Queen Elizabeth I’s striking ensemble in The Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger embodied the height and extremity of 1590s court fashion.
About the Portrait
The Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was painted in 1592 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, who was renowned as the “most fashionable portraitist of the 1590s” (National Gallery of Art). This portrait further propelled his reputation due to the groundbreaking and innovative techniques he employed (James 320).
It was commissioned by Sir Henry Lee, who served as the Queen’s Champion for over thirty years (National Portrait Gallery). After Lee’s retirement in 1590, he lived with his mistress, causing him to fall out of the Queen’s favor. However, the Queen visited Lee’s grounds in Ditchley, Oxfordshire in 1592 as a display of her forgiveness. Latin inscriptions on the painting make Lee’s gratitude clear, which when translated to English mean “She gives and does not expect,” and “She can but does not take revenge” (National Portrait Gallery).
Queen Elizabeth I sat for Gheeraerts when he painted this portrait, which was rather rare, as she found the process of sitting for paintings to be unenjoyable and time-consuming (Arnold 15). Fortunately for dress historians, the artist spent much more time in the presence of the Queen’s clothing than her Majesty’s face. Indeed, the Queen’s clothing was commonly mounted for painters to study and reference (Bleiberg et. al 109). This allowed them to record the sumptuous and luxurious details of her outfit with minimal inconvenience to the Queen herself.
In the end, a great number of variants of The Ditchley Portrait were painted in the workshop of Gheeraerts the Younger. Most soften and rejuvenate the Queen’s facial features, though not all – the Manteo portrait (Fig. 2) being notable exception (Riehl 154, 163). While the variants mostly depict nearly identical ensembles, some feature subtle yet interesting differences.
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (Flemish, 1561-1635). The Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, 1592. Commissioned by Sir Henry Lee. Oil on canvas; 241.3 x 152.4 cm (95 x 60 in). London: National Portrait Gallery, NPG 2561. Bequeathed by Harold Lee-Dillon, 17th Viscount Dillon, 1932. Source: National Portrait Gallery
About the Fashion
he ensemble pictured in The Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I required many layers and support systems, and could take several hours of dressing from start to finish (Arnold 110). The very first layer worn was the linen smock undergarment, later referred to as a chemise. Elizabeth’s smock may have been similar in style to the circa 1587 smock pictured in figure 3. On her legs, the Queen likely wore bias-cut sarsenet or knitted silk stockings held up using garters, tied below the knee (Arnold 209). Elizabeth was presented with her first pair of silk stockings in 1561, and she loved them so much that she announced “henceforth I will wear no more cloth stockings” (Norris 545). Afterwards, silk stockings grew very popular in elite circles.
On top of her smock, Queen Elizabeth would have worn a “boned pair of bodies.” This was a corset-like undergarment which shaped the torso by flattening the bust and tapering the waist (Bleiberg et. al 108). Bodies of this time period were quite varied. They could be laced closed at the back or open at the front, and could be made of plain or decorative fabrics (Steele 8). Remarkably, one extant pair of bodies informs us of what Queen Elizabeth may have worn under her ensemble in The Ditchley Portrait. A pair of bodies made for the Queen’s funeral effigy are in the possession of the Palace of Westminster, which are a smaller replica of those she wore near her death in 1603 (Fig. 4). They were front-lacing and fully boned with mostly quarter-inch-wide strips of whalebone.
Then, Queen Elizabeth would have been dressed in her farthingale to provide shape for her wide skirts. The farthingale underwent many evolutions of silhouette throughout Elizabeth’s life. In fact, at its earliest inception, there was a strong religious objection, as moralists believed it to encourage sexual depravity by accentuating a woman’s childbearing parts – however, as its popularity spread among the European courts, these charges were eventually dropped (Bleiberg et. al 107).
