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Power Dressing: Fashion and Fancy Dress in Shakespeare’s Time

20 Sep 2016

To coincide with the unveiling of the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I in the reopened Queen’s House, Greenwich – saved for the nation and now on public view - Christie’s Education is offering a three-evening course that will decode the messages Elizabeth I and her court sent through their sumptuous clothing.

Elizabeth I of England the Armada Portrait comissioned by Sir Francis Drake

Power Dressing is led by Jacqui Ansell, who will take students on a tour through the language of costume in the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. Elizabeth I is famous for her mastery of portraiture as public relations: using her clothes, makeup and accoutrements to send powerful messages to courtiers and rivals. The Armada Portrait makes clear to the viewer the essence of her speech on the eve of the Armada, ‘I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too…

The iconic portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, painted in 1590 to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada two years previously, captures a vital moment in the English Renaissance. The work is thought to have been commissioned by Sir Frances Drake, famous for his role in the defeat of the Armada. The painting has been in the Drake family since at least 1775. This year it was offered from the collection of the Tyrwhitt-Drake family estate and was secured for Britain through a private sale negotiated by Christie’s after a major public fundraising campaign.

The three evening classes will examine paintings, plays and examples of surviving dress to decode costumes of the period. Inspired by the public rehousing of Armada Portrait, and the fresh attention given to its hidden symbols, metaphors and meanings, Jacqui will unpeel the multiple layers of artifice that were constructed in both real life and portraiture. Bodies were shaped with bumrolls and whalebone, coloured with white lead and mercury, and depicted on canvas with elaborate artfulness. ‘A ship is sooner rigged by far than a gentlewoman made ready’, a contemporary playwright wrote, unkindly.

Jacqui Ansell is lecturer in Fine and Decorative Art from the Renaissance to today at Christie’s Education. She is also a popular lecturer at the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, and publishes on court dress. The Armada Portrait was on display at The National Maritime Museum Greenwich from 23 May, when a public fundraising campaign coordinated by Royal Museums Greenwich and the Art Fund began, raising £1.5m from 8,000 donations. In October, the portrait moves to The Queen’s House, Inigo Jones’ masterpiece of classical architecture, standing on the site of the birthplace of Elizabeth I, the original Greenwich Palace.

To register for the Power Dressing: Fashion and Fancy Dress in Shakespeare's Time course please click here. The course begins on Thursday 6 October.

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