Monday, December 1, 2008

The Tudor Year: December

Theme: clothes

Queen Catherine Parr, sixth wife of King Henry VIII. (Formerly identified as Jane Seymour.) National Portrait Gallery, London. From Tudor History

Hans Holbein, Portrait of an Unknown Young Man at his Office Desk. 1541. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. From Olga's Gallery.

Albrecht Durer, Portrait of the Artist's Mother. 1514. Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin. From Olga's Gallery

December 8th -- birth of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542)
December 13th -- Francis Drake sails from Plymouth to attempt circumnavigation of the globe (1577)
December 16th -- birth of Catherine of Aragon (1485)

The Christmas holidays ushered in the "greatest concentration" of Days of Estate, those feast days of the Church which were also marked by elaborate ceremony at court. The royal family heard Mass, dined in public, and wore their most splendid clothes on these days. The sumptuous look of portraits of the time, showing upper class men and women in rich velvets, furs, brocades, and jewels, might make us forget the one comfort that almost all Tudors lacked -- cheap and easily washed cotton clothing, especially cotton underwear. Cotton came (if at all) from the fabulous east, from Egypt and India, and the labor required to make cotton into thread and then cloth rendered the finished product as expensve as fur. Wool was the fabric of necessity for ordinary people, and wool clothes were absolutely precious enough to be bequeathed in wills. The Western world would have to wait for a combination of factors to come together - among them the slave trade, the opening up of the American South to cotton planting, and Eli Whitney's cotton gin -- before really comfortable and hygienic clothing became a norm in life.

George Edwin Fussell, The English Rural Labourer: His Home, Furniture, Clothing, and Food from Tudor to Victorian Times. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975. Originally published by the Batchworth Press, London, 1949, pp. 14-16.
David Starkey, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII. New York: Harper Collins, 2003, p. 233.

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