As a long-time admirer of the Virgin Queen, I am always fascinated by portraits of Elizabeth 1 and what they can tell us about the theatricality and symbolism of her times.
When she came to power, in 1558, Elizabeth was 25 years old and facing numerous challenges to her authority, both at home and abroad. She was only the third woman ever to rule in her own right – and as the first two were ‘Bloody’ Mary and the short-lived Lady Jane Grey she had much to prove about the capabilities of the fairer sex.
(Princess Elizabeth, painted around 1546 by William Scrots)
In private Elizabeth dressed quite plainly, in simple gowns, and I love to imagine her retiring to her chambers and throwing off layers and layers of official finery before collapsing by the fire. However, in public Elizabeth always dressed to impress and carefully cultivated an image that spoke of power, majesty, splendour and generosity.
The Queen’s coronation portrait clearly shows her iconic red hair (which she later maintained using wigs) and her love of luxurious fabrics and jewels. As well as being enjoyed for their own sake, such materials were an obvious way of demonstrating class and status. The Elizabethans lived within a strict framework of ‘sumptuary laws’ designed to control behaviour and maintain a rigid class system. These laws reserved some fabrics and colours for royalty alone (including ermine and scarlet outerwear), allocated some to lesser nobles (such as fox and otter fur), and then prescribed further restrictions for each class of person.
(Coronation portrait, a copy painted around 1600 by an unknown artist)
In Elizabeth’s youth, court fashions still carried a hint of the medieval with trumpet sleeves and a narrow-shouldered silhouette, as can be seen in Scrots’ early portrait. But Elizabeth liked to shop around for her fashion inspirations and was soon importing tailors from across Europe. The result was a new shape, with form-fitting sleeves and wide, padded shoulders, reminiscent of the French and Spanish styles of the day.
Elizabeth often favoured black and white clothing, to symbolise virginity and purity, and always dressed her maids in complimentary fabrics to create a processional effect. It’s easy to imagine the Queen, seated on a raised dais, with her attendants ranged alongside her as a perennial bridal party but without a groom in sight!
(The Darnley Portrait, painted by an unknown artist around 1575)
It was certainly an exhausting job to get dressed in Elizabeth’s time. A noble lady might have to deal with all of the following garments before she could be deemed presentable:
- A linen chemise
- A corset, often stiffened with wood or iron (ouch)
- A petticoat
- A farthingale (hooped skirt stiffened with wood, rope or whalebone)
- A stomacher (triangular panel to decorate the front of the corset)
- A gown
- Separate sleeves, sometimes slashed so that a contrasting fabric could be seen underneath
- Neck and wrist ruffs
- Stockings and shoes (with heels in later years of Elizabeth’s reign)
- If going outside, a cloak, hat and gloves
- Accessories including fans, pomanders, earrings, necklaces, brooches, watches and personal prayer books.
(The Pelican Portrait, painted in 1575 by Nicholas Hilliard)
Many of these items would be richly embroidered with metallic thread and encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones, which apparently had an annoying habit of falling off – so the job of court cleaner must have had a few perks! Elizabeth’s costumes also became more elaborate (and heavy) as her reign progressed. Farthingales increased in size so that her skirts became wider and more imposing and the ruffs around her neck and wrists also became larger and more impressive – particularly after the process of starching fabric was discovered.
As a young girl Elizabeth had lived under a form of house arrest. The daughter of a disgraced Queen, who many viewed as illegitimate, she was largely kept out of public view and lived on a relatively small allowance from her father. It seems that some of the habits forged during her youth stayed with her as, although her court costumes were extravagant in appearance, Elizabeth spent less than most of her successors, kept highly detailed accounts of her wardrobe expenditure and was also an early proponent of recycling – often updating a piece by changing the sleeves or ripping out panels of fabric for re-use in new gowns.
Despite this cautious approach to expenditure, there is no doubting the power of the public image that Elizabeth created for herself. The Rainbow Portrait, which now hangs at one of her childhood homes, Hatfield House, is perhaps the best and most richly symbolic representation of her persona as untouchable and all-encompassing ruler.
(Rainbow Portrait, painted around 1600 by Isaac Oliver)
Although Elizabeth was in fact in her late sixties when this portrait was completed and died just three years later, the painter (wisely) depicts her as a younger woman. Her famous white skin is evident, achieved using a poisonous mixture of white lead and vinegar and designed to cover the scars from a bout of smallpox some forty years earlier.
Her crown sits on a headdress of rubies and pearls (more virgin symbolism) and her red hair cascades down in front of enormous neck ruffles towards some pretty impressive necklaces.
The painting also includes a wealth of other details, carefully chosen to reflect aspects of Elizabeth’s reign. The gown is embroidered with English wildflowers and the cloak is covered in eyes and ears – reminding the Queen’s subjects that she saw and heard everything that went on within her realm. A serpent, symbol of wisdom, slithers down one sleeve and in her right hand Elizabeth holds a rainbow, a symbol of peace and a reminder of how Elizabeth had unified the country after years of bitter religious division.
It is clear that Elizabeth was always one step ahead when it came to building and protecting her public image, and the many surviving portraits of this trailblazing Queen still pull the viewer in and command their attention.