Monday 8 August 2011


It all started at a planning meeting for a bookshop event. I can't remember who suggested it, but someone said why didn't I dress up in Tudor costume? Was I willing?

Willing? Try and stop me...

After all, haven't I always been obsessed with the way the Tudors looked? As a child, I drew endless Tudor court ladies, and as an adult I've spent more time than I care to remember staring at their portraits. This one is, I think, my absolute favourite.

In many ways it's not the most beguiling portrait. The subject - Jane Seymour, Henry VIII's third wife - seems, if anything to be enduring the viewer's gaze, staring pointedly into the middle distance as if wishing she (or we) were elsewhere. But oh, how real, how tactilely present she looks - most particularly how tactilely present and detailed is her clothing. The painting was commissioned, of course, because of Jane's rank. However, since the painter was Holbein, this is no two-dimensional image trumpeting only status: this is a living, breathing woman inside clothes whose weight and texture we can almost feel.

When I look at this painting my eye is always caught by the row of dots that runs down the bodice near Jane's left arm (hardly visible perhaps here, but if you find a larger image of the painting you will be able to see them very clearly). These dots are the heads of tiny brass pins... pins inserted by the nimble fingers of her ladies that morning (or whenever she put the gown on). A team of ladies to help the queen dress was not a luxury, but an absolute necessity - she simply could not do it by herself.

The pins are a tantalising clue to the practicalities of Tudor dress. How did an outfit like this work? How did anyone (even with a team of attendants) get in and out of it? How did the hair sit under the hood? How on earth was the bodice made to be so incredibly close fitting? Exactly which bits of edging at the neckline were attached to which layers of under- or over-garments? And, most particularly, what did it feel like to wear?

In writing my book VIII, and now in researching my next one, which is about Henry VIII's daughters Mary and Elizabeth, I have spent a great deal of time poring over books about Tudor clothes in search of answers to these questions. Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII by Maria Hayward I have found to be essential reading, and Janet Arnold's superb Patterns of Fashion series is a goldmine of fascinating information. But another excellent book - The Tudor Tailor by Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila - particularly intrigues me because, along with splendid text and detailed reproductions of relevant paintings, carvings and effigies, it contains patterns for those skilled enough to make their own replica costumes and (even more fascinatingly for me, as I'm no seamstress) photographs of people wearing the various layers of these reconstructed outfits, giving the reader an opportunity to see so much more than portraits ever show. Jane and Ninya, along with their colleague Caroline Johnson, are hugely-respected experts in their field - they have undertaken many projects with historic houses and museums, and spent more than a decade working with Hampton Court Palace, training the guides there and making costumes for them to wear.

Even the very best books, however, cannot fully answer one of my questions: what did a Tudor outfit feel like to wear? That's why, when the suggestion came at that meeting that I should dress up for the bookshop event, I jumped at the chance. And began to wonder... what if I could wear, not a theatrical approximation of a Tudor costume, but one of Jane and Ninya's beautiful replicas?

A few weeks later I found myself driving to the home of Jane Malcolm-Davies, having been very kindly invited there to see some items from her impressive collection.

I can't tell you what a treat and privilege it was to meet Jane, whose work I admire so much, and to spend an afternoon talking with her and trying on a costume... which, miraculously, fitted perfectly!

Let me show you its layers:

First there is the smock, the layer
that would have been washed regularly.

Then the petticoat, which (as was common) is red, and which in this case has a bodice attached. The skirt is made from two layers of fabric with a thin layer of stuffing in between, so that it stands out slightly.

The lacing, as I hope you can make out from the photo, is done spiral-wise. It has been deduced from the placement of the lacing holes in surviving garments that this was the technique originally used. This spiral technique has the advantage that it allows the edges of the bodice to overlap if necessary.

After the petticoat, there is a kirtle to put on, in this case cream-coloured and with no bodice attached (i.e. it is just a skirt). This kirtle is the layer that will show in the triangular-shaped gap at the front of the gown's skirt once the full outfit is on.

Next comes the gown itself, which laces up the front like the petticoat.

