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 by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Gheeraerts was renowned as the “most fashionable portraitist of the 1590s” (National Gallery of Art). The Ditchley Portrait further propelled his reputation due to the groundbreaking and innovative techniques he employed (James 320).
The portrait was commissioned by Sir Henry Lee, who had 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. In 1592, the Queen visited Lee’s grounds in Ditchley, Oxfordshire as a display of her forgiveness. Latin inscriptions on the painting make Lee’s gratitude clear. It includes several phrases in Latin, including “She gives and does not expect,” and “She can but does not take revenge” (National Portrait Gallery).
Queen Elizabeth did in fact sit for this portrait – which was somewhat rare, as she found the process unenjoyable and time-consuming (Arnold 15). Fortunately for dress historians, Gheeraerts the Younger spent much more time with the Queen’s clothing than with her Majesty. The Queen’s clothing commonly was mounted for painters to reference (Bleiberg et. al 109). This allowed painters to record every sumptuous and luxurious detail 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 all depict incredibly similar ensembles, some feature subtle yet interesting changes.
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 would take several hours of dressing (Arnold 110). The very first layer would have been a linen smock, later referred to as a chemise. Elizabeth’s chemise may have been similar to that pictured in figure 3. On her legs, the Queen likely wore bias-cut sarsenet or knitted silk stockings (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. They would have been held up using garters, tied below the knee.
Next came the “boned pair of bodies” – an undergarment that shaped the torso by flattening the bust and taper the waist (Bleiberg et. al 108). Bodies of this time 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 this dress. A pair of bodies made for the Queen’s funeral effigy are in the possession of the Palace of Westminster, which exactly mimic ones she wore towards the end of her life (Fig. 4). They were front-laced and fully boned with mostly quarter-inch-wide strips of whalebone.
Then, Elizabeth would have worn her farthingale. The farthingale underwent many evolutions of shape 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 wheel farthingale, which became popular in the European courts in the early 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). This undergarment 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 indeed the final evolution of the farthingale, and disappeared by the 1620s (Bendall 4).
The dress fabric was white silk satin with a silver secondary weft (Arnold 43). It 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). In addition, the hems of her skirt and hanging sleeves were entirely studded in pearls.
The lengths of fabric which appear to float behind her are immense “hanging sleeves” (Ashelford 120). Hanging sleeves had some functionality earlier in the century, but these were purely decorative. They sat behind Elizabeth’s very grand “trunk sleeves”, also referred to as “cannon sleeves” or even “farthingale sleeves.”
She wore a tight-fitting, low-necked bodice, which likely fastened with hooks down the left side. It had a V-shaped opening in the front, to be filled by the stomacher. The stomacher was attached either with pins or concealed ties. This piece was typically stiffened with either pasteboard or canvas, and usually had a busk. Around her waist was a jewel-encrusted girdle, perfectly matching the band of jewels on her neckline.
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 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.
In Renaissance England, colors in 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 embodied the color white. As it does today, white represented chastity and purity (Linthicum 15). Dressing the Queen in white was connected to her image as the famously unmarried Virgin Queen. Another connection to her virginal image is the color black, which represented constancy. In combination, black and white together symbolized the Queen’s promise to forever remain unmarried. In addition, the color red held significant religious meaning. Red symbolized the blood of Christ, and in turn, mercy and justice (Linthicum 15). It also symbolized power and prowess. Elizabeth is commonly depicted wearing those heavily symbolic colors white, black, and red, and her ensemble in The Ditchley Portrait was no exception (see figure 9).
Elizabeth’s ensemble in The Ditchley Portrait featured an incredible number of jewels, the majority of which are pearls. Around her neck was a gold triple-strand pearl necklace with cut stones and a jewel 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 this portrait, Elizabeth wore a laced fan-shaped ruff, rising from the sides of the décolletage and continuing behind the head. It should be noted that this style was generally worn only by unmarried women, another symbol of her famously unmarried status. She also wore lace cuffs around her wrists, which matched her ruffs and the bit of lace at her décolletage. Behind the ruff is a wired veil or head rail, which was a very recent fashion, first appearing around 1590 (Ashelford 120). It was made by threading a wire through a light and translucent material, and was then bent into the desired shape. Here, Elizabeth’s was decorated with many pearls and jewels.
In her left hand, Elizabeth held a plain pair of gloves with tabbed cuffs. They were almost certainly leather, possibly perfumed, and 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 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. Elizabeth loved to receive fans as gifts, and owned many of them in her wardrobe (Cunnington 506).
In The Ditchley Portrait portrait we get a small glimpse of Elizabeth’s shoes, as her skirt ends just above them. 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 120). A better view of her footwear is provided by the Hardwick Hall Portrait, ca. 1599, in figure 11. We may speculate that the Queen’s footwear in The Ditchley Portrait were of a similar style.
Diagram of referenced dress features.
lements of Elizabethan fashion, and that of The Ditchley Portrait in particular, can be recognized in Alexander’s 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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