September 24, 2014

Closet Histories #2.1: Elizabeth I

The story of queen Elizabeth I is as well know as the saga of her mother and father. Most people know of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, and no matter how far Anne herself fell from grace, her daughter went onto rule England for 45 years. At various times in her youth she was considered an heir, a princess, an illegitimate sire, the daughter of a king, the sister of a king, the sister of a queen, until finally it was she who wore the crown. Elizabeth's 45 year reign may have had it's ups and downs, but is still considered a golden age today. The cult of personality that built up around Elizabeth herself was a key factor in her success as a woman in a male dominated world. She became more than a queen, she became an icon.

Today we will look at Elizabeth through portraiture. Though the image of the queen was highly controlled, it is still interesting to analyse the costume specifically chosen to represent the monarch. Elizabeth certainly set the trends (sometimes literally through sumptuary law) for her age and it only makes sense to start at the top!

"This painting is the finest and most compelling portrait of Elizabeth I before her accession. It conveys her beauty, dignity, gentleness and learning. Although it was probably painted for her father, Henry VIII, it is first recorded in the collection of her half-brother, Edward VI, where it is described as ‘the picture of the Ladye Elizabeth her grace with a booke in her hande her gowne like crymsen clothe’." (Royal Collection)

This portrait of the young Elizabeth while still a princess exemplifies the Tudor style of dress worn under the reign of Elizabeth's father Henry VIII. Elizabeth wears a red silk gown with the typically Tudor conical waist and wide square neckline. Her gown splits in the front to show of a rich golden textile forepart which matches her jewelry studded lower sleeves. She wears a typically Tudor abundance of pearls, accenting the neckline of her gown, the edge of her french hood, and making up her girdle. The portrait is a good place to start when studying the evolution of clothing and Elizabeth's own image throughout her coming reign.

"This painting is known as 'The Coronation portrait', and shows the Queen crowned, wearing the cloth of gold which she wore at her coronation on 15 January 1559, which had previously been worn by Mary I. She holds the orb and sceptre, symbols of her authority. The portrait appears to have been painted in about 1600, and is probably a copy of a lost original of c.1559." (National Gallery, London)

Here we again see Elizabeth as a young woman, though now as a queen not just as the daughter of Henry VIII. At her coronation in 1559 she was just 26, though she had become queen in 1558 at age 25. In this portrait we see her in the gown she presumably wore with the cloth of gold on her coronation day. Made of a similar golden cloth, the dress has a rather more pointed waist than that of the previous portrait. Though the dress otherwise remains very "Tudor" in style, already the changes to come can be observed in this pointed waistline and in the ruff already affixed around her neck.

In the early part of her reign, it seems Elizabeth had a hard time choosing just what her public image should be. As it was originally presumed she would marry in order to ensure a Tudor (and Protestant) heir, early portraits from her reign lack the strict iconic symbolism familiar in her later more controlled portraits.

For example, this full length portrait of Elizabeth was executed early in her reign in 1563. The painting depicts Elizabeth as a young woman ready for marriage, the bountiful garden on the right symbolizing fertility. This is in extreme contrast to later portraits that depict the queen after she had seemingly chosen not to marry which depict her as "the virgin queen". In any case her gown is stunning and certainly depicts the height of fashion in 1563. The rich red fabric is dotted with metallic silver and gold and accented with similar metallic trims. She wears small rolled sleeves at the shoulder with larger "leg of mutton" tapered shaped sleeves below and the entire sleeve is slashed with puffs of white linen chemise coming through. The waist is again very pointed and quite small, accented by her pearl and jeweled girdle. She wears a profusion of jewelry, from the large pendant at the end of her girdle, to the jeweled and enameled chain draped over the front of her bodice. 

This portrait from 1575, known as the "Darnley Portrait", was painted by an unknown artist yet became arguably the most important portrait of the Queen. I think I will let the National Portrait Gallery explain...

"One of the most important surviving images of Elizabeth I, this portrait was almost certainly painted from life, and the resulting pattern for the queen's face was to be repeated for the remainder of her reign. It is known as the 'Darnley portrait' after a previous owner. It shows Elizabeth looking cold, haughty and imperious, wearing a rather masculine doublet with a lace ruff collar, a double string of pearls looped around her neck and carrying an ostrich-feather fan. The portrait may have been painted by a Flemish artist, perhaps one visiting England for a short period. It is likely that it was commissioned by a courtier close to the queen, and it is possible that the pendant or the ostrich feather fan may have been a gift from that person. Behind her on a table lies her crown. It was an image that was much reproduced and is rather more lifelike than some of the later portraits which created the idea of an ageless Virgin Queen..."

Like the last portrait, the formally popular french hood has disappeared, becoming instead a rather frothier pearl and jewel band or net. There is still indication of an attached veil but it is super sheer. It's hard to tell just what this hair decoration is, whether it is still affixed to a stiff form like the headdresses of the Tudor era, or if it has changed completely into something softer but no less beautiful. Also notice how the larger shoulder roll is now smaller and eclipsed entirely by Elizabeth's large sleeves. She still wears a pearl girdle, but now there is no pendant or chain hanging from the front of it.