This costume was used by Hampton Court Palace guides and Jane and Ninya have made some concessions to convenience: the sleeves - which are separate from the gown and come in two sections themselves - are already tied on; the jewels at the neckline are ready-attached; and the 'placard' - the front piece - has been sewn to the gown along one edge. It would originally have been a completely separate piece, which needed to be pinned on (see Jane Seymour's pins again!) along both side-edges.

For extra warmth - or for reasons of modesty - a black velvet partlet can be worn covering the neck. Single laces at the partlet's corners, front and back, are tied together under each arm.

And there are lovely velvet shoes too!

Again for convenience, the headdress has been made in one piece - originally it would have consisted of a linen coif, over which the separate pieces of the hood and veil would have been pinned, with the jewelled trim also pinned on separately.

So here I am in the full kit... feeling somewhat over-warm on a sunny day! I also feel very 'held' by the clothes, and I have no choice but to stand and move in stately fashion. My arms naturally take up the position of Jane Seymour's in the painting. The shape of the sleeves leads to this - it feels much more comfortable than letting my arms hang by my sides.

When I wore the costume for several hours I discovered just how tiring it is to have such a weight of fabric dragging behind you as you move (all those pleats at the back waist!). Hats off to the Hampton Court guides who manage full days. I also found that the hood restricted my hearing (a detail mentioned by Hilary Mantel in Wolf Hall - such an interesting point).

I bought the costume from Jane that day (it fitted me, for goodness' sake; how could I walk away?!), and the obvious question now is: when on earth will I wear it, other than at the book event for which that planning meeting was held?

The answer is that I will take every chance I get! In July I wore it on a visit to a school here in Bristol (hello, Westbury Park Primary School!) when I talked to Year 3 pupils about Henry VIII. Realising that I wouldn't be able to put it on alone in the staff loo, but that I couldn't drive in the full outfit either (it was turning round to reverse park that had me worried - but yes, there was the looking weird/mad consideration too), I hit upon the plan of arriving in the first two layers (with cloak thrown over the top) and then asking for volunteers to help me into kirtle and gown. It worked very well!

Jane Malcolm-Davies told me she was pleased I would be able to put this costume to educational use. Indeed, I would like to wear it on more school visits. I imagine, though, that it might go down better in junior schools than senior schools - might teenagers be liable just to laugh at this eccentric writer, sweeping into their school in full Tudor costume? I would be interested to know what you think!

I very much recommend an article by Jane Malcolm-Davies, Caroline Johnson & Ninya Mikhaila in 'Costume' (the journal of The Costume Society), Vol. 42 (2008) entitled: '"And her black satin gown must be new-bodied": the twenty-first-century body in pursuit of the Holbein look'. It discusses details of their continuing research into the methods used to stiffen the bodices of Tudor gowns.

I shall be wearing my costume for signing copies of VIII at Waterstone's in Bath on October 8th and at Waterstone's in The Galleries, Bristol on October 29th. Do please come along if you can - I am happy to be peered at, if anyone wants to see the costume in more detail!

H.M. Castor's website is here.

The Tudor Tailor's website is here.


catdownunder said...

You are brave. I have always those clothes looked very romantic and very, very uncomfortable!

Linda B-A said...

You so look the part! The outfit makes the clothes we wear now look so basic. If you dare do it, I think it would be a great thing to do to sweep into a classroom in full Tudor costume - young children, in particular, would love it. You could step out from behind a time travel portal curtain or appear on a darkened school stage. I think Year 6s and 7s would be a good audience, too, but I'm not sure that I'd try it with older secondary school children.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Harriet this is brilliant! By coincidence I am going to be posting tomorrow about the downside to dressing up in period costume. And I don't even have to wear such a weighty outfit.

You are a brave woman.

Emily Hawkins said...

Thanks so much for this interesting post, Harriet. I have to say, I'd never thought that much about the practicalities of Tudor fashion, but getting dressed must have been incredibly painstaking. Wear it as much as you can - you'll certainly turn a few heads down in Tesco's on a Saturday afternoon!

adele said...

