Last week I was lucky enough to be invited along to The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace for a very special breakfast preview of their new exhibition- In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor & Stuart Fashion. Myself and a selection of other bloggers (including my partner in crime, Sarah), were given a guided tour of the exhibition by curator Anna Reynolds and got to explore the paintings, clothes and other artifacts on display ahead of the full public opening. Focusing on the elaborate costume of British monarchs and their courtiers during the 16th and 17th centuries, the exhibition looks in detail at portraits from the Royal Collection, illuminating how fashion became intrinsically interwoven with social status, class and power. As well as looking at some of the most famous (and indeed infamous!) figures of the Tudor and Stuart court, In Fine Style also sheds light on some forgotten characters, whilst illustrating how even in the most impractical situations, keeping up appearances meant everything.
The portraiture from the 16th century focuses on the vacuum of royal power which existed following the death of King Henry VIII in 1547. The death of his natural heir, Edward VI at the age of 15 left England in a state of political and religious upheaval, as his two half siblings, Mary and Elizabeth each tried to establish themselves as the rightful, divinely anointed monarch. This portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to William Scrots was painted when she was just a child but sought to categorically affirm her regal identity with expensive crimson fabrics, gold embroidery and ornate jewellery all denoting wealth and power in abundance. Considering that this picture was painted when Elizabeth was still considered illegitimate, it's interesting to note how she's already being depicted as queen in waiting.
As we move through into the 17th century, things become increasingly elaborate. Anne of Denmark (pictured centre, portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, 1614) adored jewellery and recognised the symbolic significance of accessories in emphasising her heritage, here using monogrammed pieces to link her public persona to her family, and her position as Queen Consort. Below, the portrait of Mary II, commissioned when she was princess of Orange denotes a palpable shift in aesthetics and courtly fashion, with ceremonial robes modified to project a more carefree, luxurious image, but one which is still imbued with a sense of royal power, thanks to the presence of the ermine and opulent jewellery.
As well as being crucial in the performance of power, portraits also played a huge role in the performance of femininity throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Here we find two rather revolutionary women- Frances Stuart (who later became the Duchess of Richmond) and Mary of Modena, the Duchess of York- embracing an androgynous approach to fashion and dressing in more tailored, masculine inspired clothing than had been seen previously. As well as proving practical alternatives to the heavy, cumbersome gowns which dominated the courtly wardrobe (here Mary is wearing a male riding habit), this shift away from a traditionally female aesthetic is one which further evidences how deeply fashion is associated with impressions of strength and power.
As the exhibition continues, it focuses on the techniques and craftsmanship used to construct such elaborate and ornate fashions, as well as the challenges of depicting these on canvas. In a world where perception was everything, portraits became hugely important in illustrating wealth, position at court and status, so it's perhaps no surprise that they became larger and more imposing as the power games and continually shifting politics of courtly life became ever more precarious. As well as this, the exhibition also looks at how influences from abroad shaped fashions of the period, and evaluates how battle dress became just as (if not more) significant in the portraiture of power as fine gowns, expensive lace and gilded embroidery. In a world where fighting for survival happened both on the battlefield and in the corridors of power, it's perhaps no surprise that armour became yet another sartorial instrument, allowing you to reinforce your position and status with plate steel and a sword as elaborate as any other courtly costume.
One of the things which I found really insightful about the In Fine Style experience was the focus on craftsmanship, fabric and the construction of the clothes which proved so important across the portraiture on display. It's staggering to thing that everything would have been created by hand, and even more impressive when you consider just how elaborate and painstaking the process of putting together a lot of the pieces on show would have been. The interactive elements of the exhibition also allow you to get a far deeper appreciation of the period, as well as demonstrating the continuing influence which Tudor & Stuart aesthetics continue to have upon modern fashion- as Gareth Pugh explains so perfectly in the video above.
Definitely one not to miss!
In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor & Stuart Fashion runs at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace until October 6th.
(Image credit: Sarah Farrell, please do not reproduce without permission. Video credit: The Royal Channel on YouTube.)