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Say Yes to the Dress

September 4, 2017

Female rulers have experienced problems their male counterparts haven’t had to deal with. Rulers like Henry VIII used court painters like Hans Holbein to make them look more “kingly,” concealing weight, broadening shoulders and fashioning massive codpieces to promote masculinity, but women have also used clothing to cement their rule in a world dominated by men. Elizabeth I was no exception. Her challenge was to transform herself—the shamed daughter of an executed Queen consort—into one of Europe’s most powerful monarchs. One of the ways she accomplished this was with clothing.


Animals instinctively puff up their profiles when confronted by predators, and monarchs expand their profiles to make themselves seem larger than life, to underscore the notion of majesty and the divine rights of kings—the believe that God selected certain people to sit on thrones and their God-given authority shouldn’t be questioned.


Portraits of male monarchs often include ill-disguised phallic symbols to reinforce the notion that a king’s primary role, to prevent his country from falling into chaos and civil war, was to produce a male heir, especially in countries where Salic law prevented females from inheriting the throne.  England didn’t honor Salic Law but females weren’t considered desirable monarchs and were only accepted when no royal males were available.


Elizabethan fashion was elaborate by today’s standards; brocades and damasks were rich with jewels, designs and embellishments, but Elizabeth’s portraits feature details that look bizarre to modern eyes. Consider the so-called Rainbow portrait, painted in 1600 by Isaac Oliver.




Elizabeth I by Isaac Oliver (1600)


The Queen was in her late sixties and nearing the end of her reign when this was painted, yet she remains young, ageless. Elizabeth's right hand holds a rainbow with the Latin inscription 'Non sine sole iris' ('No rainbow without the sun'). The rainbow symbolizes peace, and the inscription reminds viewers that only the Queen's wisdom can ensure peace and prosperity. The pearls symbolize her virginity; the crown, of course, symbolizes her royalty. Pearls also adorn the transparent veil which hangs over her shoulders.


But most intriguing are other details of the Queen’s magnificent dress. If you take a closer look, you’ll notice curious anatomical details to denote that this monarch, even though only a woman, is firmly in command of her government. It’s covered with eyes and ears to denote she sees and hears everything.




Elizabeth chose to remain a virgin by betrothing herself to England, and this is a symbolic wedding gown. When it came to power, Elizabeth seems to be saying, “If you think of me as a mere woman, at least “Say Yes to the Dress.”




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That is a weird dress. Sadly as we saw in the 2016 election, female leaders are still held to a different standard than men.ð
By: Pt Dilloway on September 4, 2017
What a fascinating lesson! I've seen that portrait many times, but I don't think I've ever noted the details on the dress. I would never cast a vote based on whether a candidate was a man or woman. It should have no bearing. Neither (of the two mainstream choices) was acceptable in the last election, IMO.
By: Kelly on September 4, 2017
Especially when you know the backstory, that dress & painting are fascinating!!
By: fishducky on September 4, 2017
You really should be an art teacher. You always show us things we would never notice otherwise and you provide a facinating back story. Thank you.
By: Arkansas Patti on September 4, 2017
She was not a woman to trifle with. Fascinating backstory on this portrait.
By: messymimi on September 4, 2017
Fascinating details about this painting..
By: Catalyst on September 4, 2017
What an engaging post! An amazing bit of history behind the elaborate paining. These are exceptional "art and history" lessons and I thank you.
By: TomCochrun on September 4, 2017
This portrait made me remember all over again to wonder how people ever carried all that material around all the time! It must have given them quite the everyday workout. Interesting points on this piece. I wonder what she actually looked like by this point in her life.
By: jenny_o on September 4, 2017
It probably took her about 3 or 4 hours to get ready. I was looking at the rainbow and where it comes from and how it emanates from her dress. It's like her own cod piece. This makes me want to look up this painting and know all the meanings behind the dress and painting.
By: Birgit Bedesky on September 4, 2017
I would like to wear clothes with vaginal images--the symbol of my strength. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on September 4, 2017
I would not have seen the eyes and ears in a million years.
By: cranky on September 4, 2017
I wouldn't have noticed the eyes and ears either, very informative Stephen.
By: Jimmy on September 4, 2017
Oh, dear, some still hurting after the election. It's over, folks. Something tells me if a certain person had won, she'd be dressing like that queen to show her superiority over us all.
By: Kate on September 4, 2017
I might not have this quote the right way "clothing doth make the man" that seems to be what's going on with the royals
By: red Kline on September 4, 2017
The eyes and ears are really creepy. And what's with the snake?
By: Val on September 4, 2017
What a fascinating -- and creepy -- portrait.
By: Mitchell is Moving on September 5, 2017
Interesting background on the clothing choices of royalty. You do have a knack for teaching us art and history! I'm so glad times have changed (well, somewhat) and I'm not part of royalty. Gimme a T-shirt and yoga pants...LOL.
By: Pixel Peeper on September 5, 2017
I must admit that I never considered the current TV program as having noble origins.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on September 7, 2017
As Birgit mentioned about the time to get dressed. The reverse is true as well. Imagine a lover joins her and they kiss passionately then pause and work feverishly at disrobing her.... now let your imagination take over.
By: Daniel LaFrance on September 13, 2017

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