British exhibition charts 250 years of fashion

London, May 8 (IANS) A new exhibition of paintings from the British royal collection and historic clothing cast an unusual light on the clothing and accessories of European royalty over 250 years.

The exhibition “In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion” opens daily from May 10 to Oct 6 at the Buckingham Palace Art Gallery, reported Xinhua.

The show, which follows a well-received exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches from the Royal Collection in 2012, includes more than 60 portraits and some of the most famous paintings from Queen Elizabeth II’s personal collection including a Rembrandt portrait, and several well-known paintings by Anthony van Dyck.

Besides, the bodice, doublet and even armour could give visitors a three-dimensional understanding of what people were wearing hundreds of years ago.

“This exhibition tells a story of fashion, in the 16th and 17th centuries through portraiture,” said Anna Reynolds, curator of paintings with the Royal Collection Trust.

“Fashion conveyed all sorts of different messages at that time, and the most important one was the demonstration of your status and how wealthy you were, and where exactly you were in society,” she said.

The exhibition started with a portrait of Henry VIII (1509-1547), who was described by the Venetian ambassador as “the best dressed sovereign in the world”. He emphasized power with his dresses by using colours like gold, black, red and which, where were traditionally associated with monarchy. He also wore silk, fur, cloth of gold, as well as large jewels so as to look most splendid in the crowd.

Equally impressive was a portrait of Elizabeth I, who was 13-year-old then. After her mother Anne Bolyn was executed, she was deemed illegitimate. But Elizabeth was wearing a crimson gown, the rare dye of which was derived from crushed insects and showed that she was still in royal favour. Her fore sleeves were made of cloth of silver, woven with gold, which was used only by the royal family.

Status was reflected not only by colours and fabrics, but adornments and accessories as well.

Anne of Denmark, queen consort of James I, was known for her adoration of jewellery. Her hair jewels with the pattern of C4 were from her brother Christian IV of Denmark, while an S on her collar was from her mother Sophia. These details suggested that she was not only wife of an English king, but had strong connection with Denmark.

Lace was also an important indicator of social status and wealth. According to Reynolds, another highlight at the exhibition was a triple portrait of Charles I (1625-49). Anthony van Dyck was commissioned to paint the king in three different angles for sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini to make a bust. Charles I wore three lace collars with different designs so as to provide the sculptor a menu of options.

During the 16th century there was no English style of dress, Reynolds told Xinhua.

“Shakespeare remarks on it, with the English combining various elements from abroad to make something quite fantastic.”

During the 16th century fashion drew its inspiration from the most powerful European nation Spain, and its domination across Europe of its rulers the House of Habsburg.

That meant Spanish styles were worn in Italy, the Low Countries and parts of Germany to make a political presence by what royalty, court and the ruling class were wearing; the fashion emphasized how powerful Spain was and how far its power extended.

But in the 17th century France became more important, and at the same time it became more the leader of fashion, symbolized by the Sun King Louis XIV’s court and his court at Versailles, where being fashionable seemed to be the main task of courtiers, who were principally there to reflect glory on Louis.

“By the time of the 17th century we have the Stuart style, with Charles I being a trendsetter and a leader of fashion and I think that is when English dress really come into its own,” said Reynolds.

By the end of the 17th century, Charles II (1660-1685, Charles I’s son) was consciously trying to create an English form of dress, said Reynolds, although France remained the leading exporter of luxury goods.

However, Charles II even had a French tailor, to keep him right up to date with the cutting edge of court fashion and put him one step ahead of the French.

One of the paintings shows him in a distinctive coat and breeches “to distinguish him from the royal fashions of France”, said Reynolds.

The exhibition takes in paintings from the time of Henry VII (1485-1509) onwards, and charts an era when fashion became more accessible, if not to the common man then to the rich man, instead of being the preserve of the court and royalty.

“Fashions still continue to be used to demonstrate status but it is not just the elite any more,” said Reynolds.

“During Henry VIII’s time (1509-1547), to be really fashionable you had to be at the court and really, really rich. But by the 17th century there is the rising gentry and merchant classes. This rise of the middle class able to follow fashions is a trend that continues even more into the 18th century.”

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