An Unknown English Lady

Detail from an Unknown English Lady, c. 1535
Hans Holbein
British Museum

This picture captures the essence of Tudor fashion: this gentlewoman wears a tight, cylindrical bodice, with a low and square neckline which comes to a V in the back. the upper half of the oversleeves are likewise quite tight but flare out sharply at the elbow. They are folded and perhaps pinned back to display an large undersleeve, open along the outside edge and tied together to reveal puffs of the chemise beneath. The full skirt is smooth in front, but heavily pleated at the back. The bodice comes up quite high in the back as well, though it ends at the waistline in front.

The stiff, slightly concave curve of the bodice clearly necessitates boning or heavy support of some kind; The bodice could well be stiffened with reeds or with layers of glue-stiffened canvas. Although there's no definite evidence of corsets being worn during this time, a boned or stiffened underbodice is also a possibility.

The most notable aspect of the woman's dress is her complex "gable headdress", a hallmark of Tudor fashion. This headdress consisted of a stiffened, house-shaped frame around a woman's face, with long "lappets", or strips of fabric, hanging down to either side. A long veil covered the back of her head, so that every bit of hair was completely covered. This sketch affords us a rare glimpse of the back of this headdres: a square, box-like cap sits atop the woman's head, with a length of black fabric issuing from each side .

The Portrait of Jane Seymour shows the queen dressed in an almost identical gown, though her headdress is arranged differently.

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