Oh I did love this post so much. Like Dianne's about perfume, it takes you right into intimate parts of a person's life and is simply fascinating. And yes, you do look fantastic, Harriet. I can remember from my days in the theatre how very necessary it was to rehearse IN COSTUME so that you got the walking, sitting etc right. As for those shoes, some clever modern manufacturer should make them. They would be so smart even now. I'd buy a pair at once. They even look comfortable! Lovely!

Anonymous said...

Brilliant! I'll be there in Bath on October 8th to ask more, as I also have a Tudor book and have wanted a costume for ages!
I wear a Viking outfit to schools and take spares for the children to dress up too - mainly KS3 age - and they love it. Especially hearing about how they wove the fabric and the gory details about dieing. I'm sure they'll be blown away by yours.
Marie-Louise Jensen

Mary Hoffman said...

And next year's event at Broadlands would be just the place! I must get myself a 16th century Italian aristocrat's outfit immediately.


Nicky said...

You look wonderful!

Shawn Robertson said...

You do look gorgeous. Hiring a maid or two might be in order, for those special occasions. They could dress up too.

I can imagine that costumes got progressively simpler as one goes down in rank. Practicality must intercede at some point, washing dishes and farming and all that. But now,as then, women will sacrifice comfort for style. Were the men's costumes any simpler?

Leslie Wilson said...

I did so love this post, Harriet!

Eve Edwards said...

What a brilliant post and right up my street. I wrote about a Tudor seamstress in The Queen's Lady and had to do the same kind of research you have done (but I didn't buy the costume - missed a trick there). I decided to make my character a finisher (embroidery, ruffs etc) rather than tailor as this was a guild profession so closed to women. I found the costume display at the Globe really helpful - did you go there too? FYI The Lodger on Silver Street has fabulous detail on wig making.

none said...

What a great article. I'm glad I only have to wear a t-shirt and trousers....

Katherine Roberts said...

I love dressing up and remember a British Museum Christmas party a few years ago, where I dressed up as a Babylonian princess to give a reading from "The Babylon Game", and my publicity girls were Ancient Egyptians. There was also a competition for the children, who all came as historical characters. It was very atmospheric among all those Egyptian statues and walls full of cuneiform.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

The children will love you going into schools with that wonderful outfit. If you dared to start with the first layer, the class could dress you! What an education that would be.
Lovely post, Harriet.

H.M. Castor said...

Thanks so much for all the comments - both lovely & thought-provoking (am feeling the need to look up all sorts of new things) - & for the fantastic encouragement. See you in Bath in October, Marie-Louise!

H.M. Castor said...

And Shawn, it seems to me that high-ranking men's clothes weren't simpler but did allow more freedom of movement. The Tudor Tailor has fantastic details of men's clothes too.

Sue Purkiss said...

Hope to come to either the Bath signing or the Bristol one - thanks for a fascinating post! How HOT it must have been inside all those layers...

Anonymous said...

I used a simplicity sewing pattern (well, two patterns if you include the underclothes pattern) to create a tudor dress last year for a gala dinner. It looked great, I felt great. I got many compliments, especially when people realised I'd made the whole thing. But I can tell you now, if you're going to do this, make sure to empty yourself out in the ladies room before putting everything on because trying to do so, unaided, in costume, is not an experience you ever want to have (and I'm pretty sure that "aided" is not on most people's lists of things they want to do).

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Wonderful post Harriet! All those details that make writing a historical novel such a pleasure. I've recently done mountains of research on Portuguese dress in Goa in 1630 only to have my protagonists spend all of their time in rough sailors' clothing. But I enjoyed the research and knowing what they might have been wearing were they in fact in Goa! By the way my Egyptian make-up doesn't make me look like Elizabeth Taylor!! Any help Adele?

The first Historyian said...

I am sooooooooo very jealous! Lucky you! I would love to have a full, functioning Tudor outfit instead of the "cutting-corners" Ren-Fest costumes. ...Would like to have an entire wardrobe full, as a matter of fact, now that I think about it. It must have been very interesting and fun to put it on for the first time!

linda collison said...

I very much enjoy costumes, and this post. You have a very discerning eye for detail!