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In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion

10 May 2013 | Rachel Ridge

“In the 16th century the English were described as fashion chameleons. They would change their styles really frequently and they would combine garments from different countries in a really weird way.”

Perusing his fellow men bejeweled and bedecked in bonnets and ostrich feathers, shipped in from far and wide, compelled William Shakespeare to write; “I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behavior everywhere.” These mocking words of Baron Falconbridge in his play The Merchant of Venice, simultaneously reflects the Tudor and Stuart elite’s peculiarly distinctive reaction to fashion, whilst paralleling the multilayered new exhibition from The Royal Collection Trust: In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion. A show that journeys so far into the interactive, you can even try on these iconic accessories and outfits via their In Fine Style app! 

This summer, The Queen’s Gallery pays homage to our extravagantly decorative predecessors in a coming together of paintings, drawings, prints, jewels and particularly rare surviving items of clothing of the monarchs. As well as this, an extensive array of portraits encased in decorative gold gilts illuminate the deep red walls in a suitably grand manner. There was no society in British history more cut-throat, more elaborate, and we are to learn the clothes was where it all began. We are to learn that woven into their clothing were postures of status and Machiavellian political strategy.

The first room holds portraits of the monarchs we all know well – Henry VIII, Mary, Elizabeth I, Edward – all painted at defining moments in their life. Through the evidence of portraiture, we see how Henry VIII was the first monarch to use clothes as a demonstration of power. Curator Anna Reynolds concurs, “He really understood the importance of clothing, gold, expensive jewellery and very broad shoulders to create this iconic silhouette that we know.” With the portrait being painted just before he broke down the Roman Catholic Church, audiences are welcomed to listen to BBC6 music DJ Eddy Temple Morris’s darkly atmospheric choice of Shutdown by Stenchman, which is sure to elongate their gaze and alter their perception of such an iconic image. This is all part of the DJ’s 12 songs for 12 paintings, where you are invited to get lost in paintings of Frances Stuart, curiously painted in men’s soldiers clothing, all to the soulful sounds of Lana Del Ray’s Blue Jeans remix.

This marriage of music and painting we are led to believe isn’t as 21st century as you might think, in fact “music was woven into court life, and these very paintings would have been enjoyed with music in the background” reveals the DJ. The music available from the earphones on offer, enhancing the visitor experience.

This posture of power through clothing carries on to the portrait of a thirteen-year-old Elizabeth I, who wears a fabric only allowed to be worn by the royal family. This portrait is making a conscious demonstration of the importance of her royal blood, as Anna Reynolds reveals, “She actually sent it to Edward after it was painted…sending a message, don’t forget me, I’m still important, I still have this royal blood in me so don’t underestimate me.”

As part of the multi media experience, you are shown a video of Reynolds visiting pioneering British fashion designer Gareth Pugh at his studio to discuss his deep influence with this era of fashion. He cites Elizabeth I as a style icon, admiring the decadent rituals involved in creating court clothing as “Subtly erotic…I like the idea of using insects blood to dye a fabric, it’s very extravagant.”   

We learn, embedded in their choices of clothing, of many hidden messages and clues that a Tudor and Stuart society would have easily deciphered. The immense symbolism within the clothing of Margret of Austria, wife of Phillip the King of Spain, would have made a huge impact on rocky Anglo-Spanish relations at the time. Reynolds continues, “The huge brooch she is wearing was worn during the signing of a peace treaty one year before this portrait was painted. It was then sent to England to James I as a symbol of this new peace treaty between Spain and England…. it’s a reminder of that day and of that event and the clothes would have been read as a symbol of that peace treaty.”

Most interestingly, the final room ‘Influences from abroad’ uncovers how British style was as eclectic and rule breaking then as it is now. To cement this idea The Royal Collection Trust are offering ROBE magazine, 350 years in the making and presenting you the all important fashion features of it’s day! Reynolds reveals, that, “In the 16th century the English were described as fashion chameleons. They would change their styles really frequently and they would combine garments from different countries in a really weird way.” So not much has changed there! However, through the Royal Collection’s forward thinking and innovative approach to these old treasures, we are led to look deeper, alter our perceptions and see that the Tudors and Stuarts really were the first dedicated followers of fashion!

In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion runs until October 6. For more information and to book tickets please click here.

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