The Hardwick Portrait

Shall we break down a gown of Elizabeth’s? Oh yes!

This is one of my favorite gowns of the 1590s. It provides the costumeaholic a set of very typical and very atypical elements of fashion.  The Hardwick Portrait, 1592, by Nicholas Hilliard.458px-Elizabeth_I_of_England_Hardwick_1592

Before we start, shall we agree to certain things which seem to get left off of movie and TV costumes, and many well-meaning costumes? Artistic license notwithstanding, QE1 is wearing the following items that she would never have gone without: stockings, a shift, a pair of Bodies* (aka stays, corset,) a Wheel (or Drum) Farthingale* with a French Rolle*, and petticoats*.  All too often we see gorgeous costumes robbed of their potential by the lack of foundational garments.  Sometimes, re-enactors leave off a few pieces because invariably we are performing in environments that are not even close to the cold, 16th Century, English climate.  Heat Stroke being unattractive among other reasons to avoid it, we make shortcuts in the clothing to survive sometimes tropical weather.  I can forgive that (as if my forgiveness is needed?) and will confess to using a few shortcuts myself.  However, though we can never be absolutely Historically Accurate (HA,) if we are to get close, we must respect the internal structural engineering necessary for this look.

Now, let’s look at the typical elements of her gown: Her Majesty is wearing an open gown over a petticoate*.  We know these petticoates in performance circles as foreparts, but translated to the broad wheel farthingale*, the petticoate now provides nearly half of the visual skirt.  In this particular case, the opening is not exactly half of the wheel: much of the open gown can be seen from the front (Unlike the Ditchley portrait, which I’ll examine later.)  The petticoate is pleated, likely cartridge pleated, into a band with a deep “V” at the front.  The Tudor Tailor’s pattern for a Late Elizabethan Lady has this option.  If you look at the folds of the petticoate, the pleats fall not directly from the waist, out toward the sides, but from the point of the Bodies (bodice) forward.  This is an important feature of the petticoate as it forces much of the weight and flow of the fabric forward of the open gown, allowing in my opinion more of the decoration to be visible and to compensate for the weight on the back from the open gown.

The open gown appears to be black velvet, an expensive fabric, covered in pairs of pearls, and guarded (edged) with gold and black strip bands, pearls, and gold sets of onyx gems. Dazzling.  Of what we can see of the Bodies, the pairs of pearls continue onto the torso.  The open gown’s skirt has a ruffle at the edge of the Wheel Farthingale.  This is created by Her Majesty’s ladies pinning pleats to the Farthingale with brass pins which must be arranged and ultimately removed each time the gown is put on or taken off – a time consuming duty.  This pouf or ruffle tapers off so that by the time it reaches the guard, it is erased.  The petticoate does not have this ruffle and is allowed to fall over the shape of the Wheel.

Her stomacher is a long, boned triangle, heavily jeweled at the top and extending well beyond her natural waist. You can see a ribbon falling from the point and tied to a jewel.  It is possible that these ties are in fact attached thru the stomacher, the skirt and down to the Bodies as a mechanism to hold everything in place.

Her sleeves are made of the same base material, but decorated differently. What I see in a high resolution photograph are strips of decoration made up of three design elements: gold set rubies, filigree made from small metal beads, and what appears to be black silk pulled through diamond shaped openings.  It can be argued that these poufs might be coarsely cut black stones, but there does not seem to be a single reflective pattern to them.  I would enjoy hearing what you think they are.  These sleeves are padded but if Her Majesty ever wants to bend her elbow, she will need some space inside.  It was common at this time to use bent reeds or wood to support the mutton shape of sleeves, especially when they are weighed down by decoration.  Curiously, she does not have dagged hanging sleeves (the points of fabric with pearls sticking out from behind her sleeves) instead these appear to be part of the sleeve itself.  There are places in the painting where black velvet is indicated on the reverse side of the daggs.  The interior of those dags is made of the same base silk fabric as the petticoate and stomacher – a beige, glossy silk.  These amazing, and perhaps gravity defying sleeves end in cuffs made from bobbin lace and reticula.  These cuffs have been jeweled (rather than being bracelets.)  And of course, what pre-1600 Elizabethan would go without wrist ruffs, edged in simple black lace.  A bit of the color confusion of the cuffs may suggest that there is blackwork on the ruffs as well.

Overall, the basic shape of the gown is typical of the English Wheel Farthingale, with the extended stomacher, broad and straight skirt jutting out from the hips, and fairly short.

