First of all, a caveat: the clothes we see in 16th-century portraits aren't fashion. At least, not to our eyes. They're court costume – emphasis on the costume. It's difficult to reconcile the lavishly slashed, brocaded and jewel-bedecked gowns of lustrous Renaissance portraiture with our jeans-and-T-shirt culture, or even with the grander creations on the international catwalks.
We've just come out of the spring /summer haute couture shows in Paris, where fashion's biggest and, most importantly, richest names showcase their most lavish and labour-intensive creations. Still, nothing compares to the richness of the past. They don't make them like they used to do.
But nevertheless, if we think of fashion as a verb rather than a noun – of clothing 'fashioning' the body, and our image of it – the description feels terribly apt. Possibly the most enduring fashion – and fashioned – icon of that period, at least for us Brits, is Queen Elizabeth. Why? Well, the mythology around Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, vanquisher of the Armada, Defender of the Faith, is inextricably tied-up with her clothing. Her image is as instantly-recognisable as any Hollywood star, and her clothes were just as carefully chosen and styled as an Oscars ensemble. Elizabeth was not only the superstar, but the super-stylist, Angelina Jolie meets Rachel Zoe, meets Margaret Thatcher. Oh, with a heavy dash of her namesake, Elizabeth II.
I don't need to reiterate the life and times of Elizabeth: it's drummed into most children before they reach double-digit age. But bar the Armada, I'd argue she's better known visually. Her various incarnations – as Gloriana, The Virgin Queen and Good Queen Bess – are all expressed through choreographed propaganda, focused around her portraits and public appearances, always richly attired. Her skin was whitened, her hair supplemented with flaming auburn wigs, her dresses encrusted with symbolic pearls – symbolic of wealth, sure, but also of virginal goddess Diana. Ermine represented purity, as well as her regal status.
Ultimately, Elizabeth's fashion transformed her into a living, breathing icon. Or rather, iconostasis: there's no way she could move much in the tightly whaleboned stays and enormous sleeves, padded, slashed and pricked with precious gems, that fill the frame of Sir Nicholas Hilliard's Phoenix portrait. There's even something of the might of her father Henry VIII in the width of those shoulders. They say warrior as much as wealth. Power dressing, in every sense of the term.
Alexander Fury is Fashion Editor of The IndependentReuse content