"Your clothing is incredibly intimidating."
Yes. It is. Here's why:
What is Fashion, really?Fashion throughout history has never been solely about clothing one's self. Fashion trends have been guided by societal expectations, political climate, trade agreements, technological advances, and so much more. Fashion is about presenting yourself and your ideals to the world. Every piece of clothing says something - makes a statement about who you are, where you stand.
For the purposes of this blog post, we will focus on the Fashion of the Elizabethan era - particularly women's fashion. In order to do this, let's start with a bit of history. Some of this you may already know, though all of it is relevant to the Fashion trends of mid - late 16th century.
A Brief History of the English Throne, Leading to Elizabeth I's Reign
(Please note, this is a *brief* history. Much of the information here has been truncated for easier consumption.)
Henry VIII reigned from 1509 - 1547. We all know the story of his myriad of wives. Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII and mother to the future Queen Elizabeth I, formally married Henry VIII in January 1533. She birthed a daughter, Elizabeth, in September of that year. In 1536 - after 3 miscarriages - Anne was found guilty of treason, beheaded, and their marriage was annulled, marking Elizabeth as illegitimate. For many reasons, which we won't go into here, Henry VIII separated from the Roman Catholic Church, began the Protestant reformation, and began executing - without process - any subjects who protested against his theory of the divine right of Kings (among other things). There were also many wars and extravagant expenditures under Henry VIII, all of which were a burden of the tax-payers.
Upon Henry VIII's death in 1547, his 10 year old son Edward VI - from his third marriage to Jane Seymour - ascended to the throne. As Edward VI did not reach the age of majority, England was governed by a Regency council. During Edward VI's reign, there were several riots stemming from the economic hardships and social unrest of the people of England. Another expensive and unsuccessful (by most definitions) war was waged against Scotland at this time. In January 1553, Edward VI fell ill. He passed away later that year. Prior to his death, Edward VI proclaimed Lady Jane Grey and her male heirs to be next in line for succession, also proclaiming Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor as illegitimate.
Lady Jane Grey reigned for a total of 9 days, during which time, support for Mary Tudor rapidly grew. The Privy Council of England named Mary I as Queen of England. Lady Jane Grey was accused of treason and executed some time later.
Mary I, the first female English monarch crowned, reigned from 1553 to her death from illness in 1558. During that time, she earned herself the moniker "Bloody Mary" due to her aggressive pursuit to restore the Roman Catholic Church as the true church. Hundreds were executed, without process, for their opposition to the restoration.
In 1558, Elizabeth I, The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, Good Queen Bess, inherited the Throne, and with it, decades of unrest and distrust of the English Monarchy, and in particular, distrust of power-hungry women.
|In this allegory|
of true love
Women's Fashion Trends Prior to Elizabeth I's ReignNow, for a moment, let's take a look at women's fashion leading up to Elizabeth's reign. There are not a great many portraits of the late 15th and early 16th centuries in England. Starting in 1490, we see the trend is toward what is considered a more traditionally "feminine" shape: curved waistline, lifted chest, defined arms, broad hips. (Fun Fact: Broad hips began to lessen in importance as infant and birthing mortality rates lowered, which is why they are not as important to the "feminine" shape that is desired today.)
|Elizabeth of York|
In 1500, we start to see the waistline smoothing down with a more structured bodice. Skirts begin to fill out more, giving the look of a broader hip and smaller waistline. We still see much of the curve in the upper body, along with the lifted chest and defined arms.
|Mary Tudor's Marriage Portrait|
In 1510, we see the lower sleeves starting to grow. The extra fabric here is used as a sign of wealth. We can see the bust-line beginning to compress and a more smooth profile to the bodice. Some pleating in the waistline becomes more prevalent around this time.
|Drawing by Holbein|
|Elizabeth Tudor, age 13|
We could spend entire books discussing why fashion trends headed in this direction at this time. However, that's not the purpose of this particular post. The information above serves to give you a general idea as to where trends were coming from as Elizabeth ascended to the throne.
Elizabeth I's ObstaclesAs previously mentioned, when Elizabeth Tudor was crowned sole monarch of England, she inherited with that crown a great distrust from her subjects of the monarchy. Taxes were high; the English people had been publicly persecuted for decades. On top of this, the climate of the time was considerably colder and wetter as the century progressed, which began to affect crop production.
Society's view of woman at the time was one of subservience and meekness. While many working and merchant class women worked both inside and outside of the home, tending to business that needed doing, it was expected they would do as the authority figure of the home - the male, as it were - would instruct.
Elizabeth's predecessor, Mary I, also left quite an impression on the people of England - a woman so driven by her pursuit to change people's minds, that she had any who did disagreed with her executed. Bloody Mary's reputation was know far and wide throughout the Kingdom.
There were also many who believed Elizabeth was an illegitimate child and should never have been granted the Throne. While the Privy Council of England did grant her the Throne, She had a great deal of work to earn Her place and win the respect of Her people.
The Evolution of The Virgin Queen
|Coronation Portrait of|
1600 (copy of 1559
|Elizabeth I and the|
|Queen Elizabeth I|
Further in Her reign, we see Elizabeth I donning even more masculine clothing. Many more portraits can be found of Her in doublet-style gowns than in Her younger years. While She still does wear square-necked bodices, these, along with the rest of Her gowns, are worn with more full ruffs, again, mirroring the male wardrobe of the time. We also see a trend toward shoulder rolls, tabs, and other treatments, leaning outward to give the look of a more broad chest. This gives Elizabeth I a more imposing shape, to accentuate Her demeanor.
|The Ditchley Portrait|
Throughout Her reign, Elizabeth I gradually earns the respect of Her subjects, from the nobles to the gentry. This is in no small part due to Her fashion choices. If they never see her as an equal, the will never afford her the respect necessary to affect the change so desperately needed at that time. Elizabeth's fashion choices are one of the primary vehicles for political and social change during the Elizabethan Era. Even today, we still see the ripples of Her fashion across political and social waters.