The atypical elements are these: Her standing ruff is jeweled throughout, appears to be a double ruff from shoulder to shoulder, and at least one row of figure-8s is attached to the opening of the gown Bodice.  So far, this is the only time I have seen this extended ruff.

Her Majesty is wearing a whisk or wisk*, which is a wired hem of a veil that causes it to appear to modern eyes as wings or mouse ears. While this sort of veil will become Elizabeth’s iconic dress feature, later on other ladies of rank will adopt it.  Naturally, the Queen set the trend.  One suspects that wisks* have a tendency to flop when the lady walks, creating an amusing image.

The Queen’s shoes are visible. Strangely, she will set this trend too.  In France, the large Rolle* and Farthingales were draped with soft fabrics and allowed to sweep the floor with every movement.  In England, however, stiffer and more extreme shapes were desired.  The reasoning behind the shortened skirt still escapes me, and I would again appreciate opinions (wetter weather in England?)

Lastly, the stomacher and petticoate are painted. The fantastical creatures shown on the silk are produced with paint and not embroidered.  An examination of the painting shows no shadows or “threads” on the figures.  The shading is too blended, though shading techniques in embroidery can produce a very soft look.  Thus far, I simply haven’t seen another gown done like this.

It would not be impossible or too unusual for the Queen to wear something unmatched anywhere else, yet the atypical elements are remarkably different. Her hair has a number of lovely jewels and ribbon loops – or are they ribbon?  They are the same color as her hair (possibly a wig) and two of them are textured to suggest that they are loops of hair and not ribbon.

One last note: she’s wearing a crown. It you look at it, it doesn’t really appear to be seated on her head: almost as an afterthought by the artist.  As though she needs anything else to declare her Royal Status, someone felt the crown was important, yet I can’t help but think it might fall off at any second.


An Examination of the Mode of Dress – Part Four

Elisabeth_i_queen_bess_virgin_tudor-257x400Now, let’s get the meat of the meal – my favorite – Elizabeth’s fashion lead for the 1590s – 1603 – and beyond.

I hope I have successfully dispelled any myth that the Queen was this old, ugly, unhappy, murderous creature for whom any portrait is as good as a photograph for accuracy.  We have to be careful with imagery, especially with portraits of this period.  The Elizabethans loved their symbols and allegories, and there is the added advantage that a good artist could always alter the end result to suit the sitter’s desires.  On the other hand, we don’t have anything else to go by, even with large registers of wardrobes – there are plenty of items we simply don’t know what they are.  So … historians and reenactors are forced to work with portrait paintings.

What sets the late reign apart from the rest of the fashionable Elizabethan era is the silhouette.  Rarely have we seen a more unnatural shape forced upon the human body than the unique clothing of 1590-1610 Elizabethan women.  The men too, but we are discussing the ladies here.

Elizabeth 1 1575Prior to this late period, the shape was a very simple pair of triangles, the smaller inverted on the top.  The waist was emphasized by exaggerated skirt hems and shoulder treatments.  It surprises reenactors to learn that what we know as a corset was not popular until midway through Elizabeth’s reign: prior to that, the “pair of bodies*” were made as part of the top garment.  We now call them a bodice.  Stays*, aka a corset, came into full fashion in the 1570s, though there are examples from earlier.  Fabrics became more attainable through increased trade and as the middle class grew, and became wealthier, opulence became a statement of how much grace you had from God (known as the Protestant Work Ethic.)

By the 1580s, and yes – this is all oversimplified – the French Rolle* (a thick crescent of padding for the hips, to hold out voluminous skirts from the body) and massive layers of petticoats* replaced the triangular Spanish Farthingale*.  Once again, reenactors are surprised to learn that the “bum roll” didn’t get used quite as often as we tend to use it at Renaissance Fairs, not until the 1580s. ad68d30da4

Something interesting happened after the main defeat of the Spanish Armada[i], Queen Elizabeth altered her whole PR approach with her people and Europe.  English privateers were the heroes of the day, and now could rush around the world taking whatever prizes they wished, especially from the Spanish.  Land grabs began anew in the Americas.  Elizabeth’s “weak and feeble woman” body was now undoubtedly the far more one with the “heart and stomach of a king!”  For the first time, the Queen succeeded not because of promised access to her body, i.e. marriage and heirs, but because of her leadership and inspiration.  She no longer needed to play the marriage game.  She could instead embody the power, wealth, might, and growing aspirations of her nation.  And boy, did she ever!Elizabeth_I_(Armada_Portrait)

