Elizabeth I’s Use of Dress as a Political Tool

There’s an interesting article on the BBC website entitled A Point of View: Dazzling in an age of austerity in which historian Lisa Jardine talks about how “Elizabeth used ostentation and opulence in her dress as a political tool to increase national confidence in the solvency of her regime”.

It is an excellent article and well worth a read. Jardine writes of how the daily inventory of outfits worns by Elizabeth I, which “details meticulously the pearls and gems individually stitched on to the queen’s articles of clothing for state occasions, then painstakingly removed and checked back in to her jewellery collection afterwards”, shows us that Elizabeth’s amazing attire in the 1588 Armada Portrait “is no artistic exaggeration”. Jardine says of Elizabeth’s outfit:-

“At each intersection of patterning in her silk sleeves and kirtle a pearl or a flower-shaped jewel with diamond petals has been lovingly attached, while shoulders and gown-edge are decorated with pink silk bows, each with a jewelled flower at its centre. The effect is dazzling – a clever way of making a female monarch appear as powerful in victory as her male counterpart would have been, dressed in full armour and ready for battle.”

As I have said before, in my articles “Elizabeth I – Queen of PR” and “Elizabeth I’s Image”, Elizabeth was a very image conscious woman. She used her portraits and her outfits as propaganda and recognised them as powerful ways to send messages to her people and to other monarchs.

The BBC article also has an interesting bit on New Year’s gifts so do read it.

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth I’s Use of Dress as a Political Tool

  1. Wasn’t one of Elizabeth’s accomplishments the reformation of the coinage, which did wonders for the country’s trade? She paid off the debts of her father and sister, too, IIRC. While the Armada portrait may have hidden economic hardship that occurred just after the expense of a major war, I thought it a little unfair … made it sound like the entire reign was just a cover for the hardship.

    1. I didn’t read it like that, I read it more as saying that Elizabeth knew how to use her image in a political manner but you could be right. I agree with you, Elizabeth’s reign was not a cover for hardship or one of mere survival which is how G J Meyer describes it. It may not have been compltely ‘golden’ but Elizabeth achieved so much. Yes, Henry VIII and Mary I had debased the coinage and Elizabeth did restore it.

  2. Years ago I saw an art exhibition called “The Art of Power and the Power of Art” about African art. Many of the pieces were to be worn. I think rulers throughout time have known the significance of image and how to use it to their advantage. Elizabeth I certainly knew how to present herself and she do so with a lot of style.

  3. In Elizabeth’s time, dress was a confirmation of status. The sumptuary laws that E. tried to enforce set everyone’s place in the Tudor firmament. The richer the cloth and fur, the higher your rank had to be. There were heavy fines and even harsher sentences for the lower orders breaking these laws.

    I have a book of E.’s portraits explaining all the symbolism. Many of her gowns told a story often taken from Greek/Roman myths that are no longer part of our mythology.

    Thanks for this article, Claire, and the BBC link. Most interesting.

    Jeane Westin, The Spymaster’s Daughter, Penguin/NAL, August 2012

  4. Here’s a link to a blog that (in turn) gives a link article on the use of clothing to send political messages. It deals specifically with Mary I, not Elizabeth, but I would think that a lot of the principles would be the same:


  5. It seems that is the Elizabethan version of what we now call ‘Power Dressing’.
    It makes the wearer more confident and prominent, and puts across to others your strengths and abilities, also to command respect and maybe a little fear, Bit like going to see your bank manager…:)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *