Open to the navel: the Virgin Queen

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“She was strangely attired in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson…lined with red taffeta. She kept the front of her dress open, and you could see the whole of her bosom, and passing low, and often she would open the front of her dress with her hands, as if she were too hot…”

This is Elizabeth Tudor in her sixties, exposing her flushed yet withal “white and delicate” flesh like a pagan goddess to the French ambassador, de Maisse. Was the Queen’s stomach painted like her face with white lead and egg whites? Was this apparent revelation all a titillating illusion like Dietrich’s nude souffle stage dresses and Mme Recamier’s damped muslins and flesh-coloured tights? Other visitors to the English court in the 1590’s confirm this ritualised exhibitionism and, after a second audience, de Maisse writes of Elizabeth’s gown being plucked “open even to the navel”. It conjures the most bizarre image and what are we to make of these reports, so much at odds with the image of the Queen received from her portraits in old age? These show her in gowns which are low cut (as an unmarried woman she was entitled to a certain decolletage) but of decent and immense stiffness, bejewelled rigidity, built on corseted foundations of wood and iron. Sometimes she has a fresh rose pinned to her dress, a flower which seems frail, inappropriate and out of place amidst such geometric splendour as coruscating and hard as a Byzantine mosaic. The simplicity of the rose is almost perverse and unnatural by contrast.

Elizabeth’s portraits were intentionally stylised and her image defined and controlled by law. Therefore they can be taken at face value by neither the biographer nor the costume historian. I well remember that the designers for Glenda Jackson’s portrayal of Elizabeth in the early 1970’s – “I had to learn to breathe through my back” – found that certain apparel was impossible to reconstruct. The ruffs flopped, the airy jewelled butterfly collars and veils would and could not support themselves, the farthingales would not hang right. Tudor painters, it was concluded, had constructed on canvas what was impossible to create from fabric. Moreover for the sake of both comfort and economy rich Elizabethans (especially the women) spent a great deal of their time en neglige, informally dressed in the equivalent of dressing gowns and housecoats. The torturing discomfort of formal dress was only for portraits, visits to Court and other great occasions. There was a certain vogue for being painted in bed, or even the bath. Both Anne Boleyn and Sir Thomas More went to the scaffold in loose bedgowns whilst the awe aroused by the appearance of Marie Stuart at her execution was in part due to the magnificence and drama of her attire – “dressed as for a festival”.

Elizabeth defined her own appearance and became defined in turn by her clothes. As a teenager she had a black velvet gown cut to pieces on her body while her step-mother Katherine Parr held her and Parr’s husband wielded a dagger, the three of them torn between tears and laughter. This “romp” (in my day an amusing anecdote of children’s history books) is now most uncomfortable to read about and sounds horribly like the symbolic rape of a minor. And it has a pendant episode 50 years later in the spiritual ravishment of the aged Queen by the young Earl of Essex bursting unannounced into her bedroom to find her undressed and “her hair about her ears”. Unarmoured, unprepared: clothes made the woman, maybe even the monarch. Essex had found her out. She never forgave him, and maybe he too felt the betrayed resentment of a film-fan who meets his Star at last only to be horrified and disillusioned by the egregious wig, the Pawnee make-up, the tiny stature. Some of the nastiest talk I’ve ever heard has been among the “loyal fans” at stage doors. “Putting more make-up on, I suppose”; and, from a group of English ladies (all clones of their heroine) waiting to see Liz Taylor,”if she doesn’t sign for us we’ll kill her.”

And what did Essex tell his friends of Elizabeth. Words to the effect that “her mind is as crooked as her carcase”. He lost his head – in both senses – and two years later the Queen herself died. We are told that 300 gowns were found in her wardrobe and the new queen consort, the buxom blonde Anne of Denmark, chopped them all to pieces for masques and plays: the illusion of majesty feeding the fantasy of the stage. Art imitating life, and how.
Had the exhibitionism of Elizabeth been the reverse? A homage to the nudity of classical statues, to the celestial virgins Diana and Artemis upon whom she modelled herself? A depressed lonely and “intrinsically disordered” old woman’s fantasy of herself as Eve before the Fall: pure, fertile but undefiled? Or a sad and senile attempt at seduction?

What do we really know of our sartorial past? It has been suggested that the graceful folds shown in frescos of gauzy Egyptian draperies may be in fact a primitive artist’s attempt to show a crumpled creased bundle of coarse linen. For decades now it has become a lazy shorthand for 1920’s chic to stick a bandeau’d feather, Red Indian-style, on a girl’s head, a fashion that had by then long gone by as I heard from a woman who’d lived the period – “that was the 1912 look for Heaven’s sake”. (And she’d been in the Ziegfeld Follies, as a matter of fact: she knew whereof she spoke). I defy anyone to find me a contemporary picture of this “flapper” (sic) look. But there, it’s become a factoid, indestructible misinformation.

And we see something of the same in romantic histories of scent. There is much raving over the lost treasures of Cleopatra’s toilet under the waters off Alexandria. Of Mme de Pompadour’s bank of hyacinth perfumes; of Greek courtesans perfuming each limb with a different fragrance. Of Marie Antoinette betrayed in the act of escape by her luscious perfume. Speculative scents which have long evaporated, dried up and gone. From what we know of perfumes prior to the 1880’s I can’t imagine any of them actually amounted to much – clunky masses of expressed oils suspended in primitive alcohol spirits or animal fats with no structure, consistency or expansion. Elizabeth Tudor had a keen nose and maybe her preference for fresh herbs, roses and meadowsweet tells us something about the horrid perfumes of her time, all too often used to disguise a worse odour. The glamour of the wearers, burnished by the centuries, imbues their unknown scents with a spurious sheen. We must not rewrite the past (as my brother always says as funerals) but we may admit that it is an entirely unknown quantity…and quality.

Picture: Wikimedia Commons

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