The origins of the Wheel (or Drum) Farthingale are not quite clear.  Some believe it came from France and was changed to an exaggerated version once in England.  Because of this commonly accepted origin story, the unique underpinning is often confused with the French Farthingale.  Based on my own, albeit restrained, research, it is important to differentiate between a French Farthingale or Rolle and the Wheel Farthingale.  The French version is based on the large hip-pad and created a look that was soft, flowing, and very elegant.  The Wheel Farthingale is a fascinating twist on the hoop skirts of the past, in that instead of creating a cone shape, the apparatus juts straight out from the hip (not the waist) to create a level plain on which a lady could rest her hands.  Later, the drum will tilt forward, lifting the skirts in the back above the waist level and dropping in front.[ii]  Where the French versions don’t appear to include such a wide apparatus, the English version is quite extreme and short, often showing the feet of the wearer.

Emphasis remains on the waist, but now is created by a stomacher that extends well below the natural waist.  The look of a long, narrow waist is definitely achieved but often with an unfortunate side effect of causing a foreshortened appearance from the hips down.  By the 1610s, this will soften a bit.  By the 1620s, the look will pendulum-swing to the other extreme, with the drum farthingale extending out from a shortened waist, making the torso look freakishly small.  By the 1630s?  The farthingale disappears, the waist stays high, and we see the “Cavalier” look begin,

An interesting aspect of the Wheel Farthingale fashion is the idea that the larger the skirt, the taller the hair.  Leading the way, Elizabeth wore wigs that were rolled over pads, and sometimes had a conical shape to them.  Perfect for putting jeweled pins into the tall hair, perching odd little hats, and doing all sorts of delightful things with headbands of stiffened lace and sprigs of pearled flowers.

This look was one that served a particular purpose to Elizabeth – she was now Empress of the Seas, along with any number of Greek or Roman Goddesses – and she intended to look like her roles.  Otherworldly.  Opulent.  Rich.  Extreme.  Undeniable.

Next post, let’s take a closer look at some of Elizabeth’s more surprising gowns.

[i] The Spanish tried more than once, but the Battle of Gravelines, August 1588, is the encounter we recognize most from the 16-year, undeclared war between England and Spain.

[ii] From direct experience, I can say that this is surprisingly easy to maneuver in, and to sit in, if one is aware of their new “personal space.”

** Please be careful with the images on this blog.  As often happens, the origin, artist, and copyright holder’s name sometimes gets lost as the image travels around the internet.  Putting images here is only as a means to make my point on this private blog.  I ask that if you need to use any image professionally that you inquire into copyright and respect ownership laws.  These images are for personal use only.

An Examination of the Mode of Dress – Part Three


800px-Elizabeth_I_Jesus_College_Oxford_1590Older, wiser, no longer banking on her marriage and maternal prospects, Queen Elizabeth focused instead on the royal image. She made certain that any presentation of her person was as one who is Wise, Powerful, Confident, and Ethereal.  She became, more than before, Gloriana – the Virgin Queen.  That meant now and then, her image wasn’t feminine.  Some images show her as eternally young while others show her as “kingly.”  Masculine.  This is a time when being a female was not desirable in a ruler.  The Queen herself boldly displaced any potential commentary about her lack of military worthiness in that famous quote from the camp at Tilbury (1588,) “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king …”  For Elizabeth to allow her portrait to be what we might today think of as unfeminine and even ugly is actually a brilliant move, saying that she is a Prince of Europe, indeed a Queen, but don’t doubt for a moment that she is ready to act like a King (strong, aggressive, decisive.)

Queen_Elizabeth_I_('The_Ditchley_portrait')_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_YoungerThe Ditchley portrait is a perfect example. Look at her face – it is very masculine, yet she is dressed in feminine attire for 1590.  There are deep hollows under her eyes, which signifies “age=wisdom and care.”  The lack of heavy makeup, as she was renowned for wearing, again suggest masculinity.  We would error dramatically to think that this is exactly how Elizabeth looked.  Her official portraits were carefully designed and produced.  This is what an Elizabethan expected a powerful monarch to look.  In the next post, I’ll talk about the severe, gaudy clothing (that I love!)