In The Ditchley Portrait, Elizabeth wore a French wheel farthingale, which was the height of fashion in the European courts by the 1590s (Arnold 199). It is thought to have gained its popularity in elite circles because its grand shape allowed for more efficient display of expensive dress textiles (Cunnington 618). The wheel farthingale gave the visual effect of a great circle emerging from the wearer’s waist, and was achieved by boned hoops of whalebone or metal. As is demonstrated in figure 5, it would be worn over a padded roll, and tilted lower in the front and higher behind. This was the final evolution of the farthingale, which was no longer fashionable by the 1620s (Bendall 4).
Queen Elizabeth’s dress in The Ditchley Portrait is sumptuous, grandiose, and extreme. Every aspect of her ensemble was designed both to transform the body and occupy physical space, and this sartorial spectacle certainly translated to political and social power (Covington 546).
Figure 6, an eighteenth-century reproduction of a sixteenth-century original painting, depicts the Queen wearing a very similar ensemble to that of The Ditchley Portrait. Here it is contextualized amongst the men and women in her procession. While the fashionable ladies of her court sport the same grand silhouette, the Queen’s jewelry and dress fabric set her apart. According to Elizabethan dress expert Janet Arnold, the dress fabric depicted was white silk satin with a silver secondary weft (Arnold 43). This was diagonally cross-barred with white silk puffings, creating a trellis effect. Each individual intersection was studded with jewels: pearls, rubies, and dark stones, all on gold enameled mounts (Arnold 43).
Queen Elizabeth wore a tight-fitting, low-necked bodice, which likely fastened with hooks down the left side. The bodice had a V-shaped opening in the front, to be filled by the triangular stomacher. The stomacher was attached either with pins or concealed ties, and was typically stiffened with either pasteboard or canvas. Around her waist was a jewel-encrusted girdle, perfectly matching the band of jewels studding her neckline. Also emerging from the waist was the “flounce” or “drum ruffle.” The purpose of this piece was to soften the harsh line caused by the wheel farthingale. Curiously, later variations of The Ditchley Portrait do not depict a flounce (Figs. 7 & 8). At the back of the skirt was a brocaded “fitted gown” or “overskirt” (Ashelford 1986, 120). Her proper skirt was in the french farthingale shape. It was very full, horizontally spanning the wheel farthingale and vertically falling to the feet.
Queen Elizabeth’s grand sleeves are in the style of “trunk sleeves”, also referred to as “cannon sleeves” or even “farthingale sleeves.” Eventually this sleeve shape would also come to be called leg-of-mutton or gigot sleeves. The pearl-studded lengths of fabric which appear to float behind the Queen’s shoulders are immense “hanging sleeves” (Ashelford 1986, 120). While hanging sleeves had some functionality earlier in the Renaissance era (see fig. 9), by the 1590s these were purely decorative.
In The Ditchley Portrait, Queen Elizabeth is depicted wearing an open fan-shaped ruff, rising from the sides of the décolletage and continuing behind the head. This was a very fashionable style for women during the 1590s, and was preceded by the round cartwheel ruff (fig. 10). A fresh pink rose adorns the open ruff, which was “common practice” when flowers were in season, both for their beauty and fragrance (Ashelford 1988, 24.) Very sumptuous (and almost certainly imported) lace is also seen decorating the ruff, as well as at her décolletage, and around her wrists in upturned cuffs. Behind the ruff, the Queen wears a wired veil or head rail. This was a very recent fashion, possibly first appearing around 1590 (Ashelford 1986, 120). This was constructed by threading a wire through a light and translucent material, such as gauze, cobweb lawn, or cypress. The wire was then bent into the desired shape, resembling wings or two lobes.
Elizabeth’s ensemble in The Ditchley Portrait featured an incredible number of gemstones and pearls, which were likely each individually set into this ensemble for each wear. Around her neck was a triple-strand choker-length pearl necklace or carcanet with cut stones and a large pendant, as well as long ropes of pearls, including one knotted. She also wore an earring of an armillary sphere in her left ear (Arnold 43). An armillary sphere was a navigational device, and therefore, might have symbolized the Queen’s wisdom (James 321).
