What The Royals Wore


Today I was at Bendigo Art Gallery to view their current exhibition - Tudors to Windsors - British Royal Portraits.

Firstly, I have to make it clear that I am not a Royalist. I took in the current and recent royal portraits in about 5 seconds. And I am not even slightly interested in either Princess Diana or the current Duchess of Cambridge. My only interest is with the dead royals pre 1960. And surprise, surprise, as I made my way through the entry and the first gallery of Tudor monarchs, it soon became clear that I was only looking at their clothes. So this is not a British history lesson, it is some observations on the wardrobe department.

Royal Children

Little Edward VI was the first to catch my eye. He was Henry VIII's heir, who became king at the tender age of 9, and died aged 15 in 1553.

Child's three-quarter suit of armor

This armor was made for King Edward. Noble boys learned to wear armor and to fight in it, usually with sticks. It looks heavy, but the exhibition notes assure us it's not.

The Five Children of Charles 1, after Sir Anthony Van Dyck - 1637

This portrait shows the future Charles II in the centre and his brother, the future James II, second from left. The enormous dog is thought to be their guard dog as their father had many enemies by this time and was soon to lose his head. It shows how children were dressed as miniature adults, and also how young boys like James were dressed exactly like girls. The only difference I can see is that James is not wearing a pearl necklace and earrings like his sisters.

Silk baby robe worn by the future George IV - 1762

Having seen so many silk garments from the 20th century just falling apart, I was amazed to see this gown in apparently perfect condition. It has no doubt been stored in optimum conditions by experts for the last 250 years. It looks to be an uncomfortable garment for a baby to wear, but then all clothes were uncomfortable then. The bodice is quilted and fitted. The sleeves are attached only at the shoulders and the long skirt has a pleated trim with rosettes.

 Dress to Excess

Elizabeth I by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger - 1592

All hail the farthingale!

Queen Elizabeth is sporting the fashionable farthingale at its most extreme in this famous portrait. This whalebone frame was an early kind of hoop that sat higher at the back as the wearer also wore a padded roll over her buttocks. The chest and front bodice were completely flat - She is wearing a board, called a busk, down her front. It's unlikely that she would have been able to sit easily. I recall reading that a bench stool was made for her. 

Lace and More Lace

Elizabeth is also wearing an enormous amount of lace. Lace was not only fashionable because of its beauty. It was extremely expensive, being all laboriously handmade, of course, and it was a show of wealth and status on behalf of the wearer. Apart from the enormous lace collar, she is sporting two lace wings like a fairy queen. I'm sure there was another name for this garment, I just haven't found it yet.

George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham - William Larkin and Studio, 1616

This portrait disturbs me as it seems his head is levitating above his body. Again, the lace. Buckingham was the "favourite" of Charles I and was believed by many to be a corrupting influence on the king. The occasion of the portrait is Buckingham's investiture into the Order of the Garter, and he is sporting a wonderful example of that garment.

The garter is beaded with pearls and bears the motto of the order: "Honi soit qui mal y pense", or "Shame on him who thinks ill of it". The Order of the Garter is the most prestigious order of chivalry, founded by Edward III in 1348. It still exists today. Notice that Buckingham's shoes are also frothing with lace and pearls.

Pink is For Boys

 Court Suit and Breeches - 1780

This suit for wear at court is silk and is lavishly hand embroidered with flowers in very fine detail. Even the buttons are delicately embroidered. Pink was a fashionable color for men in the 18th century and only became associated with girls and femininity in the latter half of the 20th century.

Once again, it appears to be in fabulous condition for silk. Those maids and valets really knew how to look after their lords' and ladies' garments. The rest is down to museum conservators.

Royal Ermine

Ermine, the winter coat of the stoat, is the fur that has become to be associated with royalty. Many of the figures in the portraits wore ermine trimmed dresses and capes. This is apparently due to a myth:  

"A popular European legend stated that an ermine, pursued by hunters, would allow itself to be killed rather than soil its beautiful coat with mud." (1) By extension this then became a symbol for moral purity and integrity.

There was a multitude of ermine on display at this exhibition. 

Detail - Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz - Sudio of Alan Ramsay, 1761-62

Here is George III's Queen Charlotte bedecked in an ermine trimmed gown. The black spots are the tips of the creature's tail.

Queen Anne - by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1690

The Abdication

The last royal story to interest me is the abdication of Edward VIII in 1936. Edward fell in love with American socialite (and, horror! shock! a divorcee!) Wallis Simpson and in 1936 he abdicated his throne after ruling for less than one year. They married and became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The Duchess of Windsor was well known for her elegance and style. I thought this was a delightful portrait of her:

Wallis, Duchess of Windsor - Dorothy Wilding, 1955

Evening Suit, "Hunting Lord of Isles" tartan, worn by HRH the Duke of Windsor, 1951

The Duke of Windsor was also a fashion plate. The exhibition notes state: "This suit shows the cutting-edge, fashion-forward, extravagant duke...the jacket is made by his favourite London tailor Scholte, his waistcoats were Hawes & Curtis, his trousers were always made in New York"

It's probably just as well he wasn't king, there might have been another revolution!

Louisa Amelia Jane Vintage Fashion Store

1) Sax, Boria, (2001) : The mythical zoo: an encyclopedia of animals in world myth, legend and literature, p.32


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