Thursday, February 25, 2010

Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlocked

Attending last week's lecture at the ROM by Jenny Tiramani on Patterns of Sixteenth Century European Court Dress reawakened my interest in the costumes of that period. I pulled Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd by Janet Arnold off the shelf and studied the fashions worn by the powerful and tempestuous Queen.

The book opens with a description of the Queen written by F.M. O'Donoghue:

"Though in her girlhood, when her position was one of great uncertainty and some danger, she discreetly affected an extreme simplicity of dress, and a dislike for outward show, after her accession to the throne her natural vanity and love of admiration led her to adopt every expedient calculated to enhance her charms, and in her later years, 'imagining' as Francis Bacon observes 'that the people who are much influenced by externals, would be diverted by the glitter of her jewels from noticing the decay of her personal attractions' she indulged in an absolutely barbaric display of rich fabrics and jewellery."

Whether or not the Queen was excessive or barbaric in choices of wardrobe and jewellery is a matter of opinion but the many portraits of the red-headed monarch certainly confirm an affinity for sumptuous fabrics decorated with elaborate embellishments of embroidery and beading. Add her exquisite white ruffs and there is no doubt that she created a powerful effect with her wardrobe choices.

This incomparable book by Janet Arnold, originally published in 1988, is a comprehensive analysis of Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe. The book is divided into 11 chapters as follows:
I. In the Eye of the Beholder
II. Portraits of the Queen
III. Robes of Ceremony
IV. Designs for Jewellery and Embroidery: their Sources and Symbolism
V. Gifts of Clothing and Jewels
VI. The Pursuit of Fashion
VII. The Wardrobe of Robes
VIII. The Queen's Artificers
IX. Editor's Note on the Transcripts of the Stowe and Folger Inventories
X. The Inventory Made in July 1600 of the Contents of the Wardrobe of Robers at the Tower of London and within the Court (Stowe)
XI. The Inventory Made in July 1600 of the Contents of the Office of the Wardrobe of Robes at Blackrairs, with a List of Personal Jewels Lost Since 1586

Incredibly thorough in both its scope and depth of its analysis, this book also includes extensive illustrations and a comprehensive bibliography. What distinguishes Janet Arnold's books from others is her ability to make her scholarly work readable. Her analysis is deep but her writing is clear and to the point (an utterly refreshing counterpoint to the many scholarly works that I read which require toothpicks to keep my eyelids open).