Now for a little personal opinion:

Why do we so readily accept the idea that she was old and ugly for most of her reign? Is it because we don’t like the aesthetic of the period?  Or is it because we don’t like her portraiture’s suggestion of masculinity on someone so obviously a woman?  Do we want to somehow degrade her appearance as a punishment, as we often do with women, based on the notion that she surrendered her femininity in pursuit of leadership roles?

This goes back to my original premise that 19th Century (or for that matter, 17th – 21st Century) misogynistic mentalities prevail when we think of powerful females.  Elizabeth broke the rules: she was a leader, a highly educated woman, an outstanding manager, and did it all without marrying, bearing children, or falling into a support role to a man.  A woman leader is a concept that only now modern society is beginning to understand as possible.  Yet we still dismiss women with names like “bossy” or “bitchy” when she is acting in a way that we would say a man was “assertive” and “aggressive.”

Because of this prevailing practice, punishing myths about Elizabeth developed that simply won’t go away.  If she wasn’t the woman she was expected to be, we basically beat her up.  How dare she?  Look at the slew of films about Elizabeth and you’ll see that we haven’t let go of the idea that if she wasn’t as we wanted her to be, we should revel and even expand on her “evils.”  The 2000 film “Elizabeth” with the marvelous Cate Blanchet in the titular role goes so far as to change the whole personality of the Queen.  In this movie, she is shown as indecisive, lacking confidence, prone to making errors, unable to comprehend politics, a poor communicator, and always needing to be rescued from her mistakes by male characters.  Oh, and of course, she couldn’t have gone her whole life without a man making her a “whole woman” via sex (with Robert Dudley on her coronation night, because she must have had such time and privacy then.  Not.)  And the whole controlled image idea was Sir Francis Walsingham’s idea, not hers.  Despite Blanchet’s performance, this movie was atrocious and massively inaccurate, and more than a little insulting in that it stole from Elizabeth her intelligence and her savvy.  “Anonymous,” a frankly hideous movie, can’t help but flop around in the mud with an Elizabeth who is promiscuous, un-loving, freakishly old in the end, murderous, cruel, and, oh yeah, ultimately crazy.  Again, the filmmaker chooses to follow urban myths rather than good research and reduces Elizabeth to a sexual caricature.  It is nearly 2 hours of gender and class snobbery (Shakespeare was middle class = stupid and couldn’t have written anything good.  Must have been an aristocrat.)  Even “Doctor Who” gets in on that act; making both the young and old Elizabeth a wanton woman who would happily toss away her crown and responsibilities for love.  Later, she becomes a screaming harrion, using that line that any scholar could tell you would never, ever, cross her lips, “off with his head!”[i]

Okay, off the soapbox:

The idea of a controlled image entered into the Queen’s actual, physical appearance by deliberate design and manufacture. Portrait matched reality of public message.  While during her early years, she was presented as chaste and husband-attracting, her later years were all about being unique, noticeable, and undeniable.  In some ways, you can say that she designed her portrait and then made herself to resemble the painting, not the other way around.

Compare an early painting of Elizabeth with a mid-reign portrait and another from her last years.

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1560

by Unknown artist, oil on panel, circa 1560

The new Queen is covered to her neck, modestly dressed, with a soft expression. (This image is said to be Elizabeth, but with all portraits, one should be open to the idea that they are misidentified.)  Yet this is the touchable, lovable, marry-able Queen.  Her clothing is fashionable but hasn’t changed too drastically from the fashions of her late sister’s reign.  Conservative, in other words.  This was a period of surcoates* being the standard of women’s wear.  Though we cannot see below her waist, the old-fashioned appearance of her clothing would suggest that she is likely wearing a kirtle* underneath her surcoate* and possibly a narrow Spanish farthingale – the cone-shaped hoop petticoat.  In the 1550-60s, the rolle* (we call them bum rolls now) was not used (which often comes as a surprise to re-enactors.)  Her hair is plain and mostly covered; her chin is slightly down.  She even wears a style of pinned up hood that was popular well before Mary I come to the throne.  No crown or crown-like headdress.  The fur is representative of her royal status, ermine being reserved for the highest ranks, and black demur fabric.  The gold necklace and edging on her ruff are all the expression of wealth she claims to have.  Letters from Ambassadors to home note that the real Elizabeth indeed dressed modestly, though queenly, and exploited her youth and potential.

