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