In all things related to the British monarchy, I wholeheartedly share Mark Steel’s views.
That being said, I can’t help having an awe and fascination for the exquisite monstrosities that only a budget unimpeded by common sense and commoner conscience can summon. So, this week I paid up £10.75 and paid a visit the Queen’s Gallery to see the exhibition In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion.
The curators successfully refocus our attention of familiar paintings (such as those of the young Elizabeth I and Edward VI) onto the changing fashions of the Tudor and Stuart courts. Alongside the paintings are displayed examples of clothes similar to those the sitters wear. Seeing the real clothes seems to bring the painted ones into our space, breathing life into them.
The oil paint on wood depictions are supposed to outlive their sitters and the fashions they proudly show off, so it’s incredible to see these sixteenth- and seventeenth-century garments still intact, let alone looking fresh. Their materials, cost and craftsmanship has inspired diligent care by a line of owners and now textile conservators to challenge the wearing effect of the passing of centuries.
The exhibition has some unexpected elements; it shows us that in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, dresses were not just the garb of little girls and long curly periwigs were not the reserve of men.
I timed my visit to hear a ten-minute talk by one of the curators, Ann Reynolds (and I’m very glad to have made it on time). She chose the title of her talk Pretty Ladies dressed like men, from a comment by Samuel Pepys in his diary of 1660-69, to describe two unusual portraits – one of Frances Stewart, the other of Mary of Modena. The paintings contrast with the standard seventeenth-century depictions of courtly feminine beauty. In both, the usually bare arms and décolletage are hidden beneath outdoor masculine clothing, the usually delicately pinned-back hair is replaced by the impressively thick spaniel ears of periwigs, and both sitters (or, rather, standers) hold a sword. They remind us that, then as now, people play with identity by trying on different guises, expressions and masks.
Another object in the exhibition quite literally plays with identity. A portrait miniature of Henrietta Maria, it comes with a set of transparent overlays to ‘dress’ the lady in different outfits. It’s hard to tell whether the set is supposed to honour or ridicule the wife of Charles I, since it was produced after the execution of the king. Is it commemorative or malevolent? Either way, it was designed to be entertaining.
The fact that half the surviving overlays are of masculine clothing is another example of seventeenth-century play with gender, although the intention behind it is obscure. Was the act of dressing Henrietta in, for example, the hat and collar of Oliver Cromwell, the ultimate form of mockery, or was it just another outfit in a courtly masquerade party – nothing to bat an eyelid at?
The exhibition is both informative and thought-provoking, and the curators succeed in giving a clear picture of the fashions of the Tudor and Stuart courts. However, I found myself wishing for a little more social context: who made these clothes? Where did the materials come from? How were they made? What was the rest of the country, outside of the court, wearing at the time?
In a reimagined version of this exhibition I see a lord’s bejeweled bedcap sitting side-by-side with one of the countless knitted caps thrown into cesspits by Tudor city workers and later found there by 20th century workmen (many of these are now in the Museum of London collection). Also, there would be a map charting the journey of the silk for the thread covering that button, a recreated version of a Tudor taylor’s workshop, examples of the dyes used for Edward VI’s doublet..
But that’s all another exhibition.
In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion closes Sunday 06 October 2013.
Adult ticket £9.50 + £1.25 booking fee (make it a 1-year free pass if you remember to get it stamped on the way out)