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Eleri Lynn, Tudor Fashion

Ramses Delafontaine
Tudor Fashion
Eleri Lynn, Tudor Fashion, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2017, 208 p., ISBN : 9780300228274.
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1Eleri Lynn is a curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, an English charity which maintains and opens to the public the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, the Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, and Hillsborough Castle. Responsible for the historic dress collections at Hampton Court Palace, she has authored a book on Tudor Fashion. With her intimate knowledge of the Tudor wardrobe, Lynn manages to captivate the reader’s attention throughout her book. Describing the apparel of the Tudor kings and queens in minute detail, she provides evidence in confirmation of her central thesis: that Tudor dress conveyed Tudor power.

2So much so, that attire was at the forefront of the Tudor monarch’s daily concerns. Lynn reports how Henry VII (1457-1509), only a week after the Battle of Bosworth (1485) which ended the Wars of the Roses and put Henry and the Tudor dynasty on the English throne, ordered new and costly cloths for him and his bride to be. (p. 65) When Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), serving as a member of Henry VIII’s (1491-1547) Privy Counsel, wrote a ‘to do’ list in October 1533, he included drawing up indictments of treason as well as a reminder to show the king patterns meant for the embroidery of the queen’s clothing. (p. 155) Lynn also shows at several points in the book how Elizabeth I (1533-1603) was very concerned with her clothing and was personally involved in ordering, selecting, and designing her apparel.

3Different clothes, colours, patterns, jewels, and other accessories carried different messages. Clothing symbolized social status, wealth, and power: “By the basic fact of cost, clothing signified rank.” (p. 15) The royal clothes were considered “state assets akin to gold and plate.” (p. 156) Since the reign of Edward III (1312-1377) sumptuary laws (1336, 1337, 1363) had codified who was allowed to wear what kind of clothes in the English realm. The most expensive colours and fabrics were reserved for the monarch and the royal family, (p. 106) and for the Tudor monarchs their outfits were of pivotal importance in communicating their status and power. Their royal power was both established and reaffirmed by their attire. Their clothes also communicated more subtle messages. Taste, support, defiance, aspiration, influence, mood were all silently expressed in the clothes one wore. As Lynn aptly concludes, when analysing Tudor fashion we truly engage in “the semiotics of dress.” (p. 90)

4The best parts of the book are those where Lynn combines her description and analysis of the clothes with primary source material. For example, when she cites the accounts of ambassadors of foreign nations attending the Tudor court. (i.a. p. 20) These Venetian, Milanese, Spanish, French, and German ambassadors reported back to their home centres in dispatches which often contained detailed descriptions of the Tudor monarchs’ clothes and apparel to conclude on the monarch’s grasp on power, mood, and financial situation. With some ambassadors going as far as to remark whether a certain piece of clothing had already been worn on a previous occasion by the monarch. Repetition of wear, Lynn judges, was only excusable for the early modern king or queen when the piece of clothing was characterized by exquisite workmanship. Lynn’s thesis, that Tudor fashion contributed to Tudor power, is convincingly proven in these passages. However, further analysis of similar primary source material for references to the royal dress are hopefully going to be the subject of future research. For example, the inclusion of more so-called egodocuments of English courtiers and the wider palace audience of English noblemen and women would surely enrich the author’s ability to showcase how the historical actors were reading those symbolic messages of Tudor dress and fashion1.

5To organise the purchase, production, and maintenance of their expensive clothing, the Tudors counted on the office of The Great Wardrobe of Robes and Beds. The Wardrobe’s staff members had direct access to the king or queen and their families and courtiers. This position of privilege gave them a social and financial advantage above what their station would otherwise have granted them. The Wardrobe’s employees formalized their work flows for taking care of the wardrobe and keeping it safe, clean, and sanitary. Persons working at The Great Wardrobe crafted the monarch’s clothes without modern tools and technical advances. They had no synthetic fabrics or artificial colouring options at their disposal. Nonetheless, exceptional craftsmanship enabled these tailors to create complex and colourful works of art, such as farthingales (a fashion import from Spain) which were wheel-shaped dresses whose structures were made out of whalebone. Different garments were often held together with numerous pins. Different sets of sleeves could be pinned to a shirt so as to regularly change the aspect of a single piece of clothing. Such articles of clothing, consisting out of multiple parts and several accessories, could often not be put on without the help of several serving men or women.

6At The Great Wardrobe craftsmen and women worked with materials imported from Flanders, Holland, France, Italy, and beyond. One cannot help but smile at reading that the Tudor kings and queens and the English nobility at the time held a rather familiar notion on high fashion: namely that of the superiority of Italian and French styles. Elizabeth, for example, specifically charged William Cecil (1520-1598) with searching for and hiring a Parisian tailor who could make her clothes in the French and Italian manner (p. 148).

7The technical terminology Lynn avails herself of in the descriptions of the different pieces of clothing can be challenging for the lay person. However, the book contains a useful glossary listing the multiple pieces of clothing that were employed in early modern fashion (p. 172-175). It has to be said, however, that the elaborate descriptions of the clothes and accessories can, on occasion, become a little bit monotonous. This could perhaps be counteracted in further work, as Lynn’s research progresses, by providing descriptions of the clothing interwoven with more references to primary source material: the aforementioned comments on the royal attire by contemporaries.

8Unfortunately, as Lynn explains, little remains of the Tudor wardrobe in terms of archaeological material. Much of the royal wardrobe was repurposed by later kings and queens. A number of pieces were simply sold off at auction to replenish the royal treasury, while other items where gifted to members of the royal household and well-liked members of the nobility (p. 160-171).

9Yale University Press has produced this book in a luxurious form with thick pages and high-quality printed images, as befits the Tudor wardrobe. The book is beautifully designed containing richly detailed and beautiful pictures of the clothes themselves and of paintings and drawings of the Tudor royals and courtiers wearing them. The paintings by Hans Holbein the Younger and other painters make the Tudors and their clothes almost tangible.

  • 2 British historians have been at the forefront of the historical research into the symbolism of fash (...)

10This book is well written and will be a worthwhile read for students of the Tudor monarchy and others interested in early modern European history. Lynn provides a study of an issue on which historic figures and some of us today spend much time: our apparel, and how our clothes project messages. Lynn’s book proves that for early modern monarchs dress was an essential part of their strategies to hold on to power. Lynn has written a valuable book on an interesting subject, supported by primary, archaeological, and secondary sources. Hopefully, her work will encourage other researchers to continue or increasingly give fashion and dress the place it deserves in the historical analysis of power2.

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1 For egodocuments see the following website maintained by a team of Dutch historians. Dekker Rudolf, Egodocuments and history: autobiographical writing in its social context since the Middle Ages, Hilversum, Verloren, 2002.

2 British historians have been at the forefront of the historical research into the symbolism of fashion and dress. See Edwards Lydia, How to Read a Dress. A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 20th Century, London, Bloomsbury, 2017.

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Ramses Delafontaine, « Eleri Lynn, Tudor Fashion », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, mis en ligne le 17 août 2018, consulté le 17 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Ramses Delafontaine

FWO fellow at the history department of Ghent University in Belgium. His research is focused on the legal and judicial use of historical argumentation. The focal point of his work is on the legal figure of the historian as an expert witness. His first monograph is entitled: Historians as Expert Judicial Witnesses in Tobacco Litigation: A Controversial Legal Practice which was published by Springer International Publishing in April 2015. Delafontaine’s research combines philosophy of history, public history, and legal history. He is a member of the executive board of the International Network for Theory of History (INTH). Personal website:

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