Monday, 4 May 2015

Fur Mantle, No Knickers: Clothes and the Tudor Woman

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 in the time of Anne Boleyn. '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. It may also explain why husbands like Henry VIII were so possessive and controlling when it came to their wives; with no cumbersome undergarments to negotiate, it would only have taken a few moments alone with a man for intimacy to take place. Assuming the lady in question did not mind being otherwise fully-clothed at the time!

There is not much evidence about early ways of dealing with menstruation, but women in Tudor times 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 undergarments, such as a shift, or what we might call a full-length 'slip' today. The kirtle 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. The more wealthy the woman, the more complex these laced-on-accessories could be. After all, a well-born lady would have numerous maids to help her get dressed - and undressed again later.

Over the kirtle 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, one of my sleeves is coming unfastened!" (The Family of Thomas More)
Sleeves were normally separate from the rest of the gown rather than attached, and could be worn in a mix and match way, so that women might have "favourite" sleeves that they used with different gowns. These would normally be tied on with laces or ribbons, or perhaps a thin leather thong for lower-class women. Sleeves tended to be more generous and to drape more in early Tudor times, perhaps helping to keep out the cold in draughty castle rooms. Anne Boleyn could probably have hidden all sorts of nefarious objects up her sleeves, if she so desired!

Later, sleeves were often fitted tighter to the arm, especially at the wrist, but could also be jewelled or trimmed with fine lace or fur, showing off the wearer's wealthy status with gems or lavish trimmings instead of excess material. For a queen's more elaborate outfits, 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, rather than simply laced. The stitches would then have to 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 a queen in full state regalia might take as long as four hours! And the need for delicacy must have been extreme. Perhaps the literary cliche of lusty gentlemen ripping high-born ladies' bodices off in sheer frustration may not be so far from the truth. Small wonder that a queen like Anne Boleyn had such an entourage of ladies-in-waiting, each with her own special tasks and duties, like Eloise in my novel Wolf Bride.

WOLF BRIDE: US edition
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 Anne Boleyn's time, 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