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

A Gentle Glow

Camille Clifford

There’s been more sales of these endless pairs of Queen Victoria’s knickers lately. Can her dimensions really have been so vast, even grotesque? From her underclothes her bust has been reckoned in old age at 66″ inches which means it was considerably greater than her height. Her waist comes in at 50″; I don’t know whether this is with the drawstring of her panties drawn tight or left slack. Her own doctor wrote that she was not a pretty sight undressed – barrel-like – but it seems a terrible thing, even now, to parade all this to her shame in tabloids and on websites. However it must be said that Victoria was more robust about the human form and its functions than is popularly thought, writing admiringly as a young woman of the magnificence of Albert in his cashmere breeches “with nothing underneath”. And the strangest thing is, that her youngest daughter Beatrice who prepared her mother’s journals for posthumous publication after the most stringent bowdlerisation let this particular passage stand.

Of course, the dimensions of these voluminous underclothes of the past had a secondary purpose. Up until the 1920’s any decent woman of any class was rigidly corseted in stays. These were tightly laced over chemises cut very generously to protect the skin from chafing by buckram and whalebone, and also to soak up the abundant perspiration concomitant on all this restriction and compression of the flesh. My Victorian grandmother and her contemporaries used to hold forth on the unending efforts of their youth to keep clean: the home-made borax deodorants, the sewn-in underarm sweat pads, the dust braid tacked on to skirt hems, the endless brushing and laundering of petticoats. Anyone wishing for a very full and frank evocation of domestic middle class hygiene in the 1890’s should study the Lizzie Borden murder case: the fly -blown mutton soup served up five days running in a Fall River heat wave; the unmentionables soaking in buckets in the scullery.

In my department store days I used to work with a little lady who kept her black uniform in her locker and change into her own clothes to go home. She said that uniform had never been washed in over 20 years – “it doesn’t require it”. In her wonderful novel “The Women In Black” Madeleine St John pin points the quintessential store sartorial smell of talcum powder and sweat; to which I would add the odour of old  perfume embedded in repetitively dry-cleaned fabric. None of this is exactly unpleasant: fresh sweat in itself is not offensive, the problems set in as it ages and reacts with bacteria. And even that niff has its fans: we all know the story of Napoleon’s letter to Josephine to the effect that he is starting home from Italy and inviting her not to wash. Which must have been a peculiar ordeal for Josephine, one of the cleanest individuals in history, always in the bath, washing her hair (a new fashion) and changing her lingerie four times daily.

More of us that might care to admit are aroused by apparently offensive smells. A fascinating note in the Telegraph last month revealed that my favourite hawthorn blossom emits the scent of sex and secretes triethylamine besides, a chemical also produced by decaying human corpses. For millenia, perfumers used matter from the digestive and reproductive systems of animals to add tenacity and punch to their products. And this summer there is a chic new fad of not washing overmuch, of cultivating a piquant tang of bouquet de corsage; maybe to show in this time of recession and fear that one is with the people, that “we’re all in this together” as someone said. No time to bathe, no time to launder: there’s a big job to do, though no one is sure quite what it might be. It’s reminiscent of French duchesses during the Revolution having greasy red caps of Liberty incorporated into their powdered coiffures, and perhaps this summer’s damp coolth has given the bon-ton the courage to join this grubby trend. It’s certainly delightfully apparent on the light luncheon and dinner-dance circuit.

But if you haven’t quite the nerve to go out without a preliminary dab wash and application of Sure you can fake it much more happily with perfume on immaculately clean skin. There are fresh crisp scents straight out the shower scents, quite devoid of erotic appeal; and then there are the sexy voluptuous fragrances with just a hint of smuts, of unbuttoned come-hither negligence. Perfumes that smell within half an hour or so as though you’ve worn them all day while living life to the full. Rich dark orientals that have moistened under a hot sun; petal-dropping waxy white florals with a musky worm i’ the bud; earthy chypres with a hint of luscious fruit on the edge of rot. Charogne by Etat Libre d’Orange takes this idea to the limit; Editions des Parfums Musc Ravageur is a legend of the genre. But do try also Kilian‘s best-sellers Good Girl Gone Bad – the clue’s in the title – and In The City of Sin. Good Girl is a stupendous white bouquet of jasmine, osmanthus, tuberose and narcissus which suddenly plunges into a honey trap of woody amber. City of Sin has a delicate creamy spiciness that reminds me of those large and now rare white pinks, a scent that recently wafted from a garden, stopped me dead in my tracks in the lane. Recently our dear friend the perfumer Ruth Mastenbroek gave a masterclass in up-to-the-minute ingredients at Les Senteurs and put a name to so many of the smells we recognise but cannot always identify. It was the amber variant, tresamber, which hit the nail for me. I seem to detect its magic in both of these Kilian show-stoppers. It’s right down there at the sultry base beneath the warm, soft slightly fruity odour which I visualise as the colour of the Duchess of Malfi’s apricots (the fruits of City of Sin, mixed with rose and plum). A dusky gold, ripened in sun and humus on the walls of a stable. Sweetish, faintly fleshy, definitely animalic, disturbing in the best sense and very very sexy.