It’s long been the case that the ladies of the world use clothing and fashion to accentuate certain curves and disguise others. When I was growing up during the 60’s and 70’s there were many advertisements on the telly for strange underwear like the Playtex 18 Hour Girdle with its ecstatic panels to hide the blubber – I mean to ‘hold and smooth’ the wearers figure.
As a teenager I couldn’t figure out why woman of the world were going out and buying and voluntarily wearing strait jackets, surely they couldn’t all be mad? What I didn’t know was that the svelte ladies of the 60’s and 70’s were following a fashion path that had been laid down 500 years previously. You see, during the Tudor period in England there were certain looks that one tended to avoid, at least you did if you didn’t fancy burning at the stake. One look that was ill-advised was the dark swarthy look with dark skin, dark hair and even less desirable, dark eyes, this was pretty much a fashion faux pas and if you happened to have what I’d call a healthy look then you’d spend a great deal of your time dusting your skin with lime powder to lighten it, al-la Michael Jackson.
However, the most unfashionable (and eminently unwise) look was looking anything remotely like a witch. This might have been all the rage once, say during the time when the local villagers came to you to cure their warts and you’d cackle and hackle over a big pot of newts and toads bollocks, mumble incantations, spread some of your lunchtime hot-pot on their warts and charge them three groats for the pleasure but during Tudor times you kind’a wanted to avoid looking at all like witchy-poo.
So if your name happened to be Anne Boleyn in the early 1500’s you had a bit of a problem, you see, Anne Boleyn not only had very dark skin, dark eyes and dark hair but she also had an extra finger on one hand and a large mole on her neck – a sure sign of a witch if ever there was one – so what’s a girl to do if she wants to avoid burning at the stake. Well, you do what woman of today do and you start a new fashion, you wear dresses with very long sleeves, sleeves that droop over the hands and cover your extra finger and at the same time you start a fashion craze for wrapping scarves around your neck to hide your large mole. And this is exactly what Anne did, she started this fashion for long sleeves and one can imagine Tudor Vogue going crazy over this; short sleeves are sooooo 1480’s, today’s modern Tudor girl wants to be wearing long flowing sleeves, they’re so in. Of course it helps if you are Queen of England and married to a complete bastard who wouldn’t think twice about chopping your head off if he thought you were a witch. This from a man who’s fashion faux’s pas are legendary; stockings held up with garters, fur lined gowns, cod pieces that made horses envious and a liking for headless woman.
However, fashion, or the growth of fashion caused poor Henry VII his own problems, because in Tudor England, social class was everything and the surest way to tell anyone’s social class was by how they dressed. As merchants grew in wealth and influence, Henry VIII enacted strict laws that allowed him to know at a glance who a person was by regulating what clothes they could wear. Middle-class merchants could now afford many of the luxurious fabrics once only worn by nobles — a trend indicative of a much broader social change that could threaten the king’s own position. Clothes controls — first introduced in medieval times — helped maintain the old, familiar status quo. Cloth of gold or silver and purple silk were restricted to women with the rank of countess or higher. No woman was allowed to wear fabrics embroidered with silk, pearls, gold or silver except baronesses and those of higher rank. Enforcement of these laws was lax but heavy fines could be extracted from those caught in violation by the fashion police.
But what’s really interesting is that black was not a common colour, if one gets onto the tube in London in the morning practically everyone is wearing black, it’s almost like the London uniform but during Medieval and Tudor times black was rarely seen because to dye any cloth black took a lot of dye and this was expensive, so black was generally out, unless of course you happened to be a witch..