794px-Elizabeth1_PhoenixAs she began to deal with rebellions, overseas threats, and middle age, you begin to see a stronger appearing Elizabeth, showing that she is still marriageable with her maiden partlet open, yet opulent, and assertive: erect, broadened shoulders, arm poised, light shining from her face not on it.  Chin up.  More of her body is seen.  This is the famous Phoenix portrait and is probably the most impressive of her mid-life.  It is an example of the patterned portrait, where only the approved versions of the royal image were allowed.  Her bodies* (or as we now it know, bodice) are short-waisted, with a moderate point.  The effect of padded and decorated mutton sleeves makes her waist look small, but more importantly, gives her a powerful stance.  In some ways it is reminiscent of her father’s portrait by Holbein.  Doubtless there is a rolle* at her hips but a rather medium-sized one.  We cannot see the skirts, and there is no extent garment to match this, thus we must conjecture that she is wearing either a Spanish farthingale with a wide-set of hoops, or petticoats, or both.  In the BBC classic series, “Elizabeth R,” costumer Elizabeth Waller chose to use the large French farthingale (or more correctly, the French Rolle*) and very wide hoops.  Based on caricatures of the period, French Rolles* were very large, stuffed pads, and counted on petticoats to flare out the skirts rather than hoops.  We don’t know how the rest of the gown is designed.  She is far more opulent at this time, at once making a statement that she is young enough to marry into a European alliance (something many of the nations feared she would do, unless it was to marry into their families,) and rich enough to make up for not being too terribly young.

What came after this was astonishing to our eyes, but probably not to the average Elizabethan.466px-Crispin_van_de_Passe_after_Oliver_Queen_Elizabeth_I

[i] Personal opinion: Elizabeth’s mother was beheaded, so too her stepmother Catherine Howard.  She had a crush, as a child, on the Lord Admiral, Thomas Seymour, and he was beheaded.  She, herself, was nearly executed.  When I hear people say that heads were always rolling in Elizabeth’s reign, I have to disagree: she was extremely reluctant to order a noble’s execution.  Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, was let off the first time he committed treason and it was only when he did it the second time that he was punished.  Mary Stuart was a huge mess that Elizabeth tried to avoid.  The Queen had no interest in having people die the same way those she loved had died.  Rebellious peasants were not so lucky to have Elizabeth’s reluctance.

** Please be careful with the images on this blog.  As often happens, the origin, artist, and copyright holder’s name sometimes gets lost as the image travels around the internet.  Putting images here is only as a means to make my point on this private blog.  I ask that if you need to use any image professionally that you inquire into copyright and respect ownership laws.  These images are for personal use only.

An Examination of the Mode of Dress – Part Two

800px-Queen_Elizabeth_I_('The_Ditchley_portrait')_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_YoungerTHE UGLY OLD, ANGRY, DESPERATE HAG MYTH – 1

Men were IN LOVE with THAT? But she’s old, and ugly, and look at those dark circles under her eyes.  She wore wigs to hide her baldness.  She wore hideous thick makeup to cover massive pits and pock marks on her scarred face.  All her teeth were black.

And there is the first myth we need to eliminate. We honestly don’t know what Elizabeth the First looked like in reality, at any moment in her life.  The closest image we have is a death mask … not the Queen at her very best.  We have portraits, yet Tudor portraits were never about reality – there were about propaganda.  It is a mistake re-enactors make when preparing to play characters from the 16th Century: we treat the paintings as if they are the equivalent of photographs.  They are not.  They may be all we have, but they are not photos.  They are statements by the artists and the subjects about what they wanted future generations to think of them.  If a cash-poor noble did not have a suit with pearls all over it, he could simply inform the painter that he wished his portrait to show him in a suit of clothes covered with pearls … and gold … and lace.

We do know that Elizabeth probably aged a little bit better than her peers.  Being Queen meant that she had the best available food, health care, and lifestyle.  Yet, the stress of the occupation must have taken quite a toll, and we are often she had a nervous disposition and an easily upset stomach – sounds like stress induced illness to me.  There is the urban myth that all her hair fell out when she contracted small pox, and that her face was scarred terribly.  But evidence suggests that her reasons for wearing wigs and heavy makeup had nothing to do with her illness, and that many were astonished at how well she survived the ordeal.  In Janet Arnold’s exception tome, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, the author notes that items of clothing appear to have been “let out” a bit as the Queen may have gain a wee bit, though nothing by comparison to the weight gain her father suffered from.  As for the teeth?  Yes, ambassadors noted that her teeth were in bad shape nearer the end of her life and most attribute that to her love of sweets.  (A small note about ambassadors: most if not all had an agenda and wrote back to their rulers whatever they thought people there would want to hear.  We should be equally wary of nearly anything written by the Spanish after 1570.)

