growth was reflected in the textiles worn. There were rich tapestries and stuffs, brocades with gold thread, and the legendary cloth of gold, which incorporated gold-wrapped thread, crimson-dyed fabrics and certain types of fur, which were reserved for only those of the highest status.
Costume encompasses all that we wear, including objects for personal adornment such as jewellery, hats, gloves, shoes, accessories and so forth. All these various aspects of costume have an interesting history and there are many theories on the origins of costume, which can be viewed as being distinct from clothing.
One could say clothing only has to do with covering one’s body to protect it for purposes of modesty, from the extremes of the elements or, for some other sort of physical reason, such as protective clothing for industry or engaging in warfare.
However it is when fashion is imposed on costume, dictating and reflecting the changes and concerns of a society in any one place at any one time that it takes on a whole new dimension.
An example would be: the fashion for extending the fingers of gloves beyond the fingertips.
This was a trend associated with Queen Elizabeth I, who was particularly proud of her elegant hands. It remained popular not only because of its royal origins, but also because long-fingered gloves in pale colours signaled that the sitter was of high status and so did not undertake manual work.
Since economics often determined the development of the societies in question, its study must also be taken into account as these ideas and realities reflect our social and cultural growth.
It was during the reign of the Tudor monarchs between 1485 and 1603 that rule of force in England was gradually replaced by rule of law.
With the succession of the dynasty came the flowering of the English vernacular style and the visible expression of its power, the monarchs who brought it everlasting fame: Henry VII (1457 – 1509), Henry VIII (1491-1547) and Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603).
The sixteenth century began with an era of peaceful and stable government due to King Henry VII’s efforts. Until the reign of Henry VII in Europe England had been regarded as an offshore island of relatively small concern in its affairs. However Henry’s initiatives of establishing trade links abroad was so successful, that England fast became a nation and market of importance ensuring that the monarchs of Europe changed their attitude towards the English people.
The new humanist thinking filtering in gradually from Europe changed perceptions. A nobleman in sixteenth century England understood that by increasing the prestige of his ancestry his will would survive through his sons and the sons of his sons.
When Henry VII’s son Henry VIII finally came to the throne at 18 he was immensely popular, a gifted man of intelligence, accomplishment and self-confidence. He and his people looked forward to a reign of progress and indeed the first twenty years of his reign were seemingly happy ones.
Van Cleve’s portrait of Henry VIII is of comparable size to his portrait of Francis I in the Philadelphia of Art. The compositions and costumes are similar.
It has been suggested they were painted to commemorate the meeting of Francis and Henry in Calais and Boulogne (21-29 October 1532). If not then the speculation is that van Cleve based the Henry VIII portrait on that of Francis I without having met the English king, in the speculative hope of gaining future English royal commissions.
Inscribed on the scroll held in the sitter’s left hand: MARCI 16 / ITE IN MVDVM VNIVERSV ET PREDICATE / EVANGELIVM OMNI CREATVRE (Mark 16, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature, which refers to Henry’s papal title of Defender of the Faith, which he won in 1521.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, entry to the inner circle at court, and subsequent political and professional success, was largely driven by personal appearance
Dutch humanist and scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466 – 1536) was one of the most influential of all the figures of his day and while he dressed simply, the quality of the cloth he wore was superb and the style of clothing he wore was entirely fitting to his occupation as a man of the cloth.
He was ordained priest in 1492 and travelled widely – writing, teaching and meeting Europe’s foremost intellectuals. He published many popular and influential works.
His travels took him to England – Oxford in 1499 and Cambridge between 1509-1514, where he became professor of divinity and of Greek. He was also welcome in the King’s household, where he also met and imparted wisdom to his children.
It was during his visit though that he expressed a poor opinion of some houses he visited. His description of the state of floors is one of the more memorable in interior design history. They were he said ‘…much that in the then prevailing way of life that should have been emptied into the kennels was spilt upon the hall floor, covered with fresh rushes, the stench concealed as far as possible by a generous sprinkling of fresh herbs.
