I missed out on this exhibition when it was in London, and so was very lucky to be in Edinburgh while the Queen’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse is hosting it. It’s a lovely exhibition space, and the walls are adorned with gorgous paintings of the highest standard, with beautiful pieces of clothing interspersed throughout. Starting with Henry VIII and some very serious portraits of Elizabeth I and Mary I through to William Wissing’s portrait of Queen Mary (of William and Mary) as princess in fashionable undress we see the way fashion changed and developed, and yet remained central for projecting an image of where you stood in society (the absolute highest echelons mostly in this exhibition).
There were two gorgeous waistcoats on show, both intricately embroidered. There was a handy interactive guide that we were given at the start which had an interesting little video about the embroidery, with a reminder that it would have been even more incredibly difficult to have created such beautiful designs with no artificial light or magnifying glass. I am always in awe of the skill when I see such objects, but even more so with the additional information given in the guide. Embroidery was often inspired by plants, and there was an example of a botanical encyclopedia that would have been used for inspiration – the design on the female waistcoat showed the life cycle of a flower. There wasn’t all that much clothing on display because material often decays, and as items of clothing would have been astronomically expensive were often passed down, or parts of the material re-used, but what was on display was absolutely beautiful – such skill went in to creating them.
The section on children I found particularly interesting – I’d never really thought about what Tudor children wore. Within their first year they would be wearing floor length clothes – it was difficult to tell the gender of many of the children, bundled up in so much material. The girls would be wearing similar clothes to their mothers by the time they were two, with the one concession of having slightly less tightly fitting structuring around the torso. Clothes were used to show the age of the child – their clothes being an obvious indicator of how mature they were.
It’s also pointed out, however, that it can’t simply be assumed that the portraits are accurate depictions. Peter Lely is highlighted as an artists who liked to make adjustments to clothing in his portraits, making them looser, with less jewels, and removing lace collars to make them look more classical. The example portrait that is used is that of Frances Stuart with emphasis on the fact you wouldn’t be able to dress informally in front of your superiors (even if just in the imagination of an artist!) and so it was still a status symbol. Only those at the top of the social scale could have portraits of them looking comparatively under-dressed.
The exhibition points toward the fact that it’s not just the paintings that have come down to us that are the works of art, but the people in them were a form of art, with layers of clothing and jewels, they were a canvas to be worked upon. Even in battle attire fashion was central to design – armour followed textile fashion, even if this seems somewhat impractical. Fashion was used as a status symbol. It was to used to create a particular image – white clothing could symbolise mourning, as well as purity of mind and body. This is a wonderful exhibition that no fan of the Tudors, Stuarts, or fashion history should miss. It’s on at the Queen’s Gallery until 20th July, for more details see their website here.