In some previous posts I’ve considered the intersection of fashion and history on both a personal and cultural/historical level. Fashion and history are linked in some very interesting ways, one being the old canard that everything old is new again, given that fashion constantly embraces new ideas, yet also harkens after old ones. This fusion of past and present is not an invention of the twentieth/twenty-first century: take, for example, the neoclassical period, the era beginning in the late seventeenth century and lasting through the nineteenth century, a period which takes its name from an engagement with ancient Greek and Rome.
One of the best ways I’ve found to discuss the period is to show its art, architecture, and, fashion. In this manner I can demonstrate how the desire to emulate, with a difference, the ideas and structures of the classical world in the period plays out, whether through the Doric and Ionic columns of period architecture, paintings dealing with classical subjects, albeit revealing contemporary tensions and desires, or fashion, especially in the streamlined pale-colored dresses with their drapes that hug the body and gently reveal its shape, crafted in emulation of ancient Greek and Roman dress. The clothing of Jane Austen’s heroines, so familiar to us from countless media adaptations, for instance, is both unique and borrowed: the product of decades of fascination with the dress and behaviors of centuries back, yet revolutionary at the time for its simplicity.
In this post I want to consider the intersection of fashion and power, for the idea of dress’s power and the power of dress did not originate in the 1980s of Wall Street (the place or the 1987 movie), with its shoulder pads and power suits and fascination with Italian designers. One can imagine that some element of power dressing has always been in play, but one of the best examples I can think of is Queen Elizabeth I of England, the monarch who was not supposed to be.
The child of a disgraced mother (a mother executed by her own father), a disappointment in her gender to that father and in her religion to her sister, Elizabeth faced numerous difficulties, many dangerous, yet she finally gained the throne in 1558. She was a woman of deep learning, a bright student of many brilliant men; she also had, from all the evidence at hand, a devious mind: she had to have had to have survived for so long. One of the things Elizabeth understood very clearly was the power of the image, including clothing. Her state portraits are models of a controlled mise-en-scène that could put Alfred Hitchcock, the director famous for his meticulous control, to shame.
Her skill in forming her image is there in her first portrait as Queen, her coronation portrait. In the image she is a creature of gold and white, the paleness of her skin echoing the white ermine, the fur reserved for royalty, that forms a snowy collar around her shoulders and that edges the opening and inside of her great golden robe, embroidered with Tudor roses, that matches the fabric of her dress. Her hair, a gently rippling swell of golden auburn, cascades from her head, on which is placed a golden crown decorated with rubies and pearls, a tiny cross at the top, echoing the large cross on the black orb, also covered with rubies, on which she rests one hand. The other hand holds the scepter, the sign of power. The gold of her dress and robe of state, wrapped around her slim body, conveys majesty, something precious, while the fall of gold-red hair, loose to represent her maidenhood, recalls the hair of her father, Henry VIII. The white of the ermine and her face speaks to her unstained nature, her purity. At the same time, it reminds the viewer that this pale girl under a stream of fiery hair, only a hint of color on her cheeks and coral lips, is not only unstained but untried. Yet here she is, ready to pledge herself to the state. The portrait is a powerful tool demonstrating Elizabeth’s wealth, power, and her Tudor bloodline.
In a later portrait, she wears a brooch with a pelican on it; pelicans, as a later reference in Shakespeare’s Lear mentions, were supposed to feet their chicks with their blood: thus Elizabeth reminds her subject that she is their caretaker, willing to do whatever is necessary to sustain them. Another portrait shows her in black and white, a sieve in her hand. According to the story in the Bible, virgins could carry water in a sieve and never lose a drop. The sieve, in conjunction with the simplicity and almost religious severity of her dress (though the abundance of pearls, black and white, remind the viewer of her wealth and power), demonstrates her purity, her devotion to her people, to whom she has, in effect, wed herself.
The famous Armada Portrait is another key moment in power dressing, one that emphasizes not only Elizabeth’s own power, but conveys a sense of English power over the defeated Spanish and their might Armada. The portrait shows the queen, center of frame, wearing a white dress with a black velvet overlay. She is dripping with pearls, from the multiple strands around her neck to the large pearls in her hair. One hand holds a feathered fan. The other hand rests on a globe, about the size of the orb in her coronation portrait, that is positioned on a nearby table. Behind her are two images: one that of the vast Armada, sailing towards England and an expected victory; the second image shows that same fleet beset by storms, vanquished by the English navy and the English weather. Here is Elizabeth, Gloriana as she was known to her courtiers, triumphant. The placement of her hand on the globe not only asserts her sovereignty over England, but possibly gestures to a growing control over the world itself, the British Empire.
While the coronation and Armada paintings are very much openly about the business of the state, the pomp of formal occasions, another portrait has always drawn my attention. This is the so-called Rainbow Portrait, so called because the queen grasps a miniature rainbow, the sign of renewal, in her hand. Here is Gloriana, the Faerie Queene of Edmund Spenser’s epic poem of the same name, come to life, her waving hair flowing around her shoulders, a lacy ruff fanning out from her face, a dress of white, embroidered with pink flowers, with a golden robe over it, covered with embroidered eyes and ears. Words on the painting—“Non sine sol iris” or “No rainbow without the sun”—point to the need for Elizabeth, the sun, to supply that rainbow. When I’ve asked others to read the presence of the eyes and ears on the robe, they read it often with a consideration of Elizabeth’s speeches, in which she constantly reiterates her care of her people. Thus, they see the eyes and ears as a visual reminder of what she has told them: she is constantly watching/listening for them and their needs, protecting them from danger. Of course there is also another reading to provide, one drawn from the knowledge that Elizabeth had a fine spy network and that this was a period of multiple efforts to standardize all elements of the realm, from measurements to language to religion. As such, the eyes and ears promise a watchful Elizabeth, one who may be a kind of “Big Sister,” as well as the caring mother she purports to be.
That’s the glory of fashion: it provides many possibilities for the wearer and the viewer for different positions, various interpretations, but it always engages us, prods us, even challenges us. And it provides a kind of power, without speaking, that continues to fascinate.