Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Original McQueen: Elizabeth I

THE ORIGINAL McQUEEN: ELIZABETH I -- The older she got, the more outrageous she dressed (sounds like a great idea to us!) --and the laws she set into motion about who could wear what were just as outrageous  (more about that later!) -- and the things that people (i.e. royalty, nobility and stylish folks like us!) did in the name of fashion were, well, just plain crazy -- but then, the Elizabethan Era (1558 to 1603) named for the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England, symbolized the height of English Renaissance poetry, music, fashion and literature (think Shakespeare and traveling minstrels) which has curiously never left us in one way or another (think renaissance faires!). She was a tough old bird, for sure, but she certainly loved her clothes, jewelry, wigs and makeup (sounds like us!) and she used all of these to great effect in projecting her image as the greatest ruler of the Western world -- and sitting for portraits was one of her favorite pastimes (other than defeating the Spanish navy) it seemed -- as there were so many portraits of her during her 45-year rule. At age 65, the Queen granted an audience to French ambassador Andre Hurault-Sieur de Maisse Andre (and you thought you had a clever name!) who left us with this most wonderful firsthand look at the real Queen -- not simply a portrait (as we have above painted by George Gower).  Says the ambassador: "She was strangely attired (oh really?) in a dress of silver cloth, white and crimson, or silver 'gauze' as they call it. She kept the front of her dress open and one could see the whole of her bosom (good for you, girl!) and she would often open the front of this robe with her hands as if she was too hot (you would be too with all that velvet and pearls!). The collar of the robe was very high and the lining of the inner part adorned with little pendants of rubies and pearls and she had a chain of rubies and pearls about her neck. On her head, she wore a garland of the same material (she really did love those rubies and pearls, didn't she?) and beneath it a great reddish coloured wig. Her bosom is somewhat wrinkled as well (hey, she was 65!), but lower down her flesh is exceedingly white and delicate (well, that's a relief!). Her figure is tall and graceful in whatever she does, yet humbly and graciously withal."  In other words, she was one stylish lady!  Now as for that dress code -- the "Sumptuary Laws" which Elizabeth enacted in June of 1574 dictated that if you were poor (ouch!) that you could only wear items of wool, linen and sheepskin (however silk, taffeta and velvet trimmings were allowed, but only in certain colors!).  If you were noble or of the upper class, you could wear velvet, silk, lace, furs and taffeta -- but only in certain colors and you could only spend so much for them.  Breaking these rules among the rich meant loss of property, your title and even harsher punishment!  But in the words of the Queen herself, these laws were basically to protect against "the wasting and undoing of a great number of young gentlemen and others...allured by the vain show of things...which only consume themselves, their goods and lands which their parents left unto them."  Such was the power of fashion in Merry Ol' England!  Could we, today, ever be allured by vanity?  Spend all our money on clothes and jewelry?  Expose our bosoms to French men?  Yes, yes and double yes!!