August 27, 2014

Closet Histories #1.2: The Tudors

It seems the Renaissance has been quite sensationalized as of late. Between the Borgia's and the Tudors (and lets not mention Reign among them no) there have certainly been a lot of historic costumes on our TV screens in recent years. However, not all historic costumes are created equal, nor are they often very historically accurate. So after all the questionable polyester satins and sequins (which are still very pretty, you will never catch me really hating on sequins) let us cleanse our palate with some truth.

Like their Italian counterparts, English women of the early to mid 1500's wore a layered ensemble; again consisting of a linen chemise, some sort of bodies or stays, a petticoat (underskirt) and a gown. The chemises were often embellished with blackwork embroidery which, as you may imagine, consisted of black thread designs on a white linen fabric. The farthingale held out the petticoat helping to create the very hourglass shape with a stiff conical bodice and flared skirt. The split skirt showed off the petticoat underneath or in some cases a separate elaborate fabric triangle shaped forepart, a section of fabric often embroidered and embellished with jewels or pearls.

The gowns had square or bowed curving neckline and were trimmed with metallic braid or lace and often jewels and pearls. The distinctive style of sleeve en vogue during the first half of the century was called the trumpet sleeve. The upper arm of the sleeve fitted closer to the body and then below the elbow flared out dramatically and was usually folded back over itself to show off a beautiful velvet or fur lining. To these basic layers were again added partlets for modesty or decoration, detachable under-sleeves, a whole lot of jewelry and distinctive headdresses.

To model the quintessential English Tudor look we have the above full length portrait of Kathrine Parr from 1545. As a queen of England (albeit not for very long, from 1543 till 1547 when Henry VIII died) she had the status and wealth to wear the very finest of dress (and was apparently very fond of jewels, though who isn't really).  Katherine wears a gown of golden brocade with a forepart and lower sleeves of rich red brocade (or voided velvet perhaps? hard to say). The trumpet sleeves of her gown are lined in a lush white (ermine?) fur and the neckline of her bodice is trimmed in jewels. In addition to the jewelry on her gown she wears a brooch, necklaces, a jeweled headdress, several rings and a long jeweled girdle. Originally made of fabric, the girdle was essentially a jeweled metal beaded or chain belt with a long "tail" down the front of the gown that ended in a tassel or sometimes a small prayer book.

Though the look displayed above is the classic Tudor style, lets look at some more portraiture to get a wider idea of Tudor fashions in England leading up to the Elizabethan period.

Fig. 1                         Fig. 2                               Fig. 3
Fig. 1 is a portrait of Elizabeth of York, daughter of king Edward IV, wife of Henry VII and mother of king Henry VIII. This portrait, from the late 16th century, portrays her in a wide square necked gown of red velvet with relatively close fitting sleeves and ermine fur cuffs. Her gown is trimmed with gold and seems to close in front,  possibly overlapping and being closed with pins.

Representing french fashions of the time in fig. 2 is Françoise Brézé, Duchesse de Bouillon 1550. Her gown, again in red velvet with gold trim, features a different style of sleeve with a larger puffed shape more reminiscent of the Italian styles. Her gown also features fine lace along the outside of the golden trim of her gown and sleeves. She wears two different pearl necklaces, the more elaborate of which is double stranded with what look like golden letter "E" shaped spacers. Her french hood style headdress (we will be going over headdresses in the next CH post) is also decorated with pearls. 

The last portrait, fig. 3, is of Henry VIII's first wife queen Catherine of Aragon. Most know Catherine's story, her marriage to Henry VII ended in an annulment/divorce requiring Henry to break from the catholic church and thus start the protestant Church of England; all so that he could marry Anne Boleyn in hopes of a male heir. Here Catherine is shown wearing a deep burgundy red velvet gown with the distinctive trumpet sleeves and under-sleeves of gold cloth. The neckline of her gown is trimmed with jewels and pearls and she seems to be wearing a sheer partlet with gold edging.
Her gable headdress is rather elaborate, covering all of her hair with a full veil. 

Fig. 4                          Fig. 5
Our next two ladies didn't get along very well at all. Fig. 4 is a portrait of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII and one time queen of France. She wears a gown of blue or violet silk with heavily embellished lower sleeves and a pearl encrusted neckline. She also wears an elaborate gable headdress trimmed with pearls and several pearl necklaces. The sleeves of her chemise peek out as cuffs from her lower sleeves and have delicate blackwork embroidered edges. Mary married Louis XII in 1514 becoming queen of France, but Louis died three months later and Mary returned to England. She soon after married Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, to her brother Henry's dismay as he had wished to have used her eventual second marriage for his own political advantage. The second portrait, fig. 5, is of the infamous Anne Boleyn. Because the world of Tudor era aristocracy was a small one, Anne Boleyn had been part of Mary's court while she lived in France, but Mary was not a fan of Anne. Mary opposed her brothers divorce from Catherine of Aragon and strongly disliked Anne. 

