Exhibition Review: In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion

There are many reasons to visit this magnificent exhibition, with its outstanding selection of paintings from the Royal Collection and carefully chosen examples of surviving garments which enrich its exploration of Tudor and Stuart dress. Not least is the fact that it is highly unusual for a museum exhibition to focus on the dress of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; most tend to concentrate on modern and contemporary fashions. Exhibitions of fine and decorative arts such as the recent Treasures of the Royal Courts: Tudors, Stuarts and the Russian Tsars at the V&A or last year’s The Wild, the Beautiful and the Damned at Hampton Court have, of course, touched upon dress in their examination of sixteenth and seventeenth century courtly life; what makes In Fine Style essential viewing for anyone interested in the transformative power of clothes is the central role that dress plays in this exhibition.

In Fine Style’s combination of the artist’s depiction of dress and actual examples displayed alongside is another delight, with items of Tudor and Stuart clothing borrowed from a wide range of museums and private owners. These rare and delicate survivals offer the visitor the chance to compare real garments with their painted counterparts, from the fineness of Flemish and Italian lace to the rigidity of mid seventeenth-century bodices.

There could be no better collection with which to stage such an exhibition. As the paintings of In Fine Style so graphically demonstrate, the role of monarchs and the royal courts of Europe was absolutely key in setting fashions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These were the people with the power and wealth which allowed them to indulge in the fine fabrics and ornate, excessive styles far beyond the reach of the ordinary person. The luxury and opulence captured in these works of art offer a vivid confirmation of the relationship between dress, status and power.

The exhibition is laid out over three main rooms of the Queen’s Gallery and the first provides a chronological guide to two centuries of fashionable dressing, illustrated with striking paintings and works on paper such as the arresting portrait of Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond in masculine-style dress (Figure 1), and Holbein’s delicate chalk drawings. The art works are complemented by information panels outlining the key components of each style of dress together with line drawings of the fashionable silhouettes.

After visitors have made their way through this sumptuous primer of fashionable Tudor and Stuart dress they are greeted by the second room which explores three themes: Children’s Dress, Playing a Part, and Wearing and Painting Dress. From the richly detailed Janssens painting of Charles II at a ball in The Hague to the mysterious portrait of an unknown Elizabethan woman, here is painted dress in both its representative and allegorical forms, distinctions which are heightened by the examples of real dress displayed alongside the paintings.

The third of the main rooms looks at the themes Dressed for Battle, Dressed for the Hunt and Influences from Abroad. Given that the English were noted as a nation with an eclectic sense of dress, borrowing fashions from across Europe (as Portia says of her English suitor in the Merchant of Venice, ‘I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his behaviour everywhere’), the line of portraits depicting the cultural differences in dress across the continent is particularly fascinating and serves as a reminder of the importance of communications between different royal courts (both through ambassadors and marriages) as a way of disseminating information about these elite fashions.

Additional smaller rooms which highlight jewellery, needlework, prints and drawings are not to be missed. They contain further treasures – besides exquisite jewellery and miniatures a set of drawings by Johannes Stradanus which show the process of silk production in sixteenth-century Italy. The newly conserved and enigmatic portrait of The Man in Red (Figure 2) has been given a room of its own, exploring the sitter’s eye-catching outfit, his possible identity and discoveries from the conservation process.

The exhibition is also impressive in its use of new media to engage a younger, fashion-savvy audience. The most important of these is the multimedia guide for visitors to use in the exhibition. While older visitors might find it slightly frustrating to navigate, most will have no difficulty in switching between the commentaries, sound tracks and videos. Alongside the rich commentary for selected objects are a number of videos, including two featuring the innovative designer Gareth Pugh talking about the inspiration he finds in Elizabeth and Jacobean portraiture for his work. There is also a specially compiled playlist of contemporary music by the DJ Eddy Temple-Morris. The choices made by Temple-Morris (an art history graduate) offer an intriguing audible reflection of the paintings’ themes of power, wealth and poignancy, and a reminder that their sitters were the trendsetters of the day, the equivalent of our musicians, celebrities and film stars. In a year when the film version of The Great Gatsby mixed the historic and contemporary, this approach feels particularly up to date. It is echoed in the creation of a free downloadable app, based on the miniature paintings in the exhibition, including the charming seventeenth-century mica miniature with its fabulous range of costumes.

In Fine Style is scholarly yet accessible - an approach mirrored in the two publications produced to accompany the exhibition, which will be reviewed in Costume – and an exhibition which should not be missed – you have until 6 October to catch it!      

For further information and to book tickets: www.royalcollection.org.uk/exhibitions
Telephone +44 (0)207 7766 7300

  • Samuel Cooper, Frances Teresa Stuart, later Duchess of Richmond, c.1663 Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013
  • Unknown artist, Portrait of a Man in Red, c. 1530-1550 Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2013