Queen Elizabeth's

Influence on Elizabethan Fashion

by Drea Leed

No site or book on Elizabethan costume can be complete without a mention of the woman who gave the era (and the era's costume) its name: Queen Elizabeth.

Both Bess and her father were renowned for their ostentation in dress. Who hasn't seen the portrait of King Henry where he stands, wide enough to bridge a small stream, ostentatiously draped in a king's ransom of silks, satins and jewels? if possible, Elizabeth outshone even her own father in the magnificence of her apparal--In some of her portraits, you can barely see the gown for all of the jewels, embroidery and decoration applied.

From Rags to Riches

There's a popular belief that Elizabeth's astounding wardrobe had its roots in her childhood--that she had an insatiable appetite for new and beautiful gowns, each richer than the next, because as a child she was denied all but the most basic accoutrements and clothing. At one point her nurse wrote a letter to the king, pleading that the small girl be give enough clothes that she need not run about in rags and
beseeching you to be [a] good lord to my lady...that she may have some raiment for she hath neither gown, not kirtle nor sleeves, nor railes, nor body stitchets, nor handkerchiefs, nor mufflers nor biggins. All this her grace must have. I have driven off as long as I can, that be my troth I can drive it no longer. Beseeching you my lord that ye will see that her grace may have that [which] is needful for her.

Though there can be no doubt that the circumstances of Elizabeth's youth and her mother's death had a great influence upon her future political and personal decisions, the Queen's ostentation in dress was not due simply to vanity and a craving for rich dresses to make up for the impoverished wardrobe of her youth. Her wardrobe was used for political ends as well.

Bess-Dressed to Impress

One of Elizabeth's remarkable traits was her ability to use any situation to her political advantage. Rich gowns impress people; this is an obvious fact. So Elizabeth's wardrobe was designed, first and formost, to impress--and to be suitable to her station as ruling monarch. The rich fabrics and jewels conveyed incredible wealth, power and prestige. Elizabeth's grandfather Henry the VIIth had been subject to mutterings about penury and miserliness as a result of his austere wardrobe; his granddaughter's gowns suggessed generosity and the willingness (and resources) to spend vast sums on personal adornment. People referred to Queen Bess as a goddess, as queen of heaven, and she certainly dressed the part.

Behind this facade of staggeringly expensive splendor, however, was the reality of limited funds, carefully budgeted expenditures, and a canny use of resources and materials. Elizabeth's wardrobe accounts were detailed and exacting, listing exactly how much material was bought, who from, how much it cost, and what it was used for. In fact, these accounts are one of the main sources of information about costume of the time.

Although her wardrobe far outshone any other in the land, Elizabeth's clothing expenses were actually quite modest, compared to those of other royals--only a fifth of that spent by her successor King James, for example.

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. In addition, the queen 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 staggering expense of her wardrobe completely on her own. As her reign continued, more and more people began bringing the Queen clothing as a New Year's present in an attempt to gain favor 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.

Queen of International Fashion

Wealth and power weren't the only statements that Elizabeth made through her wardrobe. She was exceedingly interested in the fashions of other lands as well. Royalty has long been considered a driving force in the exchange of fashions between countries (Katherine of Aragon's importation of the Spanish Farthingale into England, for example.) Though many other factors exist in the ebb and flow of changing national styles, Elizabeth's fondness for foreign dress had a significant impact on English fashion of the time as well as her own wardrobe. As one visiting emmisary related:

Her wardrobe accounts mention dresses from all over europe: "A Gowne of crymsen satten of the italian fation","A Venecian gown of crimsen velvet","a Gowne of blak vellat of the polony (polish) fation", "One French gowne of Russet satten", "One Dutch cloake", "a Flanders gowne of Black velvet cutt all over"...the list goes on and on.

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 from abroad. Italian, French and most especially Spanish styles filtered into England at an increasing rate during Elizabeth's reign, to be absorbed into English style.

Elizabeth even managed to use foreign fashions for her own political ends. When her marriage negotiations were at their height with the Anjous, she commissioned a portrait of herself to be sent to Catherine de' Medici. (see picture to the right) In the portrait, Elizabeth is dressed in the height of French court fashion at the time. Apparantly, it met with a favourable response:

Naturally, 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, rather like ripples in a pond, where they often assumed a simpler and more practical aspect than the gowns worn by the Queen and her companions. It was rather similar to the process by which a gown modeled on a Parisian runway eventually shows up a few months later, more practically designed and less outrageously priced, at the local department store.

This process could take some time; Lacking modern methods of communication such as fashion magazines and photographs, fashions in rural areas of England were often years or even decades behind London's. And the poorer the person, the less likely they were to keep their wardrobe up to date. For example, below are a funeral brass and a portrait created in the same year, 1589. The left was a representation of a lady of lesser nobility, the right one of cutting-edge fashion.

Elizabeth's influence on fashion extended beyond women's clothing. The opulence of her wardrobe began to have an effect on male garments as well. Courtiers vied with eachother to be seen in the most flashy, dashing, expensive and fashionable outfits.

When Elizabeth began her reign, male fashions remained, for the most part, similar to those worn when her father and brother were king. The male sillhouette was broad shouldered and formidable, using masses of rich fabrics, bands of contrasting color and elaborate embroidery motifs to display the wealth and magnificence of the wearer.

However, both male and female fashion became far busier and more elaborate As Elizabeth's reign continued. Ruffs became higher and larger, and skirts and sleeves became wider and wider. Bodices became more busily decorated, covered completely in braid, trim, jewels, metal and silk embroidery, or other forms of decoration.

Male fashions also followed this trend and became stiffer, more busily decorated with puffs, pinking and slashes, and generally more contrived in appearance. The Peascod belly evolved during Elizabeth's reign. Men would sometimes wear girdles, the equivalent of the female corset, to obtain the wasp-waisted look in fashion at court. Indeed, the difference between the fashionable courtier and a countryman was as great as that between women's dress of London and that of the rural areas.

By the time of Elizabeth's death, the look of English fashion had changed entirely from the graceful, simple Tudor styles which had existed at the beginning of her reign. Below are two pictures: one of fashionable dress during Elizabeth's youth, the other of a court gown worn at the end of the Queen's reign. The contrast speaks for itself.

The evolution of a nation's fashion is a process influenced by so many factors that pinpointing an style's origin or originator is almost always impossible. Elizabeth, however, had a more powerful influence over her country's changing styles than almost any other monarch before or since. As a powerful woman and an anointed monarch, she--or rather, the combination of her royalty and her famed "virginity"-- became an icon of sorts. Poems were written to her, where she was likened to anything from a queen of Faerie to a goddess in her own right.

Far more portraits were painted or her than of her father or her successor, King James, of which copies of were made and distributed freely to the populace. The increasing popularity of printing and engraving opened another avenue whereby her image could displayed to a wide audience.

In this way, fashions at court--which were spearheaded by the Queen's fashions, both through hand-me-downs to her ladies in waiting and through imitation by those wishing to gain notice and approval in the Queen's eyes--greatly influenced English Costume.

Related Links:

  • Elizabeth I Portrait Gallery
  • A Tour of 16th Century Fashion