Fashionable Attire of the Elite

Gold thread and yellow taffeta purse in the shape of a frog. 17th century
Gold thread and yellow taffeta purse in the shape of a frog. 17th century

In Fine Style at the Queen’s Gallery provides a fascinating insight into the luxurious clothing and accessories that were an essential element of life during the Tudor and Stuart periods.

The phrase ‘you are what you wear’ was certainly true during these times when portraiture conveyed important messages about wealth, gender, age, social position, marital status and religion.

Using paintings, drawings and jewellery from the Royal Collection the exhibition traces changes in fashionable attire in the 16th and 17th centuries and introduces you to a new way to view portraits.

Entry to the inner circle at court, and subsequent political and professional success, was largely driven by personal appearance, and a key obligation for the courtier was to reflect the glory of the monarch through splendid attire. Monarchs and their court were admired for their fashion sense and innovative style.

In a 16th century portrait of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII, you can see blackwork, a technique that creates designs in black silk on white linen, and discover she is credited with its arrival in Britain from Spain. Even more intriguing is discovering that she used to make shirts for the King, and even continued to do so during his divorce proceedings.

Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I enforced laws dictating the fabrics, colours and types of garment that could be worn at each level of society. ‘Cloth of Gold’ (which incorporated gold-wrapped thread), crimson-dyed fabrics and certain types of fur, such as spotted ermine, were reserved for those of the highest status.

Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Anne of Denmark, 1614
Attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Anne of Denmark, 1614

High-maintenance and impractical clothing conveyed a clear message that the person in the portrait enjoyed a privileged lifestyle. The copious folds in the elaborate skirt of Anne of Denmark, Consort to King James VI and I, in a 1614 portrait would have needed daily pinning into place. She is also showing her love of jewellery by wearing a monogrammed C4 jewel in her hair and a diamond-studded S on her collar is a reference to her mother.

A clear example of the change in our values over the centuries is the cost of the handmade lace worn on a cloak band by Charles I in a portrait by leading court artist Sir Anthony van Dyke. Due to the skill and time to create it, the lace would have cost around £40,000 while the artist would have been paid £100.

The Darnley or Lennox Jewel, c 1571-8
The Darnley or Lennox Jewel, c 1571-8

Alongside these portraits are a selection of accessories and important jewels, several of which can be seen in the portraits. One of the most important early jewels is the famous Darnley or Lennox Jewel, an exquisite gold heart-shaped locket set with rubies, emeralds and diamonds.

This is an exhibition that draws you in with history and stories that capture the imagination, from men in periwigs to a frog-shaped purse made from yellow taffeta.

It is accompanied by a beautiful book, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, available online for £45. There is even a free interactive app that allows you to try on outfits and accessories of the rich and powerful from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Two upcoming events – on Monday 14 July you can join members of the learning team for a tour of the exhibition – and as part of Edinburgh International Fashion Festival, exhibition curator Anna Reynolds will introduce the exhibition and talk to British Designer Gareth Pugh about the historical fashion influences in his work. Tickets in advance £10, concessions £8.

See: In Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion
Until 20 July 2014
The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Canongate, Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH8 8DX
Open 9.30am – 6pm (last admission 5pm)
Admission: adults £6.50, over 60 £5.90, until 17 £3.25, under 5 free, family £16.25

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