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Review of ‘Tales from the Royal Wardrobe with Lucy Worsley’

Tales from the Royal WardrobeOver the past few years, Dr Lucy Worsley seems to have become the face of insightful BBC documentaries on the history of the British monarchy, and last night’s broadcast was no different. With Worsley’s recognisable blonde bob, matched with her array of colourful coats and an abundance of enthusiasm, Tales from the Royal Wardrobe allowed audiences to delve into the closets of our past, and even present, monarchs. In this one-off documentary, Worsley illustrated how clothes have never been seen as something they could just ‘throw on’ to our royals. Instead, clothes have always been symbols of status and integral to shaping the appearance of the monarchy.

Beginning with Elizabeth I, Worsley highlighted to viewers how this infamous Queen stylised herself in such a way to exude power and sovereignty through the way she dressed. Although Elizabeth was unable to project her position through the masculine qualities that her father, Henry VIII, was so easily-able to display to his subjects, Elizabeth used the symbolism of her clothes, make-up and jewellery to influence her power. Worsley quite rightly begins her study of Elizabeth I by analysing the clear use of emblems and symbols that dominated all of the Queen’s portraits. These included the use of pearls, snakes, ermine, eyes and ears. Such portraits were intended to send distinct messages to Elizabeth’s subjects, reflecting her legitimacy, virginity and impregnable realm.

After this, Worsley quite swiftly moved past James I and changed her focus to the reign of Charles I. As Worsley points out, during this time, due to an increase of literature because of the printing press, the way in which the royal family dressed became not only a symbol of superiority but also an excuse for scrutiny by those against the Caroline court. As always, Worsley backs up her points with clear evidence from the time; in this case, she demonstrates the ridicule royalists faced for their choices of dress in the years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, illustrating how easily it became for parliamentarians to create pleas against the monarchy and court culture.

Charles I certainly took his choice of clothes seriously; so seriously enough that on the morning of his execution trial, Charles took his time to dress himself in a specially made golden velvet suit in order to demonstrate his divinity. Sadly, Charles’s choice of attire did not sway those against him at his trial. Walking through the splendour of the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, Worsley describes, step by step, Charles’s last moments before making his way to the scaffold on 30th January 1649, finding time to recall Charles’s decision to wear two shirts to his execution in order to prevent himself from shivering in front of the crowds outside Whitehall.

After briefly looking at the ways in which Oliver Cromwell attempted to distance himself from the spectacle of the royal court, even if this meant not using the seventeenth century version of airbrushing in his portraiture and showing ‘warts and all’, Worsley illustrated the ways in which the ‘Merrie Monarch’, Charles II, restored the image of the royal family through his choice of clothes. Although one may associate Charles with great extravagance and pageantry, Worsley reveals the way in which the Restoration King attempted to promote ‘thriftiness’ through the creation of the ‘suit’. First seen at the wedding of the King’s brother, James, Duke of York, the suit used a coat and breeches, and discarded the doublet which could have been seen as an association with the earlier seventieth century court. In this sense, Charles attempted to distant himself from the absolutism of his father’s reign and create a new ‘era’ for the monarchy.

Worsley continued her exploration in the royal wardrobe by moving through to the eighteenth century. While Charles II’s ‘suit’ became popularised amongst courtiers and Georgian Kings alike, for the women of the royal court the dresses became more and more extravagant (and more difficult) to wear. With their alarmingly wide waists, whale bone structures and layers of expensive material, these dresses may have been thought to illustrate status, but became equally strenuous for the ladies who wore them. Worsley, who demonstrates that she is happy as ever to dress up in replicas of dresses from the periods that she explores in this documentary, donned one of these wide dresses and quite rightly stated that this is “the world’s least practical dress”. Style over practicality was certainly the key to this period of court fashion.

Possibly quite surprising to some viewers, Worsley lingered awhile on Queen Victoria’s interest in fashion. Many imagine Victoria to be dressed solely in black and, in Worsley’s words, “looking like a potato”. However, Victoria was the first female monarch to introduce wearing the quintessential white wedding dress during her wedding to Prince Albert, rather than choosing to wear traditional royal dress. Victoria also clearly understood the association that clothes held with power; during her time spent in Scotland in 1842 she chose to wear tartan throughout her visit, clearly portraying her links with Scotland and her people.

Finally, packing in as much information and as many fashionable royal icons as possible in this hour-long programme, Worsley moved into the twentieth century. Worsley took her times to focus on the outrage the Prince of Wales (later the Edward VIII) caused in the 1930s when he began to wear varieties of tweed, double-breasted jackets, knitwear and bowler hats to formal events. These fashion choices, amongst others, were all associated with country-living, rather than something that the future heir to the throne would wear whilst inspecting military troops in the city. Edward certainly pushed the fashion boundaries and, in doing so, he became a great fashion icon of his day.

Worsley concludes this programme by focusing on three key royal women who influenced and used fashion in a variety of ways; Princess Margaret, Diana, Princess of Wales, and Her Majesty The Queen. As Worsley highlights, whilst Princess Margaret was able to immerse herself in the explosion of French fashion influences, during the 1950s, such as Dior, The Queen understood from early on the importance of her fashion choices. Whereas her sister became an icon of glamour, Her Majesty has always chosen more conservative, sensible and British fashion choices, and understood the associations that colours can have when on certain visits. People continue to comment and praise The Queen on her choice of clothes and colour combinations and we can assume that this is unlikely to change any time soon.

One cannot doubt that Lucy Worsley certainly takes great enjoyment from making documentaries such as these, and this sense of intrigue and enthusiasm comes through to television audiences. Tales from the Royal Wardrobe crams in as many fun-facts from centuries of royal history as possible in an hour without leaving viewers feeling overloaded. The use of portraits, archival material and shots of Worsley happily dressing up in replicas of monarchs’ clothes will make viewers feel as if they’ve delved head first into the great Narnia that is the royal wardrobes of our monarchs.

Tales from the Royal Wardrobe with Lucy Worsley was broadcasted on BBC Four on Monday 7th July and is available to watch on catch-up now. This documentary was directed and produced by Nick Gillam-Smith.

You can see Royal Central’s interview with Lucy Worsley about the making of the programme here.

Photo credits: BBC/Tiger Aspect Productions/Nick Gillam-Smith.

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