Main content

Dr Lucy Worsley reveals how she dressed to rule

Dr Lucy Worsley explains how she came to dress-up as Elizabeth I - and many other iconic royals - in Tales from the Royal Wardrobe.

‘Now then, Lucy,’ said the director of the programme Tales from the Royal Wardrobe, ‘we have a difficult, even a dangerous, challenge for you. Would you be willing to risk trying on some royal clothes from history?’

‘YES OF COURSE! WHEN DO WE START?’ was my immediate response.

We began with Queen Elizabeth I’s ‘Armada’ dress. I tried on a modern replica of the dress she wears in the portrait painted to celebrate her victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588.

First of all, I put on a linen shift, rather like a nightdress. Over that went a set of ‘stays’, laced up the back, to create a long line to the torso. (It’s only later corsets that create a flattering in-and-out look.) Next came a ‘bum roll’, a big velvet doughnut worn round the waist, then a set of wooden hoops sewn into a skirt called a farthingale. Over that, a satin petticoat, embroidered at the front where it would show beneath the final outer garment, a black velvet gown with apricot bows. All this meant that I could only move at a queenly and stately pace, which made me look very dignified indeed. The problem was that a slight mis-positioning of the farthingale meant it dug deeply into my hip, and I still had the injury two weeks later.

A couple of centuries later, women’s dress at court was just as impractical, but a little more elegant. Next, I tried on a beautiful pale blue silk dress of a design from about 1750. By now, my hoops had grown wider, my stays more like the shape of an actual body, and the subtle colour and the lace decoration made the dress truly sophisticated. Although walking was still a problem, I could achieve a graceful glide, and I felt that I belonged to the Georgian age of pleasure gardens, opera house gossip and fun new things like hot-air-ballooning.

If I had to choose one of my outfits to wear to a party, though, it would have to be the glamorous ‘New Look’ ensemble of the 1940s that I wore. Made with profligate acres of fabric, in defiance of the dreary clothes-rationing rules still in force in late 40s Britain, my full skirt and neat jacket were similar to those designed by Christian Dior and beloved by the Queen’s stylish younger sister, Princess Margaret.

But if I had to choose something for everyday - to wear the office, for example - then it’s striking that I’d have to select a man’s outfit. Royal and aristocratic women over the centuries have worn clothes that are fundamentally of no use for anything apart from looking good and being waited on hand and foot. For practicality, I’d wear Edward VIII’s golfing plus-fours, and the natty little 1930s knitted sweater and beret that went with them.

There’s a reason that Edward VIII’s dress sense shaped that of a generation of Bright Young Things: it’s comfortable, and just a little bit snazzy too.

Lucy poses in an exact replica of one of Elizabeth I's dresses
Lucy in a 1750s style mantua dress

Find out more