Early Tudor Project — Katherine of Aragon's Portrait dated 1502 — Part II

Since I first started looking at this picture of Katherine of Aragon with a view to reconstructing her outfit for 12th Night, one thing has been on my mind: the middle layer. Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies have taught us so much about the construction of early Tudor ensembles that we expect to see a smock, kirtle and overgown. But this portrait of Katherine dates from almost 30 years before the portraits Jane Seymour and the other paintings upon which M and M-D’s research is based were painted.

Clearly Katherine is wearing more than those three layers in this portrait. And so is Agniete van den Rijne who I mentioned in the previous post on this subject. So too is Madame de Canaples, shown at right. Comparitively, this middle layer is open only slightly on Katherine, wider on Agniete, and very wide on Madame de Canaples. See below for a blow up of Madame’s neckline showing detail:

One has to ask oneself what is the purpose of such a garment? This is a question I’m not yet ready to answer. And I fear any answer will be pure speculation. The first thing that occured to me was that, if this was an ensemble before boning was being used in kirtles, three layers might be required to achieve the flattened look that appears to have been popular. A close inspection of paintings from this time period shows wrinkles and roundness, indicating that the bodices of the kirtles or gowns were not boned. But this does not answer the question: why doesn’t it close in front. And if it is some kind of bust support (or figure “smoothing”), then it simply does not make sense that Madame de Canaples would be wearing hers so very widely open in front. In fact it makes no sense to wear a garment this wide open unless that’s the way it is meant to be worn for asthetic reasons.

It occurs to me that this may be a petticote or petticote bodys and that, since the fuction of the top is simply to support the skirts, it doesn’t need to be drawn closed. However the neckline of Agniete’s, Katherine’s and Madame’s middle layers are probably more decorated than any other layer they are wearing. So if it was meant to just hold up the skirts, it’s doing it very fancily!

While kicking around a friend’s website, I found some images that looked strangely familiar to me.

These are detail shots from a Holbein sketch of Sir Thomas More and his family, which was painted around 1527. The most prominent person in the sketch on the right is Elizabeth Dauncy, Sir Thomas More’s second daughter. It is thought that she is pregnant. The leftmost woman in the right sketch is Cecily Heron, More’s youngest daughter, who also appears pregnant. Both wear overgowns that appear to be laced open very wide or tied with bows.

The painting from these sketches was destroyed by fire in the eighteenth century, but Holbein’s grandson, Rowland Lockey, had copied it in 1593 so we can get a cense of the original in colour.

In this painting Elizabeth and Cecily appear to have black gowns laced open wide over gold undergowns. In this version Margaret Roper, More’s eldest daughter, also appears to have her black gown laced wide open, hers over a red undergown.

My point is that these black gowns look to me like what we’re seeing in the portraits of Katheirne of Aragon, Agniete van der Rijne, and Madame de Canaples, shown above. If we could remove those ladies’ overgowns, I believe they’d look like the More daughters.

I do not know the social standing of Agniete van den Rijne and Madame de Canaples, but Katherine of Aragon was a King’s daughter. Thomas More’s family are gentry, but not nobility. It is possible that Katherine is simply dressed better than they are. The Mores were hadly poverty stricken, but they were not on the same social level as Katherine of Aragon. It is a common fact of fashion that the clothing of commoners has fewer layers than that of the nobility. And what would be “underdresseed” for a Queen would be dressed respectfully for the daughter of a Knight. The fact that Thomas More’s daughters were painted with this lacing showing leads me to believe that they had no overgowns, that an overgown wasn’t necessary for them. Of course this is pure speculation.

Another point to consider is that the sleves of Agniete and Madame match their undermost layer, not this layer. It’s true that the sleeves might be separate from the undermost layer, but they match in these two incidences. This leads me to think the middle layer (which seems to be invariably black decorated with gold) is sleeveless. Sleeves could be attached to it, and that is what I think we see on Thomas More’s daughters. I also think it may explain The White Band, but that is a discussion for another day… Was this middle layer for the accomodation of prenancy? I’m disinclined to cop to that. It’s true that Katherine of Aragon was not pregnant in her portrait, and we don’t know enough about Agniete and Madame to know. However the smoothness, particularly of Madame de Canaples overgown, belie any pregnancy. But I don’t think we can say for sure. It is certainly one explanation. But it does not explain why the unmarried Katherine isn’t wearing hers completely closed (unless, of course, it isn’t made to close completely).

Of course this is all so much speculation.

But I’ve chosen my fabric and ordered all those little gold shells.

Tomorrow, starting the work…


Thanks to Kimiko Small and her page A Gentlewoman’s Tudor Research for the picture of Madame de Canaples and the More daughters and some fun postulating on the subject.

© 2007 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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