As soon as the battle of Bosworth was won, Henry VII’s politically astute mother sent him appropriate clothing for his state entry into London. A king was expected to look like a king, having ‘a prerogative is his array above all others’. Sumptuary laws policed the system under the Tudors, with everyone — in theory — wearing only as much glitter and flash as their rank permitted. You really were what you wore.
The Great Wardrobe Accounts of Henry VII and Henry VIII offer numerous unexpected insights into contemporary events. One sinister detail I spotted during my research on the period is a warrant issued in November 1498 for black damask to be made into doublet for the pretender Perkin Warbeck, then a prisoner in the Tower. Black was an extremely expensive colour to achieve, requiring multiple dyeing, and was favoured by royalty. The gift was a striking mark of the king’s favour. Soon afterwards, Warbeck involved the last genuine male Plantagenet, Edward, Earl of Warwick, a fellow prisoner, in a treasonous escape plot. Had the damask encouraged Warbeck to expect a pardon in return for acting as an agent provocateur and helping dispose of Henry’s royal rival? I think so, but he was executed anyway, shortly before Warwick and almost a year to the day after the damask was ordered for him.
There is no black suit in the sensational In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace (until 6 October). But we do have a terracotta figure, dating from this period, of a laughing boy in a jacket of green cloth of gold: almost certainly Henry VIII as a child. He often wore green, yet is rarely depicted in it. There is also a miniature of him here, however, as a young king in a green doublet. Henry VIII was considered the best-dressed Prince in Christendom, and in another portrait his silk costume is sewn thickly with jewels. It must have cut the ageing Henry to the quick when he learnt that Anne Boleyn later thought he had lost his touch, and was laughing at his elaborate dress. But then Anne was executed in 1536, wearing elegant grey, and their daughter Elizabeth declared a bastard.
Elizabeth remained as such in 1546, when she was painted by William Scrots in a red dress with foresleeves and forepart in tinsel — the most expensive fabric of all, sewn with raised loops of pure gold metal thread, a technique you can see quite clearly in the portrait here. Bastard or not, her father had named her in line of succession, following her brother Edward and sister Mary. The tinsel was a sparkling confirmation of her status.
What we don’t see in this exhibition is Elizabeth in the plain dress she affected during her brother and sister’s reigns, to boast her pious Protestant modesty. It was an aggressive statement against the Catholic Mary who ‘delighted above all in magnificence of dress’ and is depicted in a portrait after Antonis Mor wearing the great pearl known as La Peregrina, a gift from her husband, Philip of Spain, and later bought by Richard Burton as a gift for Elizabeth Taylor. Since Elizabeth commissioned few portraits of herself, we also glimpse something of the full extravagance of her costume only as an ageing Queen when she worked hard to outdo courtiers, who dressed ‘more richly than the proudest Persian’. But a Dutch portrait by an unknown artist, of Elizabeth’s dandyish favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, dressed in silver and gold, is a highlight of the more modest exhibition at the V&A, Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudor, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars (until 14 July).
There were 1,900 items of clothing listed in the royal wardrobe on Elizabeth’s death, and many were regarded as state treasure. But then it was out with the old and in with the new, with the Stuart Queen, Anne of Denmark, cutting up Elizabeth’s dresses to make fancy-dress costumes for the masques she gave that Christmas. There is a full-length portrait in the Queen’s Gallery of an unnamed court lady in a masque costume resembling a dressing-gown. Anne cut hers to the knee, prompting the courtier Dudley Carleton to joke that she must have done it so that ‘we might see a woman had both feet and legs which I never knew before’.She added ropes of diamonds that had once belonged to Mary I: Anne had a passion for jewellery, and her husband James I had sent her some of Elizabeth’s before the old Queen was even buried.
Among the first to congratulate James on his accession was the Infanta Clara Eugenia, herself an heir to the English throne. Frans Pourbus the Younger’s portrait of her, a rarely seen star of the royal collection, was a gift that both acknowledged James’s rightful claim and served as a reminder of their kinship: the dress is embroidered with the red rose of the House of Lancaster, from whom she claimed descent.
There are also three-dimensional objects on display in the gallery with exquisite items of early Stuart clothing individually shown off in Perspex boxes like works of art. There are brilliant-coloured jackets, purses shaped liked frogs and an example of the kind of lace collars sported by Charles I, in Van Dyck’s masterpiece of the King from three angles (and in three costumes); each collar worth the equivalent of £30,000.
The V&A exhibition has a particularly good display of still more valuable renaissance jewellery, such as the Knyvett seal, a huge sapphire engraved with the arms of the man who scoured the cellars of Westminster to find Guy Fawkes and his barrels of gunpowder. Nothing is quite on the scale, however, of the later Great George, at the Queen’s Gallery, set with huge diamonds, which belonged to Charles II.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it was this flamboyant restoration monarch who sought to teach the court restraint in dress. The sumptuary laws had been abolished under James I, but in 1667 Charles II, sporting a knee-length vest in black wool, invented the three-piece suit to encourage ‘thrift’. It is a more heart-warming story than that of the black suit Henry VII pressed on Perkin Warbeck, and is told both in the excellent exhibition catalogue and in a spoof fashion magazine Robe (1667): ‘The New Style Vest: What Your Man Needs to Know’. Needless to say, thrift never caught on.
While the V&A exhibition is enjoyable but a little gloomy and sad alongside the museum’s Bowie show, the Queen’s Gallery outdoes Bowie, with its bejewelled kings and court ladies in drag. It dazzles the eye and feeds the mind — a triumph of style and substance, witty, surprising and gorgeous.