I am extremely pleased to have Susan Guest Post here at EBJ. Without further ado, here is her amazing piece- Thank you so much Susan:)
Dressing a Royal Bridegroom
By Susan Holloway Scott
One of the most pleasurable aspects of writing historical fiction is getting to describing the clothing of the characters. It’s not just being able to indulge in imaginary excess, though who doesn’t like to picture themselves in full court dress, appearing before an awestruck crowd in rustling silk and exuberant lace, hair piled high with jewels glittering, well, everywhere?
But clothing can also reveal a great deal about a character, about whether he or she likes to make a splashy entrance in the latest French fashion, or prefers more subdued dress. I’ve always been fascinated by how Charles II (1630-1685), the English king who has featured prominently in many of my books, chose to dress. For grand state occasions, he could work the ermine, velvet, and crown with the best of them, but for everyday he preferred to be comfortable rather than stylish, and dressed in dark colors with a minimum of the lace and ribbon that was the latest French fashion. Everything was the best quality, of course, because he was the king, but often the only ornament that set him apart as the monarch was the Garter Star beautifully embroidered on the breast of his coats.
The other gentlemen and ladies of Charles’s court were much more interested in displaying their finery, and spent outrageous amounts on jewels and clothes. Wrote one courtier after a ball in 1666: “Never saw greater bravery…a hundred vests that at the least cost a hundred pounds. Some adorned with jewels worth above a thousand…and the ladies much richer than the men….the gloriousest assembly.” And this in a time when an average English tradesman and his family could live well on forty-five pounds a year –– not to mention that all of this “gloriousest” display took place less than three months after a large part of London had been destroyed in the Great Fire!
But reading these descriptions can be frustrating since there are surprisingly few pictures to back them up. Gentlemen tended to pose for portraits in their formal dress for solemn court events rather than their newest party-clothes from Paris, while the ladies sat in draped “costumes” provided by the artist, loose-fitting robes of bright silk clasped in strategic places that were supposed to feel vaguely antique and romantic. Seductive, yes, but not at all indicative of what these same great ladies wore to impress on a daily basis. There are even fewer examples of actual gowns from the late 17th c. in museum collections.
Katherine Sedley, the heroine of my new historical novel, The Countess and the King, was a wealthy heiress who liked extravagant, showy gowns with plenty of costly jewels, partly to distract attention from her unfashionable thinness, and partly just because she liked being the center of attention. But though there are plenty of references to her gaudy taste, there are no surviving examples of it. Instead the most famous portrait by Godrey Kneller from her heyday as a royal mistress shows her in admirable, if uncharacteristic, restraint in artist’s “undress.” And so,with Katherine, I had to combine my own imagination with contemporary accounts and fashion plates, and hope I captured her “personal style.”
But with James, I was amazingly lucky. The embroidered suit that James wore to his second wedding miraculously still exists, and is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Only the waistcoat is missing. Here it is on the V&A website: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/29558-popup.html.
This suit has its own story to tell. James had it made for his wedding to his second wife in the winter of 1673, and like all royal weddings of the time, it was a political alliance, not a love match. The bride was a fifteen-year-old Italian princess, Mary Beatrice (her name already anglicized) of Modena. She was also Roman Catholic, and because James himself had recently converted to that faith as well, the wedding was wildly unpopular in Protestant England. In protest the princess was burned in straw effigies in London, as was James. A proxy wedding had already taken place in Modena, but the first time the couple were to meet would be when Mary Beatrice landed in Dover. Given England’s hostility, it was decided that the two should be wed in Dover, as quickly and quietly as possible.
Thus James’s suit was made of grey wool broadcloth to keep him warm as he stood on the winter beach. But the lining was a festive, bright coral ribbed silk, and nearly every inch of the grey wool is covered with (now faded) gold and silver embroidery, including the Garter Star on the left breast. The embroidery design features intertwining lilies and honeysuckles, signifying purity and devoted love, both theoretically appropriate for a bridegroom, if not for James. The suit’s cut is the latest French fashion, and the style of the flopping oversized cuffs on the coat was called “hound’s-ears.” There are dozens of tiny decorative buttons, each wrapped in more gold thread; James’s wardrobe records show that he required 228 buttons for a complete suit of coat, waistcoat, and breeches!
Alas, there is no surviving portrait of James in this suit, but it is easy to imagine him standing on the beach wearing it to greet his bride, the winter sun glinting on all that metallic embroidery. He wore the suit to their hasty marriage by the Bishop of Oxford in a private house in Dover, and again several days later when the newlyweds arrived at the palace in London, and James presented Mary Beatrice to his brother the king.
What was the Mary Beatrice’s reaction to her well-dressed bridegroom? Exhausted from sea-sickness and her long journey, she reportedly took one look at James and burst into tears. But what did Katherine Sedley make of the beautiful suit and the man wearing it when she stood among the curious courtiers at Whitehall Palace later that week? Ah, you’ll have to read The Countess and the King to find out.
Here(http://www.vam.ac.uk/res_cons/conservation/journal/consjournal26/ethics_in_action/index.html) is more information about James’s wedding suit, plus another photo.
Here’s a link (http://www.susanhollowayscott.com/books/countesspreview.htm) to an excerpt from The Countess and the King on my website (www.susanhollowayscott.com).
I hope you’ll also stop by my blog with fellow author Loretta Chase, where we discuss history, writing, and yes, even the occasional pair of great shoes: http://twonerdyhistorygirls.blogspot.com/
Many thanks to Lucy for having me here today!
For more on what is happening this week, please see Historical Fiction Bloggers Round Table here.