German painter Hans Holbein the Younger (c1497/8-1543) was entrusted with many private commissions and began his great series of portraits of pre-eminent Englishmen at the end of 1526. It was Erasmus who introduced him to the eminent Sir Thomas More, advisor and friend to Henry VIII.
Henry VIII loved a flamboyant display, apparent in all familiar depictions of him. No other historical period of costume would give men more opportunities, through precious adornments, to project their human beauty
Today studies for many of Holbein’s portraits still exist in the royal collection.
His preparatory drawing for his portrait of William Parr (c.1538–42) reveals the sitter wearing a gown of purple velvet. This colour fabric was usually reserved for royalty, so it reflects Parr’s standing in the royal household as captain of the Gentleman Pensioners.
Holbein had a rare genius for subordinating the interest in garments and accessories to heighten facial characteristics.
Henry VIII’s Spanish consort, Catherine of Aragon, is credited with popularizing black work embroidery and one of the most striking, yet invisible, elements of Tudor fashionable dress – a hooped underskirt known as the ‘farthingale’.
It created the distinctive conical shape of Princess Elizabeth’s red gown in William Scrots’ portrait (c.1546).
The onus was on a courtier to reflect the glory of the monarch through splendid attire. Sartorial competition led to an insatiable search for ways of distinguishing the wearer from their rivals.
Monarchs and their court were admired for their fashion sense and innovative style and wearers of an elaborate ruff, like that seen in Nicholas Hilliard’s miniature of Elizabeth I.
It would have needed the servants to set the layers and pleats with hot pokers and starch once a week.
The clothes worn in paintings were often far more expensive than the paintings themselves.
In 1632 Charles I paid the leading court artist Sir Anthony van Dyck £100 for a portrait of the royal family, while spending £5,000 a year on clothing (more than £400,000 today).
On the continent, the English were often satirized by their European counterparts for the frequency with which they changed their fashions and for mixing styles of clothing in a strange manner.
In William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice (1600), Portia mocks her suitor, the English baron, Falconbridge, ‘I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behavior every where.’
Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I both enforced laws dictating the fabrics, colours and types of garment that could be worn at court by each level of society.
It did not pay to ‘dress’ above your station in life.
The portrait of the King’s consort Anne of Denmark, painted in 1614 and attributed to Marcus Gheeradt, reveals the copious folds of her elaborate skirt, which would have required daily pinning into place.
She was both intelligent and prudent, participated fully in the life of her husband the Stuart King James 1’s court, while maintaining a court of her own, often attracting those not welcomed by James.
She rarely took political sides against her husband and despite private difficulties with James would always prove to be a diplomatic asset to him in England, conducting herself with discretion and graciousness in public.
High-maintenance impractical clothing such as she wore conveyed a clear message that the subject of the portrait enjoyed a privileged lifestyle with plenty of spare time to devote to the pursuit of fashion and lengthy process of dressing.
Marcus Gheeradt the Younger (1561/2 – 1636) was a favoured portraitist of James 1’s consort, and fashionable for a time. His aesthetic included a three dimensionality, recording his sitters on canvas, rather than wooden panels as so many other artists did.
He also often set his subjects out of doors such as in his portrait of the ‘unknown woman’ whose costume is modelled after “Virgo Persica” (the dress of Persian maiden) in Boissard’s Habitus Variarum Orbis Gentium.
It’s a highly decorated costume, possibly made for a court masque. Her highly elaborate headdress, constructed from puffs of muslin, is embellished with pansies, and her garments embroidered with a serpentine design of flowers and birds.
In 1632 Charles I paid the leading court artist Sir Anthony van Dyck £100 for a portrait of the royal family, while spending £5,000 a year on clothing (more than £400,000 today).
Monarchs and their court were admired for their fashion sense and innovative style, and from 1660 – 1730 London was the only real city in England totally dominating English urban culture.
The greatest compliment that could be paid to a provincial town was to be called a ‘little London’.
It was the seat of government, the main residence of the court, the only banking and publishing centre and the home of the majority of professional people who occupied an intermediate position between the upper and middling parts of mankind.