What can be taken from these portraits is not necessarily a catalogue of what existed in clothing but what styles and trends were popular. We can also surmise what one expected their monarch, he or she who held sway over their very lives, to look like.

Workshop_of_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger_-_Portrait_of_Henry_VIII_-_Google_Art_ProjectHenry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, was painted as the most virile man ever to stride forth in the 16th Century.  Hans Holbein presents us with a portrait of Henry: young, vital, masculine, rich, athletic, and completely in command.  He appears tall, long-legged, aggressive, powerful.  The image is one of a King who would brook no dissention, no rebellion, no-nonsense.  But what is the reality?  According to scholars who examined armor from the same years, around 1537, Henry’s legs are shorter, he was suffering from weight gain and pain caused by a tilting accident a year or so earlier, and he was much older.  Henry was in his forties, prematurly graying, and unhealthy.

This was a style of official portraiture in Tudor England, and much of Europe. For Elizabeth, an approved visual pattern would be chosen and all portraits that year would follow that picture, regardless of reality.  The light was to emanate from her face.  Per Nicholas Hilliard, a court painter, “seeing that best to show oneself needeth no shadow of place but rather the open light…Her Majesty chose her place to sit for that purpose in the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near, nor any shadow at all…”[i]  We hear the phrase, the Cult of Gloriana, used for the image Elizabeth set out to use.  “The cult of Gloriana was skillfully created to buttress public order and, even more, deliberately to replace the pre-Reformation externals of religion, the cult of the Virgin and saints with their attendant images, processions, ceremonies and secular rejoicing.”[ii]Elizabeth_I_Rainbow_Portrait

So that, even as the Queen aged, she would be shown as a particular age, light beaming from her face, covered with symbols that said, “You don’t need the Virgin Mary – you have me.” Goddess.  Empress of the Seas.  Rich.  Young but not too young.  Facing her viewer with confidence, daring them to find the meaning in all the symbols (Sieve, Pelican, Phoenix, etc.)

What about later, when the images get quite odd to modern sensibilities? Here, it is my opinion that we run into two factors when understanding what is going on: 16th Century aesthetics and 19th Century Misogyny.

To this day, we have expectations of women that are near to impossible to meet. Rail-thin while supporting large breasts; fertile child-bearing with tiny hips; dedicated housewife able to succeed in business outside the home without ever getting tired.  Heaven forbid we should ever celebrate a woman who is confident, aging, and strong.  Leadership, in a woman?  It was the same, if not worse, in Elizabeth’s time.  After the failed Spanish attack, via the dreaded Armada, Elizabeth found herself in an undesirable position:  King and Queen of England, under threat, beyond child-bearing years.  Now what?  She did what any self-respecting monarch would do: she doubled down on her official image.  (More to come.)

[i] Quotation from Hilliard’s Art of Limming, c. 1600, in Nicholas Hilliard, Roy Strong, 1975, p.24, Michael Joseph Ltd, London, ISBN 0-7181-1301-2

[ii] Strong 1977, p. 16

** Please be careful with the images on this blog.  As often happens, the origin, artist, and copyright holder’s name sometimes gets lost as the image travels around the internet.  Putting images here is only as a means to make my point on this private blog.  I ask that if you need to use any image professionally that you inquire into copyright and respect ownership laws.  These images are for personal use only.

An Examination of the Mode of Dress of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Great of England



As the internet brings us the world, all the way into our homes, computers, and even phones, it brings a challenge for us to be cautious. Specifically, when I read up on Elizabeth the First, I find a tremendous amount of misinformation, urban myth, and odd tidbits usually said to make her seem more acceptable to modern aesthetics.

What I would like to do here is put off some of the confusion I suspect and to offer some alternate ideas. Just so you know, I am an historian utterly fascinated to the figure of Elizabeth and her society.  In a way, I have a bit of a crush on the lady.  I consider myself well read, though there are those who are more so.  I have participated in Elizabethan fairs (not often the bastion of historical accuracy,) costuming, and have been quite lucky enough to play the Queen.  So, not only do I feel reasonably authoritative (and am open to new ideas or documented correction,) but a little protective.