Here we see Elizabeth as icon. Known as the "Armada Portrait", this painting celebrates Elizabeth in all of her royal and also military glory. She is surrounded by symbols of her imperial majesty, her crown behind her, her hand on the globe, images of her naval defeat over the Spanish Armada in the background. The painting was created to commemorate this victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588. The queen would have been 55 in 1588 but like most of her portraits is presented as ageless, an icon more than ever after such an important victory.

"This is probably the most iconic portrait of Elizabeth the Virgin Queen (and is one of three versions in existence). Her hand is firmly on the globe and the Imperial crown reflects her equality with the Holy Roman Emperor and her status as Empress of the world, whilst the mermaid hints at her command of the seas. Her dress, in her preferred colours of black and white, also proclaims her rank and is covered with her favourite gems and precious pearls from the sea, a sign of virginity." (Woburn Abbey)

The abundance of embellishment on the gown featured in this painting can hardly be matched. Bows with jeweled centers, layers of pearls, the richest of brocades and a profusion of expensive lace all help to raise Elizabeth to serious icon status. She seems to be wearing a matching hat on the back of her head, though in her styled hair she wears long pearl and jeweled hairpins. Her huge ruff is made almost entirely of lace (as opposed to linen) and would have been supported by a wire structure to keep it's wheel like shape. Nothing says royalty like piling on every expensive material and gem that could be found!

In another iconic portrait, Elizabeth actually looks a bit more her age. Fashion has certainly moved on again, this time to the wheel farthingale. Elizabeth is depicted in virgin appropriate white but her gown is also studded with gold set jewels. The outer hanging sleeves are full length, hanging towards the back to the floor. Her ever present pearls are looped in long necklaces and dotted in her hair. She wears a large ruff, though now the style is attached to the neckline on the gown and does not extend around the front of the neck (giving her room to wear more necklaces, obviously!). As for her accessories, she holds a pair of fine gloves and also a fan studded with pearls. She also wears a pearl and lace trimmed conch, a sheer gauze-like veil worn like a cape with a wing-like portions that stood up as an additional collar behind the head.

"Known as the 'Ditchley Portrait', this painting was produced for Sir Henry Lee who had been the Queen's Champion from 1559-90. It probably commemorates an elaborate symbolic entertainment which Lee organised for the Queen in September 1592, and which may have been held in the grounds of Lee's house at Ditchley, near Oxford, or at the nearby palace at Woodstock.. After his retirement in 1590 Lee lived at Ditchley with his mistress Anne Vavasour. The entertainment marked the Queen's forgiveness of Lee for becoming a 'stranger lady's thrall'. The portrait shows Elizabeth standing on the globe of the world, with her feet on Oxfordshire. The stormy sky, the clouds parting to reveal sunshine, and the inscriptions on the painting, make it plain that the portrait's symbolic theme is forgiveness. The three fragmentary Latin inscriptions can be interpreted as: (left) 'She gives and does not expect'; (right) 'She can but does not take revenge', and (bottom right) 'In giving back she increases (?)'. The sonnet (right), perhaps composed by Lee, though fragmentary, can mostly be reconstructed. Its subject is the sun, symbol of the monarch." (National Gallery, London)

Lastly we look at a portrait of the queen dated to the very end of her life around 1600-1602. The queen certainly doesn't look 67 does she? Ah propaganda, ever useful in the eras before botox. This painting is crazy, the queen's robe is coverd in eyes and ears, shes holding a rather stiff looking rainbow, and can you see that hairstyle? What is going on there! She wears two ruffs, one smaller one around her neck and then the larger stands out from the neckline of her gown. Another collar is formed in the arc of her huge conch behind her head. She wears pearl bracelets and a long knotted pearl necklace. Her gown seems to be trimmed at the neck with not only lace but also a second ruff-life trim. Allegorical till the end.

"...The serpent is symbolical of subtle wisdom ('as wise as serpents'), and the eyes and ears on the orange drapery or lining of the fawn outer robe imply that Her Majesty saw and heard everything. The crown mounted on a turban-like headdress of the early fifteenth century; and the bodice of linen, embroidered with floral designs, is the first example of a vogue very popular during the following reign. Contrary to her usual custom, the Queen is wearing her hair in ringlets, perhaps to give the illusion of youth, while the chin ruff serves to mask her sinewy neck." (Tudor Costume and Fashion, p. 608, Gogmsite)

For more about Elizabeth in portraiture, check out these links which I referenced while creating this post:

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. Another fascinating post! Thanks :) I love all the crazy symbolism, in the clothes and the backgrounds. The eyes and ears are just a bit creepy!

    1. The eyes and ears are definitely creepy, I heartily agree!


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