Elizabethan Dress, Gender, and Politics

Queen Elizabeth I ruled England from 1565 until her death in 1603. During that time, she expanded the British Empire, won wars, and never married. Queen Elizabeth I was one of the longest-reigning English queens at the time. Her status as a women ruler at the head of one of the most powerful countries of the era in a time when ideas of women’s rights were centuries away places her at an interesting intersection of history.  As Esra Melikoğlu writes in the Armada Portrait: Costume And The Body Politic, “Fashion and image-making were hence a pivotal strategy in transforming a 25-year-old woman into a much revered queen, indeed, it encouraged the cult of Gloriana” (Melikoğlu). With global trade routes becoming part of normal life, fashion exploded. At the time of the queen’s death, it is said she had over three thousand different dresses and headpieces (Melikoğlu).  In portraits of the queen, however, it is difficult to identify the real-life clothing items due to changes made by the artist or by the design of the queen herself (Arnold). This gives the clothing in the portraits a separate and unique meaning. By looking at her portraits over time, it is easy to see how her style changed. Queen Elizabeth I’s dress in her portraits as well as portraits of other members of her court paint a story of how her gender influenced her power and those around her.
Let’s explore that story.

See a timeline of Queen Elizabeth I’s portraits.

Learn about Queen Elizabeth I’s most famous portrait.

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