To understand Elizabeth, you need to understand a bit about the woman and the world. Elizabeth Tudor was born into volatile times of religious strife, rampant misogyny, remarkable exploration, and social change.  Good and bad.  Princess Elizabeth would start life as the pampered baby of Anne Boleyn, then outcast “bastard,” and then threatened pawn – all within her first ten years.  Going from being spoiled to ignored no doubt affected how she perceived herself and is a subject worthy of in-depth examination.  For our purpose here, I ask you to accept that she was raised in an unstable environment, leading to what many might call a “hoarder mentality” – in other words, like those who made it through the great depression of 1930s America, she never assumed what was available today would be tomorrow.  She was, as Queen, tight-fisted with money, lacking confidence in permanence, and always alert to the extreme cost of failure.  Such thinking, I believe, is reflected in her manner of dress.  It might also account for records indicating over 3,000 items of clothing in the royal wardrobe at the time of her passing.  Yet hording wasn’t the only factor contributing to the opulence of the royal person.

The world of the mid to late 16th Century was one of constant upheaval, and yet, marvelous change.  Most embraced the improved economy (not everyone, every year, benefitted from economic success, but in general, most downturns in economy were weathered fairly well by the merchant and upper classes.)  The average Elizabethan was not interested in bright sunsets, the beauty of raw nature, or what we would think of as the simple life.  To the 16th Century man and woman, what made their town, county, country, or personal space worthy were things that challenged nature.[i]  The local bridge, the size of the town, the opulence of the home.  It was all about appearances.  This is absolutely important to understanding what Elizabeth wore and why.

Elizabeth is the Queen: she is the King/Sovereign/Absolute Monarch of England (which was claimed as England, Ireland, Wales, and France – yes, France. Thank you Henry V.)  She was a “Prince.”  A huge number of her subjects and those people abroad thought that her being female was enough to guarantee that she would not succeed as Queen.  To counter this, she used propaganda, portraiture, and appearance to show that she was very much in charge, and doing a damn fine job.

Next, we’ll talk about the Queen’s appearance and urban myths that need to go away … NOW!

[i] This is stated much better by Ian Mortimer in his The Time Traveler’s Guide of Elizabethan England, 2014.  I highly recommend this detailed and exceptional reference book.

** Please be careful with the images on this blog.  As often happens, the origin, artist, and copyright holder’s name sometimes gets lost as the image travels around the internet.  Putting images here is only as a means to make my point on this private blog.  I ask that if you need to use any image professionally that you inquire into copyright and respect ownership laws.  These images are for personal use only.

No Rainbow without the Sun (the Queen’s New Clothes – Part 3)

After about 1 – 1:30 at the Central Coast Renaissance Festival, I change clothes.  This helps me to cool off after working in the sun all morning (it’s nature’s spotlight and provides the right amount of illumination for photographs with the children.)The archer by Laura Dickinson

466px-Crispin_van_de_Passe_after_Oliver_Queen_Elizabeth_IThis is a fun gig as we get to amaze people who always ask, “what’s under there?”

I promise to update this blog with photos of the dressing gig, but at the moment, I don’t have any.  I’ll work on this in July.

Meanwhile, I started designing my version of the Iconic Elizabeth as she would have been known and seen in the days of Shakespeare.  I was inspired by Elizabeth R – England’s Pride.

Elizabeth-R-1971-427 Elizabeth-R-1971-472 Elizabeth-R-1971-471 Elizabeth-R-1971-410 Elizabeth R White Dress Copy of Elizabeth-R-1971-421

This means a standing ruff, Drum Farthingale, and exceptional fabric.  My fabric I found quite by accident on-line.  It came from India and arrived in a bundle with so many staples to hold it together I feared the yardage was damaged.  It was fine but my fingers weren’t.  This fabric is in a nearly perfect, 16th Century Italian design, made from cotton velveteen and stamped gold.  It is heavy and even now I find I’m suffering from Dress Droop.

eliza fabric Copy of eliza fabric 2I used the Tudor Tailor’s pattern for a Noble Woman’s Gown of the late period.  The skirt was made extremely long, and folded up to create a pouf at the edge of the farthingale.  In Elizabeth’s time, this would have been pinned into place each time she put the gown on – at least an hour would be needed to pin the ruffle to the edge of the Drum underneath.  We don’t have that time, so I tacked each pleat into place.  Again, the skirt is closed up the front with sheer gold ribbon ties.  The Drum Farthingales (I have 2) were made by Beth Shaw (Etsy: Historicaldesigns) and Louise Pass (Etsy: Woodsholme.)

