Visual Art review: Art of Tudor and Stuart fashion

Half-length portrait of Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). Picture: Contributed
Half-length portrait of Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). Picture: Contributed
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Fine portraits from the Tudor and Stuart dynasties offer a fascinating insight into how royals used fashion to denote status

In fine style: The art of Tudor and Stuart fashion

The Queen’s Gallery, Edinburgh

Rating: * * * * *

Portraits are about faces, or so we like to think, but a great many are actually even more about clothes. Certainly that was the case in the 16th and 17th centuries and In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion sets out to tell the story of fashion through portraits, supported by some garments, armour and beautiful jewellery. The dynastic chronology is English. It means the 16th and 17th centuries,​ and the Stuart era in Scotland began in the 14th century, but we can forgive that oversight in this lovely exhibition. It was a time when high status clothes were elaborate, fabulously expensive and strictly hierarchical. Sumptuary laws dictated what people of different ranks could or could not wear, including fabrics and even colours, although these laws were evidently pretty ineffective. Being told not wear something is the best possible reason for going to great lengths to do just that.

Fashion began with royalty. The court followed the sovereign’s lead and court fashions in turn spread outwards and downwards. In the first portrait in the exhibition, Henry VIII, painted by Joos van Cleeve, fills the frame in fur and a slashed doublet of cloth of gold. He cared a great deal about his clothes and the Venetian ambassador declared him the best-dressed monarch in Europe. Fashion was international even among sovereigns and when Henry met the Emperor Charles V, they were described as not only “like brothers of one mind but in the same attire.” History does not relate what either thought about the other turning up to the party in the same outfit. Twenty years later, Henry’s nephew, James V, looked every bit as grand in wide sleeves of cloth of gold and a broad red collar embroidered with pearls. Cloth of gold really was woven from gold, too. You wore, if not your heart, at least your status on your sleeve for only royalty were allowed to wear this material.

Three of Holbein’s wonderful portrait drawings are a reminder of the sheer quality that the royal collection has to draw on. Holbein’s directness and informality also lightens the tone in the first part of the show where the style is generally pretty stiff. Holbein draws Anne Boleyn in a fur-trimmed nightgown and Thomas More’s daughter, Cicely Heron, with her bodice, loosened to make room for her pregnancy, revealing a charming yellow kirtle beneath. Underwear as outwear is nothing new. Men and women both wore linen next to the skin, but this showed at cuffs and neck. In a portrait of Catherine of Aragon the visible part of her shift is beautifully embroidered at the neck. She was a skilled needlewoman and went on embroidering her husband’s shirts even while he was contriving their divorce.

In an allegorical painting by Hans Eworth, Elizabeth intrudes upon the Judgement of Paris. Surpassing all three goddesses, she keeps Paris’s apple to herself. Venus however has taken off her embroidered shift to sit upon it naked in marked contrast to Elizabeth’s rigid and unnatural clothes. Shirts and shifts were the only garments that were washed regularly, daily if you were wealthy enough. Elaborate outer clothes were only brushed or spot-cleaned, so painters probably had a bit of restoration work to do depicting them. Their skill, generally, is one of the most striking things about this show as they record minute variations in the textures of different stuffs and the play of light on silk and satin, on jewels and woven gold. Even in a miniature of Elizabeth, in a detail invisible to the naked eye, Nicholas Hilliard varies the texture of his paint to give depth to the lace of her collar.

Mary Tudor looks as grim as her reputation in purple velvet and cloth of gold with a huge black jewel hanging at her neck, but formality reached a high point with her sister, Elizabeth, painted like an icon in black and silver. Anna Reynolds, curator of the exhibition and author of the beautiful book that accompanies it, told me that Elizabeth favoured black and silver as the colours of the moon in the night sky. As Virgin Queen she fancied herself as Diana, chaste goddess of the moon. Her clothes are so stiff and carefully arranged, however, they could only ever have been worn sitting very still on a throne. Her face suggests this was not good for her temper. Her murdered cousin, Scotland’s Mary, hangs next to her, in Clouet’s beautiful portrait of her in mourning white.

Mary’s daughter-in-law, James VI’s queen, Anne of Denmark, also kept up her dignity with the formal style. She wears a hooped skirt so wide it seems to fill the picture even in a half-length, high stiff collar, piled up hair and jewels on everything. It was only after her death that things began to lighten up. Charles I’s queen, Henrietta Maria, was a French princess and brought a more natural and also more glamourous mood to the English court. Hoops were abandoned and, painted by Van Dyck, Henrietta Maria is beautiful in a soft white dress set off with pink ribbons. She shows her bare arms. She also set a fashion for raised hemlines and so introduced ankles to high fashion. Van Dyck’s easy style may itself have influenced the way people dressed and saw themselves. Certainly his lovely portrait of the three eldest children of Charles I has an easy charm that is quite new, even in child portraiture as a portrait of James VI’s grandson, Frederick Henry makes clear. Aged only two, the poor wee boy is dressed like Queen Elizabeth in stiff robes of black and silver, though he does have the amusement of a live toy cannon which he is about to fire. Van Dyck’s triple portrait of Charles I is shown with an actual lace collar nearby very close to one that he is wearing.

The greatest informality was reserved for the masque, a private court entertainment much favoured by the Stuarts. A lovely miniature by John Hoskins shows Henrietta Maria in a masque costume designed by Inigo Jones with a fabulous headgear of pearls and feathers. At a masque in the Hague, Mary Stuart, wife to William of Orange and later Queen, appeared as an Amazon dressed in a cape of scarlet feathers imported from South America.

After the Restoration, kingship had changed. Royal portraits could no longer pretend to the iconic formality of the previous century. One of the most informal and modern seeming pictures shows Charles II’s gardener presenting the king with the first pineapple grown in this country and the king’s dress is not so different from the gardener’s. He is wearing a simple, three-quarter length, brown woollen coat. A style he is credited with introducing, it became standard male attire for a century and more. With a waistcoat and breeches it became ancestor of the three-piece suit. As clothes began to be more modern, they began to be fun in a more modern way too. In a portrait by Jacob Huysmans, Charles II’s mistress, the Duchess of Richmond, is cross-dressing as a soldier and in a portrait by Simon Verelst, Mary of Modena, Duchess of York, dressed for the hunt, seems to be wearing the splendid coat embroidered in gold and silver that her husband had worn at their wedding. A suggestively shaped open pocket is, however, a naughty reminder of her true gender.

Our clothes are much poorer in our democratic era, but they can still tell us something about who wears them, if only by the label. Two pairs of jeans may be identical, but the one with the designer label costs a great deal more than the other and so we learn that the wearer has money to waste. It makes the point perhaps, but as a form of display, it is a poor substitute for cloth of gold embroidered with precious stones.

Until 20 July