Dress in 16th and 17th century portraiture was loaded with meaning. Elizabeth I’ portraits, which functioned as one of the most important means of propaganda for her reign as well as a treasure chest of symbolic imagery are well-known. Her formalized image functioned, as a Roman emperor on a coin, as an easily recognizable and multipliable pattern for the royal state. Portraits, then, were vehicles to convey meaning first and foremost. Not only the (royal) status of the sitter, but also her or his heritage, property, material wealth, knowledge or wisdom, geography, and future aspirations were all contained in embroidery, accessories, and fashion.
The tailoring of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean dresses was nothing spectacular. Skirts, sleeves and other parts were usually pinned or tied together on the body. This provided flexibility as one could choose to wear a bodice with or without sleeves but it was also responsible for the enormously time consuming task of getting dressed. Artists did not focus so much on the tailoring of the dress but on depicting the rich layers of decoration as they were more interested in getting a message across than in painting darts and pleats. A huge amount of money was spent on fabrics however, and artists were interested in getting as high as possible realism in their works, as the illusion of the materials will give the viewer the allusion of the sitter’s position. So if a painter can paint silk or lace in such a way that it seems like we can almost touch it, it will give the contemporary viewer an instant sensation of the status of the sitter. The clothes of the sitter, after all, were often more expensive than the painting and can be compared to owning a Ferrari nowadays. It is something to show off, to cherish, and it will send a message out about your financial (and therefore social) status in life.A painted portrait, therefore, is an act of theatre. The sitter wants to sit, he or she wants to play the part of the person he or she wants to send out into the world. The world is a stage, after all, and having your portrait painted is, assuming the sitter has a big hand in the design, a way to carefully manage and compose your message to the world. Whether it is nonchalance or deep intellectualism, wealth or wisdom, whatever you choose to wear, whatever pose you take on and accessories you hold in your hand, will help create that message. Artists and sitters in Tudor and early Stuart times were very aware of this.
One way of conveying your message is through textiles; textiles in the clothes you wear, the accessories you hold, the background, the room you are painted in. In the early days of this period bobbin lace, for example, was slightly cheaper than needle lace and therefore needle lace was depicted in many portraits to show wealth. In the 17th century the price differences vanished and bobbin lace tried to imitate needlelace and the other way round (quite successfully and so often in paintings it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two). Silks came from Italy, velvet was the most costly fabric and fine white linen was imported from The Netherlands. A black cloak in the first half of the 17th century often referred to the fashionable mode of ‘melancholy’ (although black was also worn for mourning and was popular in Spanish and Dutch fashion). Yellow lace was made fashionable by Anne Turner, the Lady in waiting of Lady Somerset but executed in 1615 for her role in a murder plot, after which yellow lace quickly disappeared from the fashion scene.
Another fascinating fashion was for a pale white skin for which (as nowadays for a tanned skin) women went to extreme lengths to achieve it. Strange mixtures of plant extracts and other ingredients (lead!) were turned into pastes and creams and applied to face and chest. To accentuate their pale skin contrasting black ribbons and patches were used as accessories. The fashion desired a transparent skin and often blue veins were painted onto a white-pasted chest. Examples can be found in many portraits, like in many of William Larkin’s portraits.
In The Netherlands many rich citizens had themselves portrayed in modest and high necked costumes often in just black and white. This now famous tradition of sobriety had its roots in Spanish fashion. In portraits from the period we see fairly stiff and heavily ornamented dresses topped with enormous stiff lace-edged ruffs. Spain had occupied and ruled The Netherlands for a long period of time and the fashion of the occupier stuck. Rich burghers wanted to show a slightly misleading show of modesty and protestant sobriety but at the same time showed off their wealth in the use of rich velvets, silks, embroidery and lace all dyed in the most expensive of all dyes; black. Black fabrics were extremely costly to make (black dyes would often fade and a good quality black fabric would cost a fortune). The Dutch were famous for their production of very fine white linen, then known in Europe as ‘Holland’ which was used for collars, cuffs and undergarments such as smocks. The linen was so fine, no such quality is made nowadays anywhere in the world. The black outfits of rich merchants is usually finished off with a white linen and lace collar and cuffs, again showing wealth and worldliness in a proper and modest manner. The enormous ruffs worn by the Dutch in the early 17th century have become instantly recognizable as a Golden Age icon.
The large ruffs you find in early seventeenth-century portraits are the results of the time consuming efforts of linen bleaching, sewing, starching and setting. A ruff is constructed from a long strip of fabric, usually very fine linen lawn (Holland lawn was the finest around, made, obviously, in The Netherlands), gathered into cartridge pleats. The length of fabric ranged from a few meters up to nearly 20 meters and ruffs could have anything from 30 all the way up to hundreds of pleats! The famous Dutch portraits often show ruffs of around 200 pleats and we can assume that the painter painted the ruffs fairly accurately. The laundress had the responsibility to starch and set the ruff in the shape required with the aide of a hot poking stick to set the pleats. Rain and wear would ‘melt’ the starch and would make the ruff go floppy and the work would have to start all over again. In Jonson’s play Every Man out of his Humour (1598) a character warns his friend to “keep close; yet not so close, thy breath will thaw my ruff”. A rare surviving ruff is in Munich’s Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, where there is a linen ruff from around 1620-40 with no less than 530 pleats. It is one of very few original ruffs left in the world ( as far as I can tell at the moment, there are only three original ruffs left, the others being in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the Royal Armoury Museum in Stockholm)
Anna Reynolds, In Fine Style. The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, Royal Collection Trust, 2013
Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 4, Macmillan, 1988
Nina Mikhaila, Jane Malcolm-Davies, the Tudor Tailor, Batsford, 2006
Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England, Yale University Press, 2005
Hanneke Grootenboer, How to become a Picture: Theatricality as Strategy in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Portraits, in: Caroline van Eck, Stijn Bussels, Theatricality in Early Modern Art and Architecture, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011
Karen Hearn (ed.), Dynasties. Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England 1530-1630, Tate, 1995
Marieke de Winkel, Fashion and Fancy: Dress and Meaning in Rembrandt’s Paintings, Amsterdam University Press, 2006
Weiss Gallery, London, wikipedia, and various other online sources.