Anne Boleyn is arguably the most famous of Herny VIII's six wives. She was the woman Henry was willing to break from Rome and create a whole new religious reality in England for. Of course we know how this second marriage of Henry VIII ends, Anne fails to produce a male heir and is eventually executed. Lets be honest, that Henry guy sure was a crazy fellow. Anne is depicted wearing a black velvet gown with plush brown fur sleeves. Her blackwork chemise neckline shows from underneath her gown, the neckline of which is embellished with large gold beads or charms and pearls. She wears her famous "B" for Boleyn necklace along with another strand of pearls and a heavy gold chain. She also wears the french hood style headdress, perhaps she preferred the style from her time spent in France, though both the french hood and the gable style headdresses were worn in England. 

Fig. 6                                               Fig. 7                                               Fig. 8
In figures 6-8 we look at three different red and gold gowns. The color red seems especially prevalent during this era, but perhaps was just a color regularly chosen for portraiture. All three ladies (Mary FitzAlan, Princess Elizabeth, and Jane Seymour, respectively) wear red gowns with embellished gold under-sleeves and petticoats (or foreparts). In fig.s 6 and 8 parts of the sleeves seem to be made of a golden net fabric. Mary FitzAlan's trumpet sleeve lining turnbacks are of a gilded highly figured brocade and her under-sleeves are of this golden net/lace style fabric. The cuffs of these lower sleeves are also done in a very ruff like fashion, which would later come into fashion during Elizabeth's reign. I am also completely taken with her richly gold embroidered partlet with its little ruff! Her forepart seems to be richly embellished with either embroidery or lace as well. You can also see her jeweled girdle belt, the tail of which she holds in her hand.

Fig. 7, a portrait of queen Elizabeth I when still a princess, if truly painted in 1546 shows her at just 13 years old. Her gown is of red brocade with the classic Tudor pearls and jewel trim along the neckline. I can't decide if I think the fabric of her under-sleeves and petticoat is sheer or not, it looks like a voided or cut away velvet but the fabric could certainly be sheer with the white of her chemise showing through. Either way her sleeves are clipped with jeweled brooches or charms and the whole look is certainly befitting of a future queen!

The gold net like fabric occurs again as the trumpet sleeve lining in fig. 8 for Jame Seymour's red velvet gown. The neckline and sleeves feature jewels and you can just see her girdle hanging beneath her hands.

Fig. 9                                       Fig. 10                                          Fig. 11
The ladies featured in our next set of examples are all wearing beautiful black gowns. All three  are wearing a high collared gown (or parlet over the top of their gown) in black with a blackwork embroidered collar. I would just love to make this style of gown someday, black velvet just calls to me! This style seems to be later in date, though I could only find and exact date for fig. 10 (1546). Fig.s 9 and 10 still show the distinctive trumpet sleeves and split skirt style paired with blackwork linen chemises peeking through the slashed sleeves. Verging into Elizabethan styles, the last portrait is of Elizabeth's sister and royal predecessor Mary I. Mary wears a gown of highly figured fabric, either a brocade or perhaps the whole gown is embroidered (!), you can see underneath her high collar is the collar of her chemise as well, both are of blackwork embroidered linen. It also looks like her high collar might be a partlet worn over her gown to cover the open neckline area. In any case the result is stunning!

Fig. 12                             Fig. 13                                     Fig. 14
I chose our last two ladies because they are wearing such bold prints! Fig 12. again depicts Catherine Parr. This gown features two rich brocade fabrics (why choose one right?), one for the gown and another for the petticoat and under-sleeves. The bold prints and colors seem to clash a little bit more than they blend for a really striking look. Notice also that the belt portion and the "tail" of her girdle are different. The belt portion is composed of mostly pearls while the tail looks to me strung with large coral beads. Coral was often incorporated into jewelry or amulets as it was seen as a protective substance.

Fig. 13, is a portrait of Elisabeth of Austria, queen of France for the later half of the 1500's. I wanted to include another French woman to show the way the French style was a mix between the styles of England (ridged conical shapes, trumpet sleeves) and the Italian styles (gold net partlet, fabric nearly identical to that one Eleonora di Toledo gown). Elisabeth wears the trumpet sleeve with fabulous furry lining turned up. The fabric of her gown is so similar to the fabric of Eleonora's that I wonder if it was from the same weaver in Italy. Fashion traveled, and regional differences seem to have disappeared more and more over time.

We will see more of the Tudors in next week's post when I will cover Tudor era headdresses in greater detail!

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!

That was a long post, thank you so much for reading through to the very end :)


  1. Fascinating, marvelous post. I find myself more drawn (if I was to wear one of the two style camps, so to speak) to British fashions from this era, more than Italian ones, but both are of course undeniably sublime and I would never pass up the chance to sport either. In fact, I'd really, truly enjoy it.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. That's why I am a costumer, I just half to wear these beautiful gowns! Even if just for some pretty pictures (and feeling like a princess for an hour). I'm really glad you are enjoying the posts! I am spending a lot of time putting them together but it seems to be worth it :)

  2. Can't wait for the headdress post! I have made a couple of French hoods, but they are probably not very accurate :)

    I am a total sucker for the jewels and embroidery in these outfits. These posts are definitely making me miss the costume-y events in my life!

    1. I have never attempted one myself, they a bit look complex! I'm not sure if they have ever discovered an extant hood so really your guess on how to construct one is as good as anyone else's would be!


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