When I heard a couple months ago that The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace would be hosting an exhibit by the Royal Collection Trust titled In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion this summer (May – October, 2013), I knew I’d have to get my hands on the exhibit catalog.
So I did!
If you’re a fan of historical textiles, if you love the combination of textile history and social history, if you love art – you will love this catalog. It is a massive, beautiful book by Anna Reynolds, Curator of Paintings at the Royal Collection Trust. And while it is filled with photos that will delight the eye and mesmerize the brain, it is also jam-packed with thoroughly readable history.
The book and exhibition explore the finery of Tudor and Stuart dress, through the study of portraiture juxtaposed with preserved textiles.
In Fine Style is divided into eight main parts: Dress and Its Meanings; Dressing Women; Dressing Men; Dressing Children; Painting Dress; Fashion Across the Borders; Painted for Battle and the Hunt; and Playing a Part (dress in entertainment).
Using social commentaries, documented records, and diaries, personal notes and communications from the era, the text unfolds in amazing detail an historical era that was sumptuous, fascinating, and full of intrigue.
The whole focus of the book is, of course, dress, and most especially the dress of the rich and famous.
While sitting about in our cotton knits and light layers of clothing, it is almost impossible to imagine living in the dress of the Tudor & Stuart eras – the layers, the ruffs, the tights, the heavy fabrics, the embroidery encrusted jackets, the shoes, the gloves….. not to mention everything underneath all of it!
Dress was a statement of wealth and status. (In that regard, have we really changed that much?)
I love the author’s opening statement at the beginning of “Dress and Its Meaning”: Even when it conceals the body, clothing is revealing.
She goes on:
For the sixteenth- or seventeenth-century audience, clothing could reveal information about a wearer’s social position, wealth, religion, nationality, marital status, fashionability and so on. Today, given our inevitably incomplete knowledge of the social context in which the paintings were produced and viewed, some of the subtle nuances have been lost. Traditionally, the importance of clothing in portraiture to the modern viewer or researcher has usually been as a tool for dating a portrait. Yet the clothing worn, together with the manner in which it has been painted by the artist, can reveal so much more – it can help identify a sitter, artist or provenance, and more broadly can provide information about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century society and attitudes.
And that, in a nutshell, gives us a direction for the book. It is, on the whole, a social exploration of the times, using the portraits (and actual textile samples and what we know about them) to unlock a broader view of the era.
So, what will you find in the book?
Image-wise, you’ll find portraiture galore – with many close-ups that reveal details you may very well miss while meandering through a museum – and a good smattering of textiles and close-ups of textiles, especially those which tie in somehow to the portraits discussed because of style, types of embellishment, owner, maker, and so forth.
I especially love the juxtaposing of the textiles in the portraits with examples of real textiles. What incredible pains these master artists went to, to faithfully produce in their portraits the tiniest details of finery!
I also love the explanations of different elements of clothing, when they would have been worn, why they are shown in portraits (or not shown), how much they would have cost to make, who would have made them and how they were made. These details bring the era to life!
…to shoes, we learn about each element of showy fashion and why those elements were important to their wearers. It wasn’t just the blissfully simple matter of keeping the feet dry or the hands warm!
For the embroiderer, it is the close-up details of textiles that will certainly enchant, whether they be the real thing…
…like the doublet or the night cap…
or the painted thing, like the velvet and goldwork…
…next to the real velvet and goldwork.
For me – so far – the most fascinating section of the book is on painting dress. I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so far, but this section absorbed me and I gobbled it up. I’m always in awe of the talent and techniques of artists! For me, this part of the book alone was worth the price of the whole.
The other section that grabbed my attention and that I read straight through was that on painting children. Dressed like miniature versions of their parents, the children in the portraits are encrusted with layers of elaborate clothing.
The author notes that the children were a reflection of status as well. One example that comes to mind – the dressing of a child in an apron made from a costly piece of lace made a very clear statement about mommy and daddy and their wealth and social standing.
Oh golly. Thank goodness for the onesie!
In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion is a gorgeous book. It provokes thought, it engages the imagination, it satisfies the curiosity. If you like this kind of stuff, you’ll love the book!
It does not make the best bedside reading, admittedly. As I mentioned above, the book is huge. It’s a coffee-table book your guests will love to browse through, and it’s a readable book that you’ll enjoy better while sitting at a table. It’s a hefty thing!
Where to Find It
You can find In Fine Style available through the following book affiliates:
In the US, you can find In Fine Style available here, through Amazon.
Worldwide with free shipping, In Fine Style is available here, through Book Depository.