Sunday, March 02, 2014

Question from Danielle - Surviving jewelry and clothing from the Tudor period

Is there anywhere I can see official clothing or jewellery from the Tudor period? If not not, what happened to all the dresses worn by Henry's wives & children?

[Variations on this question have been asked before, and some are linked below - but it's one that doesn't hurt to be asked again given rotating displays in museums, historic houses, etc. - Lara]


PhD Historian said...

The issue of jewelry surviving from the Tudor period (one of my favorite areas of personal interest) has been well covered in the other threads to which Lara has provided links. At present, the Cheapside Hoard, dating to the end of the Tudor period, is on display in its entirety at the Museum of London. Sadly, that exhibition ends on 27 April, so I will miss it by just one day (I am traveling to the UK in April and arriving on the 28th, one day after closing! I am very frustrated by that!)

As for clothing, the reason why so little has survived is really quite simple. Clothes in the Tudor era were made from organic fibers: silk, linen (flax), wool, etc. All organic fibers are subject to natural decomposition, with the rate of decomposition dependent on the nature of the fiber. The rate of decomposition for all fibers is often accelerated when the fiber has been altered in some way, such as dying. Contact with the human body also introduces substances, especially sweat and natural body oils, that accelerate decomposition. Even the cleaning processes used in the 16th and 17th centuries introduced chemicals that eventually damaged the textile. It is very difficult to stop decomposition entirely, though it can be slowed down considerably if the textile is cared for properly. That means proper cleaning to remove the residue from human contact without adding new residue through the cleaning process. It also means storage in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment, and in a storage container that is pH neutral (acid-free). And all pests, both micro- and macroscopic must be eliminated, from bacteria and molds to moths and rats.

Now imagine one of the gowns worn by Henry VIII being soiled with his natural sweat and body oils ... and who knows what else ... then washed in lye soap and water. All of those things degrade the fibers. Then it gets stored in a wooden chest, which naturally gives off acids, and that chest is in a damp, dank room of the Royal Wardrobe ... hot in summer, cold in winter. And pest control was virtually non-existent, be it mold or rats. Over the course of a decade or so, the textile would quite naturally decay.

Frankly, I am surprised that *any* textiles from the period have survived! Bed coverings that have somehow managed to survive tend to be very badly damaged and require massive restoration efforts. Even tapestries of the 16th century have survived only in very small numbers, and they too require significant restoration. See, for example, the Gideon Tapestries at Hardwick Hall, which cost the National Trust GBP 1.7 *million* to clean and restore!

Interestingly, leather garments are among the more sturdy survivors, since the original process of tanning the leather actually acts as a preservative measure. Thus we have a fair number of gloves and boots and such surviving from the Tudor period.

Unknown said...

Agreed with Phd Historian.

Bess Chilver said...

There are quite a few extant garments and very few of those can be definitively stated as having belonged to a specific person. Where we can state with certainty, it is because the garments have been kept carefully - there are a number on the continent from European royals - or were on the person's body when they were dug up (grave goods) or, as we have in one case, there is a painting of the garment on the owner as well as the extant garment: Margaret Layton:

Though PhD Historian is right in that fabrics will rot or get damaged, its not quite as simple as that.

Clothing was expensive in terms of fabrics. Labour (Tailors) was relatively cheap - though that doesn't mean tailors didn't do well, because they did. Due to the total cost, people looked after their clothing. They would be repaired, patched, handed down to others. Remade into a newer fashions - Queen Elizabeth I's wardrobe accounts have many entries where garments have been "translated" from an earlier fashion to the latest fashion or altered to fit her better.

QEI left around 2 to 3,000 garments at her death - these would have been inherited by Queen Anne, the new King James' Queen. She would have had these altered for her own use, those of her children, or given to ladies of QEI.

Therefore the garments would have changed entirely from the original use.
Over time, these would have meant that we "lose" garments as fashions change. Valuable items such as embroidery, lace, jewels would have been removed and the fabric left if it could not be used for anything else would be come rags. Hence why we have so little surviving.

In terms of jewellery - similar changes occur - jewellery can be melted down and turned into something else. Yet there are a lot of pieces that did survive over the centuries.

Royal Jewels from the 16th century suffered severely during the English Civil War - the current St Edward's Crown which Crowns our Monarch is not the original that was used in the medieval period. Though many of the stones that are used were (Black Prince's Ruby). Charles II, on his return to the England had it remade and bought back many of the stones.

Leanda de Lisle said...

I have been posting images of Tudor and early Stuart clothing that are kept in a private collection and have not been seen in public for over a hundred years. I have done so on Tumblr and facebook. The most interesting, to my mind, in the Elizabethan blackwork apron with its images of gardeners on it. It is unique in the world as far as I know - go to my website