Just yesterday I finished a 5-week long course with Future Learn, an online learning platform that has partnered with world-class universities and industry experts. The History of Royal Fashion course is brought to learners by The University of Glasgow and the Historic Royal Palaces. The course’s aim is to teach students about how the British Royal Family has influenced fashion throughout the centuries. Starting with the Tudor reign and finishing up with the Windsors, the course explores the relationship between clothing and power, the beginnings of diplomatic fashion, and even articles of clothing and how they are preserved as learning tools for future generations.
I highly recommend the course if you have an interest in fashion, royalty and history. But what if you are simply too busy and don’t have time to take the entire 5-week course? That’s okay! While there was so much to learn from this course, below are my biggest take-away’s from each monarch’s reign:
- The Tudors: King Henry VIII was one of the first monarchs to impose sumptuary laws in England. What are sumptuary laws, you might ask? Rest assured that I didn’t know either. Sumptuary laws for fashion expressly prohibit the purchase and wearing of certain types of clothing for different classes of people and hierarchical status. For example, Henry VIII and his family were the only people, by law, who were allowed to wear the color purple. This might seem odd, but it was a very literal way for people to identify members of the royal family immediately. Even more, it showed that even if you had the significant wealth to acquire an item of clothing in a purple shade, you still weren’t royalty. Henry VIII passed 4 sumptuary laws during his time. Interestingly enough, one sumptuary law was his first Act of Parliament proving that clothing was a priority to him as it showed a direct relationship to power.
- The Stuarts: King Charles II instituted the levée ceremony which he had copied from France. The levée was a space and time that was considered sacred. We cover the levée and it’s importance throughout the ages in a separate blog post.
- The Georgians: The Georgian era saw an even steeper rise of “dressing the part.” One’s clothing was quite literally the ticket to entering court. If you had enough wealth to purchase extravagant and exuberant clothing, then you had enough wealth to be present. One dress alone could cost around £8,000 in today’s money. The Duke of Bedford sported a silk suit in 1790 that was the equivalent of £28,000 today. Keep in mind, if you were to attend court, you could not simply wear the same outfit. You had to have multiple ensembles that were typically bespoke.
- The Victorians: Queen Victoria was one of the first monarchs who really paid attention to how her fashion impacted the people. This was not just to show her power as a monarch but to support the goods and people in her Kingdom. She and Prince Albert popularized tartan and were very specific regarding when and where they wore it bringing much business to Scotland. Even more, Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was unique from tradition in many ways. She made it a point to support British manufacturers and wore silks and lace woven and embroidered in England. This simple act had positive effects on the silk and lace industry in England for decades to come.
- The Windsors: The Windsor era saw diplomatic dressing taken to the next level. Queen Elizabeth II, the Princess of Wales, the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex have all been very careful in their selection of clothing as their looks are seen instantly around the world. Queen Elizabeth II has also had to contend with periods of austerity throughout her reign which have impacted her fashion choices. For example, the former Princess Elizabeth’s wedding took place only a few years after World War II had ended. Needless to stay, the British economy, like many others, were still experiencing ramifications from the war and even clothing had rations. As detailed in the course, “Clothes were still rationed, which meant that the materials had to be purchased with ration coupons. These were donated to Princess Elizabeth by generous brides-to-be from across the country.” So while then-Princess Elizabeth and now Queen Elizabeth II has always been acutely aware of fashion and its purpose in diplomacy, there was also a very specific point in time where the people played a significant part in her fashion and, ultimately, in history.
As a fairly new royal watcher (just a few years!) I found it illuminating that royalty has always had such a large impact on and fascination with clothing. This did not start as cameras were more widespread and social media took over our sharing of information. Fashion and its rules is something that is deeply woven into the nature of the British Royal Family and has been for hundreds of years.
My Final Verdict: I’m not sure what I was expecting when I signed up for this course, but my knowledge of how fashion has shaped culture, diplomacy and industry has been immensely deepened. It even shapes the way I view fashion outside of the British Royal Family. I find myself noticing the fashion evolution of characters on TV and what they’re trying to say and accomplish with their clothing choices. I take more care of how I put my own items together. I am aware and more complimentary of others’ looks as I know that they put them together for a reason. So while I set out to learn about fashion and how it has evolved in royalty, it’s impacted the way I look at fashion today in many spheres.
I encourage you to explore the course – it is free, after all, and we are all under quarantine. What better time than now to delve into the intricacies of historical royal fashion and see how it impacts you in a greater way!