Fine Tudor & Stuart Fashion Explored @ The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace

Opening earlier this week, the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace is now showing a new exhibition featuring high fashion from the 15th and 16th centuries, In Fine Style – The Art Of Tudor And Stuart Fashion.

Set throughout the gallery’s sumptuous interiors you’ll find portraits and tableaus  from the Royal Collection and elsewhere which have been specifically selected on the basis of the costume that the subjects are wearing. Helpfully, for those of us who wouldn’t know our kirtles from our jerkins there are displays in the first gallery space which guide you through the different parts of male and female attire from the period – for the high-born in society dressing was usually a complicated affair, with women in particular often buried under five or six layers of heavy linens, silk and brocade.

A common feature that you’ll note in many of the portraits are the acres of rich fabric and complex embroidery that is depicted. Wearing garments made from these materials had many purposes – it certainly emphasised your wealth, but it also gave out the clearest of signals about your social status. Even if you were the wife of an extremely wealthy merchant you couldn’t purchase a dress made from silk, for example, as this was confined to the nobility alone. The most expensive of all – cloth of gold, where the fabric contains golden threads – was exclusive to princes, princesses, kings and queens.

As well as the many paintings there are also contemporary pieces of clothing and jewellery to be discovered – in my opinion the most exciting of these are to be found next the famous triple portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck, which shows a fragile-looking King side on, face on and in a three quarter profile. In this picture he wears subtly different clothing in each aspect, but they all share the common feature of elaborate lace collars and sky blue garters (or sashes). Peer into the case next to the portrait and you’ll see a collar that has the same decoration found in one of the images, as well as a garter of the same colour – it is believed that both of these objects are very likely to be the ones shown in the painting…

Many areas of the In Fine Style – The Art Of Tudor And Stuart Fashion exhibition are organised by theme – children feature in one area for example (including a very touching portrait of the future Charles II and his younger siblings), while the influence of foreign fashion on English dress is explored in another. The most unusual theme is ‘Playing A Part’, where you can see members of the nobility in what can only be described as fancy dress – many are very bizarre indeed, particularly the painting by Marcus Gheeraerts  The Younger of a woman in an elaborate ‘masque’ costume of the sort that would have been worn to one of the fashionable balls where guests arrive incognito behind grotesque facial disguises…

Everyone is catered for at In Fine Style – The Art Of Tudor And Stuart Fashion. If damask really isn’t your thing you can take a look at the princes and kings in both their hunting outfits and their suits of armour – in fact two particularly fine examples of the latter can be seen in the flesh, so to speak. Both are entirely ceremonial in nature, as they are far too elaborate to be worn on a muddy battlefield – one is entirely covered with engravings that are as complex as the most delicate lace!

Just in closing, there are two mysteries to look out for in the Queen’s Gallery. One of these is a set of portraits of Frances Stewart, Duchess of Richmond, painted just a few years apart. In the first she wears a magnificent dress with swags and bows and has her hair set in ringlets, while in the other she wears the buff coat of a common-or-garden soldier with her hair worn just like that of a man’s pomaded wig –  one wonders whether the second portrait says something about the proclivities of King Charles II, who was deeply infatuated with her…

The other curious painting that you should take time to see is spelled out in a little more detail – between the main gallery and the children’s activity area is a small room dedicated to ‘The Man In Red’. At the back of the room is a large stylised portrait of an unknown nobleman in a scarlet costume, with information panels on the other walls which tell you about the investigative process that conservators and curators went through to try to identify him – could he be a young King Henry VIII perhaps?

In Fine Style – The Art Of Tudor And Stuart Fashion will be on show in the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace until 6 October – wait to visit until late July and you could combine it with a visit to the State Rooms of the Palace, which are open to the public while the Royal Family are holidaying in the Scottish Highlands.

Fun Fact:Initially designed as Buckingham Palace’s southern colonnade, the area now occupied by the Queen’s Gallery was used by Victoria as her private chapel. Heavily damaged by bombing in World War II, the rooms were restored and opened as a gallery in 1962. They were extended and refurbished forty years later, reopening on May 21 2002 to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.