Queen Elizabeth

Dressing a Virgin Queen: Court Women, Dress, and Fashioning the Image of England’s Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth I, who ruled England from 1558 until 1603, lived and died a virgin, we do know she dressed like one. Elizabeth had to present herself as a chaste, virginal woman to prove that she was morally worthy of holding the traditionally masculine office of monarch.



By presenting herself as a virgin and controlling her sexuality (something women were considered incapable of doing), she could demonstrate her ability and right to control her realm. However, this image of virginity was not a static one, and it changed throughout Elizabeths reign.

female courtiers, especially the Elizabethan privy chamber women, helped to construct the Queens virginal image by contributing to the royal wardrobe which enabled Elizabeth to dress the part of the Virgin Queen.  Moreover, the women at court were in a unique position to help the Queen in this way because of their knowledge about the Queen’s body and the royal wardrobe.

taking care of her bodily needs and offering her companionship, have still been accepted as domestic, and thereby, apolitical tasks. To the contrary, it is precisely these domestic activities that are the primary source of the privy chamber women’s political agency

The time these women spent with Elizabeth, dressing her and undressing her, gave these women knowledge about and authority over the Queen’s body and wardrobe. They could exercise that knowledge and authority by choosing gifts for Elizabeth and advising others on gifts they could give the Queen that would help Elizabeth project her image as a virgin. (scene from film)

1580s when it became clear that she would not marry or bear an heir, and the cult of her virginity hoped to calm fears over the issue of succession and to maintain support for the aging Queen


1580 John Bettes

Symbols of virginity could also take the form of jewelry or embroidery—for example, the crescent moon, which invoked the chaste goddess Diana.


As her reign progressed, more and more women in the social ranks of countesses, baronesses, and ladies, some of whom served in the privy chamber or attended court, also gave more dress-related gifts than they did cash. Male courtiers also gave more sartorial gifts in the second half of her reign, but still not as frequently as their female counterparts. For example, Frances Cobham, who served Elizabeth in the privy chamber from the time of Elizabeth’s coronation until Lady Cobham’s death in 1592, gave Elizabeth a clothing-related gift twelve times (out of the fourteen times that she was listed in twenty rolls), and six of these garments were made out of white material, such as her 1585 gift to the Queen of a white satin doublet. Her husband, who did not show up on the gift rolls as frequently and tended to give gold, also gave the Queen a sartorial gift in 1585, a white satin skirt.


Elizabeth’s image as a virgin queen depended less on the state of her hymen and more on the pearls and clothes that covered her purportedly virginal body. The Queen’s virginity was, in a sense, materially fashioned in layers of black and white cloth and swathes of pearls and diamonds.





Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Ermine: Elizabeth I’s Coronation Robes and Mothers’ Legacies in Early Modern England

Elizabeth Is use of her despised sister Mary’s coronation robes, and explain Elizabeth’s choice of clothing as a way of simultaneously representing, interpreting, and disposing of Mary’s legacy.

Elizabeth was crowned a few months after Marys death in November 1558, she wore the very same robes Mary had worn for her own coronation. I argue that this unusual sartorial decision—especially given their troubled tie (and Elizabeths later reputation as a clotheshorse)—is a way for Elizabeth both to reify and obliterate her connection to Mary Tudor, making it crucial and empty all at once.


Elizabeth’s choice of clothing on such a formative day actually has a variety of meanings and supports a variety of values. For one thing, it can also help us understand what women’s wealth consisted of, and to whom it most properly belonged.

Elizabeth’s decision has something to do with controlling reproduction: the reproduction of cloth, most obviously, but through this activity the reproduction of power, relations, and influence

Painted more than forty years after the fact, the 1600 “Coronation Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I shows the queen wearing the same ermine trimmed robes at her 1559 coronation that Mary had worn five-and-a-half years earlier this borrowing and the feelings it symbolizes, suggesting that”the robes of clothe of gold and silver tissue’ which [Elizabeth] had watched her sister wear in 1553, must have seemed like a triumphant and tangible symbol of safety and freedom.  identical dress would seem to untangle the complicated relationship between the sisters by making Mary’s ambiguous legacy appear ready-made for Elizabeth, something that she might appropriately recycle—or at least easily remake.

Queens and kings often wore the clothing and jewels and gowns of predecessors for reasons of economy and tradition. Clothes were frequently left as bequests in wills because of the value of the material: many of Elizabeth’s gowns were “translated” into furnishings after her death or given to players, the pearls and spangles sold, other items given to her ladies-in-waiting.

“translation” of royal regalia could have the public effect of killing off a predecessor, too. In adopting the livery of her older sister and thereby advertising her secure position in Mary’s royal household, Elizabeth officially buries her sister’s royal claims: if clothes make the queen, Mary has been royally divested

queen regnant queen consort

less than fully royal monarch,” with the loose hair of a bride, an open rather than closed crown, and a dress of white cloth of gold, not the purple robes of a king.

Political reasons: Protestant reformers in England strategically made use of Catholic relics including priestly vestments and altar cloths to unveil or discharge those items’ ritual magic, turning them into furnishings for Protestant homes or costumes for professional player

Defining ancestors, maintaining lineages and identifying progeny, sumptuary codes regulating cloth distribution and display operate in small-scale societies much as they did in early modern England, where mourning robes were distributed by kin of the deceased at funerals as a way to “channel death into regeneration and political gain

death into regeneration and political gain” (see Weiner and Schneider, 11). What anthropological accounts also tell us is that if, by definition, clothing is practical, superficial, and decorative, it is also always a rich and valuable tool precisely because of its exteriority, its ability to recreate the owner as part of its symbolism.

Samplers produced during this period similarly attest to the fragile, implicit state of links between many early-modern women and to the collective anonymity now fostered between mothers and daughters in an increasingly isolated domestic sphere. As cloth-weaving was replaced by embroidery and households were supplanted by workshops, for example, the same few needlework patterns were reworked, the same few symbols transmitted in smaller and smaller circles.

we learn about women’s ideas by knowing what they have taught themselves to relinquish.




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