In her left hand, Elizabeth holds a plain pair of gloves with tabbed cuffs. These were likely leather, possibly perfumed, though the cuffs may have been satin. Elizabeth owned hundreds of pairs of gloves – in large part due to the fact that gloves were frequently given as diplomatic and political gifts (Arnold 217).
A Chinese-style folding fan is suspended from Elizabeth’s girdle, or waist, with a coral-colored ribbon, and she holds it in her right hand (Cunnington 607). Folding fans were not the norm in Renaissance Europe. They were considered a “new” style, only having appeared in Europe around 1580. Feather fans were more typical of this time, an example of which is held by Queen Elizabeth in figure 10. Queen Elizabeth I loved to receive fans as gifts, and owned many of them in her wardrobe (Cunnington 506).
In The Ditchley Portrait portrait a small glimpse of Queen Elizabeth’s shoes is visible. In the 1590s, Elizabeth frequently wore footwear called “pumps”, which originated around the mid-16th century. Pumps were slip-on shoes with thin soles and low heels – not unlike what we consider mules or slippers today. In The Ditchley Portrait, the Queen’s shoes were likely also silk satin, like her dress (Ashelford 1986, 120). A better view of her footwear is provided by the Hardwick Hall Portrait, ca. 1599, seen in figure 11. We might speculate that the Queen’s footwear in The Ditchley Portrait was of a very similar style.
It is also worth noting that in Renaissance England, colors in portraiture and dress were very symbolic and intentionally chosen. The Queen and her courtiers were well-versed in the language of color. In The Ditchley Portrait, Elizabeth completely embodies the color white. As it does today, to contemporary eyes white represented chastity and purity (Linthicum 15). This is also a common symbolic interpretation for pearls. As such, dressing the Queen in white was connected to her image as the famously unmarried “Virgin Queen.” The other colors included in the Queen’s ensemble, by way of jewelry, where black and red. The color black represented constancy. Therefore, in combination black and white together symbolized the Queen’s commitment to forever remain unmarried. The color red held significant religious meaning, as it symbolized the blood of Christ, and in turn, mercy and justice (Linthicum 15). Red also symbolized power and prowess. As such, Queen Elizabeth I was often depicted wearing those heavily symbolic colors (see figures 9 & 10).
Diagram of referenced dress features.
lements of Elizabethan fashion, and that of The Ditchley Portrait in particular, can be recognized in the Alexander McQueen Fall/Winter 2013 Collection (Figs. 1-2). The collection, designed by Sarah Burton, featured ten outfits – two of which, Lisa Armstrong reported, were directly inspired by The Ditchley Portrait. The inspiration is plainly seen through the use of the color white, the diamond-shaped trellis pattern, and use of pearls.
- Armstrong, Lisa. “Paris Fashion Week: Alexander McQueen Autumn/Winter 2013.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, March 6, 2013. http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG9912104/Paris-Fashion-Week-Alexander-McQueen-autumnwinter-2013.html.
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- Bendall, Sarah A. “‘Take Measure of Your Wide and Flaunting Garments’: The Farthingale, Gender and the Consumption of Space in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.” Renaissance Studies 33, no. 5 (2018): 712–37. https://doi.org/10.1111/rest.12537
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- James, Sara N. Art in England: the Saxons to the Tudors, 600-1600. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1004129513
- Linthicum, M. Channing. Costume in the Drama of Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. New York: Hacker Art Books, 1972. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/255251664
- “National Gallery of Art.” Marcus Gheeraerts, the Younger. National Gallery of Art. Accessed December 29, 2019. https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.6631.html.
- Norris, Herbert. Tudor Costume and Fashion. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/868967373
- “Queen Elizabeth I (‘The Ditchley Portrait’).” National Portrait Gallery. Accessed December 29, 2019. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw02079/Queen-Elizabeth-I-The-Ditchley-portrait.
- Riehl, Anna. The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Elizabeth I. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/903298427
- Steele, Valerie. The Corset: A Cultural History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/1013954828