Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Here’s Looking At You … Henry VIII

History is working hard to woo new audiences in the twenty-first century. In an age of Wiis, iPhones and Twitter, History’s association with writing, memorising dates and reading books is more likely to deter than delight. I encounter many people, from plumbers and hairdressers to baristas and train commuters, who tell me that they really loved history at school. Truly. But they just didn’t have the aptitude to remember dates, as if:

(a) Study of the past prioritises the rote learning of chronological events, and

(b) Historical careers are genetically predetermined.

A crucial element in History’s PR campaign is the television documentary. Few subjects have experimented with as many different types of televisual genre as History. Docudramas, reenactments, role-playing, reality experiences and characterful presenters, from the doctrinaire David Starkey and the sagacious Simon Schama to the Everyman’s Tony Robinson, have all been used, with varying degrees of authenticity and success, to help people understand that knowledge of the past is relevant and interesting. The most commonly deployed audience-winning tactic, which works within many of the aforementioned televisual formats, is the recreation. Whether it involves cooking an age-old dish, reconstructing a building through authentic techniques, CGI, or, aiming to be trans-disciplinary and showing that the humanities and sciences are not diametrically opposed, forensic facial modelling, History has tried them all. Unfortunately, the payoff is poor, for historical reconstructions are usually naff; royal palaces look gaudy, food is unpalatable and busts of our ancestors look more ‘high school project’ than ‘high-end science’.

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The latest historical reconstructions, which shrewdly tap into the popular ‘What If…?’ school of history, are the product of three months of research that sought to investigate how powerful and popular personages of the past would look today. Published in The Daily Mail last week, the results appeared under the electrifying copy:

 Queen Bess with botox. Fake boobs for Marie Antoinette. And Henry VIII’s hair transplant.[i]

The historically-inspired recreations of William Shakespeare, Marie Antoinette, Horatio Nelson, Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, determined by historian Susannah Lipscomb, are certainly interesting, and raise fruitful questions about the evolving language and significance of clothing in our society, but the results appear just as dodgy as other reconstructionist attempts.

Henry VIII … The Bouncer?

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According to Lipscomb’s research, as presented in The Daily Mail, England’s ‘great’ King Henry, would have enjoyed reigning in the twenty-first century. For starters, divorce would have been a much easier process.

He was the original bling king, with hats dripping in pearls and rubies on his fingers. He would embrace TV, but not to become a celebrity — he never cared what ordinary people thought of him. His aim was to make a serious impression on the power elite, to impress upon them that he was the boss — he saw himself as an Old Testament king with a direct line to God. Today, he would have a hair transplant to hide his receding hairline. He also has a tan, because he spent so much time riding and hunting, and shoes with heels to make his stature — over 6ft tall — even more impressive.[ii]

This seems reasonable enough, although the artist does not appear to have been paying attention (perhaps he zoned out at the discussion of dates?), for Henry VIII sought to personify his power; he did not want people to think he was a pimp. It is well known that Henry’s weight increased dramatically during his thirty-eight-year reign – his armour from 1512 indicates that his waist measured 35 inches; his chest measured 42 inches. His armour from 1540 had a waist measurement of 54 inches and a chest measurement of 57 inches[iii] – but he was deeply concerned about his image, more so than Lipscomb appears to suggest. The bust of Guido Mazzoni, which probably depicts Henry at the age of eight or nine, shows a young prince in exquisite garments, much like the portraits of his reign.[iv] It is doubtful, therefore, that Modern Henry would wear a crucifix necklace or a ‘Simon Cowell-type suit.’ Like his royal successors, and in particular the corpulent Edward VII, it is more probable that Modern Henry would have a longstanding relationship with one of London’s Savile Row tailors; perhaps Huntsman, one of the most expensive outfitters on the Row, or for his later years, the more relaxed and comfortable Anderson & Sheppard, the tailor of choice for Prince Charles.[v] Henry would have surely realised, or been ever-so-delicately informed, that a double-breasted suit was a better option than an all-too-revealing one-button suit jacket, considering his great bulk. An athletic and military-minded man, particularly in his youth, Henry would possess a range of dress uniforms from Gieves and Hawkes. He likes to cut a dash, so an expensive watch – perhaps Cartier, like Bill Clinton?[vi] – and distinctive footwear – monks? – seem more plausible than the high heels Lipscomb suggests. If Henry were alive today, I imagine that he would be an amalgam of various figures; he would possess the sartorial style of Edward VII – Henry would definitely have an eponymous knot or tweed[vii] – the pugnacious assertion of Winston Churchill and the media mastery of Tony Blair.

Marie Antoinette … Or Babs Windsor?

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The recreation of Marie Antoinette seems equally problematic. According to The Mail, the Queen of France, ‘was a fashion diva. But she was also far from being a natural beauty’.

