Friday, 7 February 2014

"Lost From Her Majesty's Back"

In Tudor films, you often see the women slipping easily out of their gowns at bedtime. But in reality, their clothing was a fiendish affair, which would have left modern women ready to scream.

Poor women and lesser gentry might be able to get away with a smock-like one piece gown, pulled simply over the head. But wealthy Tudor woman had to contend with layers of clothing, some of which had to be fastened together as they were put on.

Underwear was, of course, non-existent. 'Drawers' were not worn until much later. So both commoners and high-born ladies would have wandered about fancy-free - which explains, perhaps, how so many women managed to get pregnant at a court where unmarried ladies were watched so closely!

There is not much evidence about ways of dealing with menstruation, but women probably had a belt that allowed loincloth-style protection involving 'wallops', or rolls of linen, most likely folded. More on that fascinating topic can be found under this post at On the Tudor Trail.


"Draughty today, isn't it?" (Sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger. British Museum.)
The kirtle or foreskirt went over any other undergarments - such as a shift, or what we might call a full-length 'slip' today. It often had a plain back and a highly decorative front panel, especially if the lady's family was wealthy and she wished to demonstrate that with fine and expensive materials. Sometimes the kirtle was already attached to a bodice, but might also be laced into place at the time.

Over this would be hung an overskirt with a wide V-style opening to reveal the decorative kirtle. In the later Elizabethan era, a hoop or farthingale might be worn below the kirtle to swell it out like a bell. A "bum-roll" was also used to help support this structure and to provide contrast between the narrow waist and chest - helped along by a stiffened or bone-strengthened bodice holding a lady's assets down - and the swaying skirts.


'Psst, I think one of my sleeves is coming unfastened!" (The Family of Thomas More)
Sleeves were normally separate from the rest of the gown, and could be worn in a mix and match way, so that women might have "favourite" sleeves which they used with different gowns. These would be tied on with laces or ribbons. For some of Queen Elizabeth I's more elaborate outfits, however, it was not unusual for the sleeves to be so heavy with fur trimmings or jewels, they would need to be sewn on at the time of dressing. The stitches would then be patiently unpicked by her small army of ladies-in-waiting at the end of the day.

Only imagine the boredom of such a lengthy disrobing ritual, which for Queen Elizabeth could take as long as four hours! Perhaps the literary cliche of lusty gentlemen ripping high-born ladies' bodices off in sheer frustration may not be so far from the truth.

All these expensive clothes would have been stored in chests that accompanied the queen everywhere, including on visits away from her royal palaces, and were guarded zealously by the Keeper of the Royal Wardrobe and his or her assistants. The Keeper was a man during King Henry's day, but the task more typically fell to women once Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were on the throne. Jobs connected to the Royal Wardrobe were highly specialised and experts from outside the court were often brought in or given commissions for upkeep and preparation of special garments. There were 'silkmen', artisans and seamstresses on hand, as well as expert laundry workers, constantly available to deal with royal demand.

Any jewels which snagged and fell off unnoticed while Queen Elizabeth was out walking would be marked down in a Day Book now charmingly known as 'Lost From Her Majesties Back', which was kept religiously by her ladies. Every tiny pearl that disappeared from a sleeve or hem was noted down in this book, presumably allowing replacements to be ordered.

Given how many lost jewels appear in this book, it must have been quite a worthwhile pursuit to follow the queen about on state occasions, hoping to grab any lost jewels as they fell from her gowns, some of which were fairly bristling with expensive jewels - a point made by Janet Arnold in her fascinating book, Lost from Her Majesty's Back (The Costume Society, 1980), which may be available from some university libraries if looking to pursue this topic further.


A shorter version of this post first appeared in 2012 at English Historical Fiction Authors

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