Joust Gown Sleeve The royal archer by Laura Dickinson red gown and friendThe bodice laces underneath and is then pinned into place.  Cynthia Howell very kindly lent me her talent and cat for the fitting of the bodice.

During the dressing gig, I only go down to corset and petticoat.  This is a family show!  On top of all that, I put on the support rolle, which is huge, and the Drum Farthingale.  I choose not to remove the Spanish, cone-shaped farthingale underneath the petticoat as it keeps my legs free and holds the weight of the velveteen skirt better.

This year, I plan to stuff netting into the sleeves and the pouf – they need a tad more structure (as you can see in the archery photo above.)  The sleeves here are mutton style sleeves, ending in an open-work cuff which I made from a damaged vintage tablecloth and lace I purchased from JoAnn’s Fabrics.  I sewed in the wrist ruffs so that they would not twist on me during the day.

Photo #8And yes, I can carry a plate of food on the back of that skirt!

Rainbow Inspired (the Queen’s New Clothes – Part 2)

Elizabeth_I_Rainbow_PortraitAt the Central Coast Renaissance Festival, the APQ (me in this case) parades into the “market” and schmoozes with the denizens and visitors.  This usually occurs around Noon.  For the 2013 season, right through this year, I built two sets of clothing, one of which is for this parade and the luncheon that follows.  I was inspired by the famous Rainbow Portrait.

There are several versions of this portrait that was painted late in Elizabeth’s reign.  She is shown as eternally young, wealthy, healthy, and in allegory (symbols of virginity, power, and prosperity are all over the portrait.)  Copy of elizabeth_i_afyer_marcus_-2Most people see this portrait and immediately understand who it is and how it is generally unlikely to have been based on reality.  Someday, I would like to create the whole suit of clothes right down to the embroidery, but alas – not enough time or funding.

The style of the clothing is very late, almost 1603 (the year of Elizabeth’s death.)  The bodice is low, round-necked, with either tight sleeves or mutton sleeves.  She wears a sheer ruff at the neck (I declined to do this as it made my Granny-neck look worse, my chin look huge, and the weather would never permit it.)  Elizabeth also wears a sheer standing, open ruff.  Beyond the glorious strand of pearls, she has other jewelry of note.  Underneath an open robe, which she is shown wearing as a Roman Senator’s or Emperor’s toga, we cannot see the skirt but the overall look suggest she is not wearing a Drum Farthingale.  My decision was to wear only the big, French Rolle and to save the astonishingly odd look of the Drum for later the second set of clothes.

Below are some in-progress photos:

Jacket back 4-15-13 Jacket front 4-15-13

I found a bit of trim that mimicked the figure-8 lace around the neckline, believe it or not, at Joann’s Fabrics.  The jacket is made from heavy silk taffeta in an egg-shell white, and lined in gold colored silk.  It is based on the jacket pattern from the Tudor Tailor and modified to go over the large Rolle.  I also cut the late reign, scooped neckline seen in the Rainbow Portrait.  Catherine Scholar hand sewed the hooks and eyes up the front.  She has a great skill for little details like this and I knew I would not do it justice.  I chose to make the sleeves a combination of the best of two worlds: the undersleeve is made from the same silk as the jacket, tight, and pearled.  Over this I used sheer gold silk, a gift from a friend, in a mutton style.  To this I added white, open work cuffs made from a damaged, vintage table cloth, and sheer ruffs.

fancy capI made a little cap based on the painting to the left.  It was a combination of a buckram pillbox form, an embroidered cap from India, sheer gold silk, and pearls.  The standing ruff is a loaner from Deborah Doyle, another APQ, and its creator Noel Gieleghem.  It really does take a village to dress a Queen.

The skirt is made from a remnant of wine colored taffeta with a gold pattern woven in.  I actually had to look at the fabric on both sides, in natural light, to decide what side to use.  In the end, the wine with gold, rather than the gold with wine, looked best.  The skirt is closed and faux ribbon ties go up the front.  I chose to wear a farthingale as this would keep my skirts from getting caught up in my legs and to provide air circulation.Wine gold fabric

Last, over all of this, I wore a red silk open robe made by Louise Pass.  She lined it in gold faux silk (for extra structure) and slashed the body of it, per the example in Janet Arnold’s book.

Overall, the look works great though it is unforgiving for weight loss or gain!

Photo #9 morning entrance costumeOpen robe 2014