Costume was, and still is, also be a means of seduction, enhancing the wearer’s natural attributes by adding artificial attraction, which when combined with the addition of exotic perfumes and a fragrance, heightens that perception.
It is not surprising that the Stuart heir to the English throne Charles, (1630-1685) wanted to buy sumptuous and fashionable clothes.
When he was a fugitive from the Battle of Worcester in 1651, at the time when England had it’s own mini Commonwealth period ‘revolution’, he had been forced to wear nothing but a green coat, a pair of country breeches and country shoes.
They made him ‘sore all over his feet that he could scarce stir’ but they did help him to escape to the continent as no one would have considered a would be King would dress as a worker.
Charles’s flight to France was a unique experience living rough and being helped by ordinary people who risked their lives on his behalf and the experience would have a long lasting effect on his persona and attitudes.
The various disguises Charles used during his escape gave him the confidence to be his ‘own man’ and his escape to France, although it only lasted six weeks, is a journey worthy of a movie epic.
On his return to England as King Charles II he adorned his Frenchified person with sumptuous textiles and jewels.
At his court his mistress Barbara Villiers taught court ladies how to look suitably languishing while she bore him six children. She was created Duchess of Cleveland in 1670 for her trouble.
Artist Sir Peter Lely recorded the very beautiful Frances Teresa Stuart (1647-1702), Duchess of Richmond, c.1662.
Luscious, lascivious and lovely ladies, many of whom were well known to Charles, always wore pearls, the essential accessories for the loose state of ‘undress’ they were generally seen disported in.
Court etiquette demanded that only someone of a superior rank could receive a person of lower rank when in a state of undress.
By way of contrast a person of inferior rank had to be fully and formally attired when attending a person of superior rank.
Wearing undress then in a portrait underlined the fact the sitter belonged to an exclusive group of superior people.
However there was a downside.
The format was so successful and pervasive that within thirty years everyone, irrespective of rank, was depicted in a similar way so that those in the upper echelon of society were forced to change their style.
Frances Teresa Stuart became prominent at Charles’s court because she actually refused to become his mistress.
La Belle Stuart, as she became known, was also an idealized symbol of Britannia; her face used on medals, coins and statues and in her lovely portrait by Lely is wearing shimmering silk fabric over her white linen shift.
A distant relative of the royal family, Samuel Pepys of diary fame, recorded her as ‘the greatest beauty he ever saw’.
Charles II introduced the precursor of the men’s three-piece suit into fashion.
He wore a long vest under his coat, instead of a short doublet and a cloak. The fashion spread so quickly that three weeks later diarist Samuel Pepys recorded wearing his own version.
The same year his lady wife, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) announced she would start a trend for shorter skirts to coincide with the launch of the new vest by her husband; better to be a trendsetter, rather than a trend follower.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, men’s clothing would emphasize certain features associated with their masculinity.
Broad shoulders and long muscular legs were considered very ‘manly’ indeed.
Male fashions also imitated those of women in the luxuriousness of the materials used to make them and the complexity of their design. Women also adopted some elements of masculine dress.
One of the most interesting accessories on display will surely be the gold thread and yellow taffeta purse in the shape of a frog with a cord drawstring.
The frog was a symbol of metamorphosis and represented the duality of the soul. He was also about creativity, leaping (and hopefully thinking) outside the box.
In Scotland, the home of the Stuarts, he was seen as an item of luck.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2013-04-14
Ref: Media Release: The Royal Collection Trust
The Queen’s Gallery,
Buckingham Palace, London
Friday, 10 May 2013 to Sunday, 06 October 2013
This exhibition explores the sumptuous costume of British monarchs and their court during the 16th and 17th centuries through portraits in the Royal Collection. During this period fashion was central to court life and was an important way to display social status. Royalty and the elite were the tastemakers of the day, often directly influencing the styles of fashionable clothing.
Watch the Video of a TEDx Talk at Houses of Parliament
Anna Reynolds is Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection, responsible for the care and display of approximately 12,000 paintings and miniatures spread across residences including Buckingham Palace and Hampton Court. In this talk Anna Reynolds explores how fashion has been democratized.