Queen Elizabeth's Royal Fashion
By Pheobe Danaher
How do you dress a monarch? How can you take a human and make them into a god-like figure? Clothing plays a substantial part in the presentation of the king or queen, especially one such as Queen Elizabeth I, who had so much to prove in her office. She was not the first queen to rule England alone—if you count the nine-day reign of Lady Jane Grey, she was the third solo queen—but she was undoubtedly the most successful of the three women who ruled in that period. Her mother, one of King Henry VIII’s unfortunate ex-wives, was executed for charges of witchcraft, incest, and adultery, which were almost universally recognized as bogus. But the young Elizabeth was still declared illegitimate. However, in the wake of a tumultuous decade following Henry’s death, she found herself queen. The twenty-five-year-old, who was already known for her genius and scholarship, quickly became England’s most successful queen. Not that she had much competition, considering her predecessors. However, she was up against substantial obstacles, having inherited a nation torn by religious conflict and harrowed by bankruptcy. In order to solidify and legitimize herself as queen, she used her wardrobe to transform herself into an otherworldly figure.
Clothing had always been a means of conveying royalty and magnificence. Elizabeth did not begin a new tradition of using clothing as propaganda, but took it to new heights, transforming herself in the process. While she was known to dress simply in private, her appearances in court, in portraits, and in public events always found her in the most sumptuous clothing in England. In fact, during her reign, she published ten sumptuary laws which regulated who could wear what. For example, you could not wear fur on your clothing unless you were worth at least £100 per year, which translates to roughly £50k today. Her laws even covered private clothing only worn in the house, like nightcaps. We can’t know how enforced that particular part of the law was, but that article still suggests that Elizabeth would know what you wore, no matter where you were. In one portrait of the queen, painted shortly before her death in 1603, her dress has eyes and ears painted or embroidered on the silk that monitor the viewer.
Elizabeth’s otherworldly figure, created through clothing, was also a product of the extremely bizarre silhouette of the time. During the sixteenth century, a woman’s natural figure was almost entirely discarded in favor of a form that became more and more inhuman as the woman herself became higher status. As we can see in Elizabeth’s coronation portrait, the waist is long and narrow and the bust is pressed almost flat, creating a conical torso that flares out after the waist into a large skirt that keeps the wearer physically separated from others.
In the painting known as the Armada Portrait, made after England’s defeat of the powerful Spanish Armada, we see the popular giant sleeves and starched collar that further obfuscate the human underneath. None of these clothing elements were Elizabeth’s alone, but rather part of a popular look in clothing. Some periods of fashion follow the human, especially female body, and some centuries attempt to erase it in favor of an artificial form. For us now, especially as we live in an uncorseted world, this erasure can be uncomfortable. But the Elizabethan era shows us the height of clothing as armor. Especially for a woman like the naturally willowy Elizabeth, who followed in the footsteps of a physically huge king like Henry VIII, to make oneself larger through clothing was a move of power.
Elizabeth’s personal style did not come through in the shapes of clothing, but in the opulence of her wardrobe. Her wardrobe took up a city block of buildings, and at her death over 2000 gowns were recorded to be in existence. None of them survived, as clothing during this period was often reused and recycled into other pieces, so we know about specific dresses mostly through portraiture. As queen, her outfits were the most sumptuous in the nation, using the best fabrics like silk and the newer invention of velvet. Many of her outfits were adorned with hundreds of pearls, which symbolized purity and bolstered her image as the Virgin Queen. She was also enamored with jewelry, owning 628 separate pieces in 1587. Her queenly style took existing trends in fashion and intensified them to make an iconic image.
Elizabeth’s clothing served to make her less human, but not as much as her makeup. She suffered from smallpox in 1562, a disease that leaves survivors with deep scars like cystic acne craters from Hell. From then on, she regularly wore ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar which most fashionable women and smallpox survivors wore, and which was about as bad for you as one would imagine. Over time, it caused the skin to turn grey and wrinkle, and the repeated lead exposure very likely caused Elizabeth’s death by blood poisoning in 1603. She also wore heavy rouge on her lips and cheeks, which was thought to be so restorative that, at her death, the queen was supposed to have worn at least a half-inch of it on her lips. That rouge may have been made from cochineal beetles or madder, but was most likely vermillion, or mercuric sulfide, which is also highly toxic. Combined with her plucked-back hairline, her wigs, and later, her red hair dye, Elizabeth looked almost nothing like a real person.
But you wouldn’t want to assume that Elizabeth, or any of her contemporaries, wanted to look natural or human. The goal was not to look cute or stylish, but rather to appear powerful, wealthy, and otherworldly beautiful. Chief of all these fashionable, ghostly women was England’s most beloved queen. Her appearance alone didn’t ensure her success; she was actually a popular, successful queen on the strength of her own achievements. But it did serve to cement her image in the common psyche, and made her one of the most iconic women in Western history.