Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lost From Her Majesty's Back: Tudor Gowns and Finery

by Victoria Lamb

In Tudor films, you often see the women slipping easily out of their gowns at bedtime. But in reality, their clothing was a fiendish affair, which would have left modern women ready to scream. Poor women and lesser gentry might be able to get away with a smock-like one piece gown, pulled simply over the head. But wealthy Tudor woman had to contend with layers of clothing, some of which had to be fastened together as they were put on.

By Hans Holbein the Younger. British Museum.
The kirtle or foreskirt went over any undergarments - rarely worn - and often had a highly decorative front panel. Sometimes the kirtle was already attached to a bodice, but might also be laced into place at the time. Over this would be hung an overskirt with a wide V-style opening to reveal the decorative kirtle. In the later Elizabethan era, a hoop or farthingale might be worn below the kirtle to swell it out like a bell. A "bum-roll" was also used to help support this structure and to provide contrast between the narrow waist and chest - helped along by a stiffened or bone-strengthened bodice holding a lady's assets down - and the swaying skirts.

The Family of Thomas More.
Sleeves were normally separate from the rest of the gown, and could be worn in a mix and match way, so that women might have "favourite" sleeves which they used with different gowns. These would be tied on with laces or ribbons. For some of Queen Elizabeth I's more elaborate outfits, however, it was not unusual for the sleeves to be so heavy with fur trimmings or jewels, they would need to be sewn on at the time of dressing. The stitches would then be patiently unpicked by her small army of ladies-in-waiting at the end of the day.

Only imagine the boredom of such a lengthy disrobing ritual, which for Queen Elizabeth could take as long as four hours! Perhaps the literary cliche of lusty gentlemen ripping high-born ladies' bodices off in sheer frustration may not be so far from the truth.

All these expensive clothes would have been stored in chests that accompanied the queen everywhere, including on visits away from her royal palaces, and were guarded zealously by the Keeper of the Royal Wardrobe. Any jewels which snagged and fell off unnoticed while Elizabeth was out walking would be marked down in a Day Book now charmingly known as 'Lost From Her Majesties Back', which was kept religiously by her ladies. Every tiny pearl that disappeared from a sleeve or hem was noted down in this book, presumably allowing replacements to be ordered.

Given how many lost jewels appear in this book, it must have been quite a worthwhile pursuit to follow the queen about on state occasions, hoping to grab any lost jewels as they fell from her gowns, some of which were fairly bristling with expensive jewels - a point made by Janet Arnold in her fascinating book, Lost from Her Majesty's Back (The Costume Society, 1980), which may be available from some university libraries if looking to pursue this topic further.

Victoria Lamb is the author of The Queen's Secret, a Tudor novel set at Kenilworth Castle during Queen Elizabeth I's epic visit in 1575. Now available in paperback, Hardback and Kindle edition.

Bantam Press 2012

Her heroine Lucy Morgan will return in His Dark Lady, due to be published in the UK in March 2013.


  1. That was very interesting and informative! Thank you.

  2. Thank you Victoria. I cannot imagine how the small children coped in their garb. Perhaps they were so tightly packed in they could not move to complain! I love learning something new, and I never knew that about Elizabeths missing jewels. Thank you, Debbie.

  3. The information about missing jewels is new to me too. Beautiful clothing to look at, but it must have been a nightmare.

  4. Thank you for commenting, Marybelle, Thetudorkey and Farida. Yes, I was amazed when I first came across the book about Elizabeth's missing jewels. How desperately busy and stressed her ladies must have been, trying to keep track of every pearl on her hem. And the children! Yes, they wore miniature versions of adult clothing, as most people know, but I'm not sure if their dressing and undressing would have taken quite so long. Perhaps their versions were simpler! One hopes so, for their sakes. V.

  5. This was very interesting, thank you! Somehow I was unaware of this particular Janet Arnold book. I am now going to hunt a copy down!

    -Ashlie of BeingBess

    "BeingBess" is dedicated to celebrating the life of Elizabeth Tudor (1533-1603) and the legacy of her reign as Queen of England (1558-1603).


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