Name: Queen Elizabeth I (Good Queen Bess, The Virgin Queen, Gloriana)
Born: September 7, 1533 at Greenwich Palace
Parents: Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn
House of: Tudor
Ascended to the throne: November 17, 1558 aged 25 years
Crowned: January 15, 1559 at Westminster Abbey
Married: Never Married
Died: March 24, 1603 at Richmond Palace, Aged 69 years
Buried at: Westminster
Reigned for: 44 years, 4 months, and 5 days
Succeeded by: her 3rd cousin James of Scotland Relation to Elizabeth II: 1st cousin 13 times removed
Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana or Good Queen Bess, the childless Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.
Queen Elizabeth was one of the most loved monarchs of all time, and her influence in the realm of fashion is a good example of her influence over people, as well as their devotion to her.
Elizabeth I’s rule is remembered as the Golden Age of English history. Under her rule, England advanced in foreign trade, exploration, literature, and the arts.
In the fashion world, those with an abundance of influence, control and power tend to set the current trends and styles. This has rung true since we can remember. While now it is usually celebrities that set these trends and influence styles in historical times it was the monarchs.
Several monarchs influenced Renaissance fashion. The Tudor monarchs of England had possibly the most important impact on Western European fashions of the 16th century. Of those monarchs, the most influential were Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. Henry VIII never lacked an abundance of fur and jewels to showcase his wealth. He reportedly spent 16,000 ducats on clothing annually, which would equate to about $3,140,000 today. He was described as being “the best-dressed sovereign in the world: his robes were the richest and most superb that could be imagined: and he put on new clothes every Holyday.” It is fair to say then that Elizabeth I’s love of fashion may have been peaked at a very tender age by her father. There are account books and letters which reveal bills for an orange satin gown and russet velvet kirtle, for the king’s heir had to be fashionably dressed for sure.
When Elizabeth I took over the throne in 1558 after the death of her sister Mary, she needed to win the support of her people: Catholics, Protestants, those that believed a woman could not run a country by herself… One of the best ways for a monarch to win support back then was by making a tour of the country and showing themselves to the people. In Tudor times this was called a ‘progress‘. This was not an option for Elizabeth because she had many Catholic enemies and it was not safe for her to travel around the country. She instead, chose to use portraits painted of her to show herself to her people. It was, therefore, imperitive that these portraits showed an image of Elizabeth that would really impress her subjects. At times throughout her reign, the government issued portraits of Elizabeth that were to be copied and distributed throughout the land.
The below painting is her “Rainbow Portrait” and depicts the color and embellishments always decorating her gowns and headdresses.
The above portrait is her “Armada Portrait,” painted shortly after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It portrays the styles she made fashionable, including the ruff, wasp waist, and leg-of-mutton sleeves, as well as her love of pearls.
When she died she had over 3,000 gowns and headpieces in her wardrobe. Although she was never considered a great beauty, her style was widely admired and emulated. She was a tiny woman, small breasted and small-waisted. So consequently, her fashions accented a silhouette of a long, flat, narrow torso. Even men wore corsets to try to make their bodies fit this mode. Her pale complexion and high forehead caused women to wear even more white powder/paste on their faces than before and pluck their foreheads and eyebrows (Elizabeth actually died from lead poisoning from the lead that was in the white makeup she used to cover her smallpox scars). She also loved elaborate clothing just as much, if not more, than her father. Her outfits were always lavished with jewels, embroidery, ribbons, and lace. Her particular favourites were pearls, representing her image as the “Virgin Queen.” She wore white and black because they were the colours of purity and wisdom. She used her clothes to show that she was rich and powerful.
Behind this facade of very expensive splendour, was the reality of limited funds, carefully budgeted expenditure, and a clever use of resources and materials. Once a gown or item of clothing was made, it was often altered to accomodate changing fashions and tastes. Sleeves were replaced with other sleeves, panels were added and removed from skirts, worn garments were picked apart and their fabric used for other wardrobe items, and trim and embroidery recycled from one gown to the next. The queen also often paid ladies in waiting, valets, and others in her service with gowns, foreparts, and other pieces of clothing from the Royal Wardrobe. Fortunately, Elizabeth didn’t have to bear the expense of her wardrobe completely on her own. As her reign continued, people began bringing the Queen clothing as a New Year’s present in an attempt to gain favour with her. There were dozens of stomachers, foreparts and sleeves given every year, often lavishly embroidered and breathtakingly decorated. In fact, Elizabeth’s first pair of knitted silk stockings came to her as a gift on New Year’s Day. She was so delighted with them that she immediately commissioned more to be made for her, and soon many courtiers of her court were beggaring themselves to afford the terribly fashionable, and terribly expensive, silk hose that the Queen was so fond of.
Elizabeth’s fondness for foreign dress had a significant impact on English fashion of the time as well as her own wardrobe, her wardrobe accounts mention dresses from all over Europe. She had patterns and sample bodices sent abroad so that the French, Italians, and even Germans might make gowns to her size. She even imported tailors. Italian, French and most especially Spanish styles filtered into England at an increasing rate during Elizabeth’s reign and were absorbed into English style. Elizabeth even managed to use foreign fashions for her own political ends. Obviously, what the Queen wore, greatly influenced those close to her. Her ladies in waiting wore her old dresses; other women strove to imitate the style of the Queen and her ladies. New fashions filtered gradually down from court to society in general, where they often took on a simpler and more practical aspect. In much the same process that occurs now, by which a gown modeled on a runway, shows up a few months later, more practically designed and less expensive, at the local stores.
All of the arts flourished during Elizabeth’s time. Elizabeth enjoyed dancing and watching plays. With the creation of works by such greats as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, writers paid tribute to the queen in many forms. The poet Edmund Spenser based his character of Gloriana in The Faerie Queen on Elizabeth (she was sometimes referred to by this name) She also loved music and could play the lute. Thomas Tallis and William Byrd were among her court musicians.
We were very lucky to have Queen Elizabeth I bring forth so much to our rich history and I believe she has influenced and inspired the design and art industries in many ways today.