When her name was suggested as a suitable bride for Louis, courtiers saw her portrait and were horrified: she had too high a forehead, they said, wonky teeth and tiny breasts. Marie Antoinette had been teased in her teens about the flatness of her bust. It’s likely, if she were alive today, she would want breast implants. She certainly underwent appalling 18th-century corrective dentistry, so I’m sure she would have been delighted with the small pearly whites our makeover has provided. She loved clothes and was a great trend-setter, buying four pairs of shoes every week and changing her outfits three times a day. She also liked to signal her mood by changing her hairstyle. We’ve given her a fringe, to disguise her high forehead, and we’ve let down her 3ft-long tresses, Beyoncé-style. She’s wearing a peacock feather fascinator, and the whole impression is sexy, daring and unrestrained. After all, Marie Antoinette was the original It Girl. She might never have said ‘Let them eat cake,’ as legend claims, but I’m sure that today she’d be saying: ‘Let’s party!’[viii]

Marie Antoinette was naive, but she was not oblivious to public opinion as the Diamond Necklace Affair of 1787 reveals, although her reputation, and that of the monarchy, did suffer for her association with gemstones and the deluxe.[ix] She expressed some concern for the under-privileged, although her experiment at Hameau de la Reine was viewed critically by many (perhaps Modern Marie Antoinette would consult with Prince Charles about his Trust and Duchy Originals line?).

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It is therefore difficult to say whether Marie Antionette would have been more Paris Hilton or Princess Diana. I think she would have close relationships with a handful of couturiers, perhaps John Galliano or, prior to his death, Alexander McQueen – troubled souls who would seem like kindred spirits. Jewels would be exquisite, perhaps from Van Cleef & Arpels or Verdura.[x] The Queen may make some concession to shop on the High Street, but she probably would not indulge to the same degree as the Duchess of Windsor. It is also doubtful that Marie Antoinette would look to pop stars, even Beyoncé, to influence her Look, although she would probably count several A-Listers as friends and supporters and enjoy an effortless repartee with them at public functions, much like Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama. What is certain is that Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe, actions and words would provide content for all manner of hard- and soft-copy publications, just as they did for the Moving Tableau of Paris in the eighteenth century.

Lost In Time

Historic reconstructions and What If? questions about the past make for interesting and entertaining exercises, as my musings above attest, but there are fundamental points that The Mail‘s presentation of Lipscomb’s research does not bring out.[xi] For starters, it seems to be assumed that the reanimated historic characters would possess only a superficial grasp of contemporary media and celebrity culture and be suckers for cosmetic procedures. They would not understand the contrived virtue that derives from verism, nor would they be able to harness social media or modern technology to create and distribute enhanced images of themselves. The money and attention to detail that Henry VIII – and his peers – lavished on art and architecture suggests that he would have recognised that today’s ‘power elite’ includes daily Tweeters, Instagram and Tumblr users.[xii] He may well have understood, far better than the Windsors, that social media could provide a vehicle to exalt and exculpate his dynasty, for it enables the followed and their followers to collude in shaping a palatable image of celebrity and power.

fan Jiyue

To demonstrate just how weak the citadels of power and celebrity have become, three days after Lipscomb’s research was featured in The Mail, The Financial Times reported a story about a Chinese official, Fan Jiyue, who removed his conspicuously expensive watch when visiting Sichaun residents recovering from last month’s earthquake. Fan Jiyue presumably felt that the opulence of his watch would clash crassly with the beleaguered environment in which he wanted to express support and understanding. Unfortunately, the tan lines on Fan Jiyue’s wrist were less easy to remove and ‘netizens’ soon posted pictures, which were just as quickly blocked by the Chinese government.[xiii] The ability to share information at lightening speed has done much to advance the cause of democracy. Displays of invidious consumption (à la Thorstein Veblen) that highlight distinction seem to be increasingly frowned up, especially for public figures. It is possible, then, that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Marie Antoinette would have subscribed to the so-called ‘UN style’, where garments are of ‘a kind of hybrid, globalized style, a product of consensus whose main virtue is its simplicity, not to say invisibility.’[xiv] But this really would not make for good televisual reconstructions. Had Lipscomb pursued this route, History’s PR campaign would have suffered a considerable setback.


[ii] Ibid.

[iii] A. Weir, Henry VIII: King and Court (London, 2001), 2, 437.

[iv] D. Starkey, Henry: Virtuous Prince (London, 2008), 133.

[v] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 62-71; 150-57.

[vi] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 256-57.

[vii] E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 58-65.

[ix] S. Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (London, 1989), 171-77.

[x] S.D. Coffin, Set in Style: The Jewelry of Van Cleef & Arpels (London, 2011); P. Corbett, Verdura: The life and work of a master jeweler (London, 2002).

[xi] For much of what follows I am indebted to Tom Payne, with whom I had a delightful Twitter chat: @wilddoughnut; @tomwesleypayne.

[xii] Many studies have shown how medieval and early modern rulers harnessed contemporary media with Machiavellian cunning, for example: T.C. String, Art and Communication in the Reign of Henry VIII (Aldershot, 2008); L. Silver, Marketing Maximilian: The Visual Ideology of a Holy Roman Emperor (Princeton, 2008); Spektakel der Macht: Rituale im alte Europa 800-1800, ed. B. Stollberg-Rilinger, et al. (Darmstadt, 2008).

[xiii] J. Shotter, ‘China calls time on luxury watches’, Financial Times Weekend (4/5 May, 2013), 18.

[xiv] Gaulme & Gaulme, Power & Style, 236.

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