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Lectures from the Allen Room & Wertheim Study: Diplomacy, Divorces, and Dressing Up, or, "Love, Loss and What They Wore"


February 14, 2013

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It can be said that Henry VIII was as hard on wives as other husbands are hard on clothing.  However, both were terribly important to his world.  As demonstrated by his 1991 exhibition "Henry VIII: A European Court in England", scholar and pundit David Starkey conclusively argued that the magnificence of Henry's courtly spectacle, the gathering of scholars and artists, and the collecting of rich objects by this king, brought England to the world arena.  "Magnificence" in dress was essential to the visible presentation of sixteenth-century European monarchs and their consorts.  The queen consorts of Henry VIII: Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, made use of their clothing to support their political roles as royal consorts.  This lecture will further describe the increased use of rich colors, cloths, and embroidery on their clothing, documented in wardrobe warrants during this reign.  These, along with contemporary descriptions, reflect both personal differences and political savvy in ways these six women practiced the position of queen of England.

Elizabeth McMahon, a writer in residence in the Library's Wertheim Study, and Adjunct Professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, is a scholar, a designer (of clothing), and a teacher.  She has been fascinated with the court of Henry VIII since the 1970 BBC miniseries on the man and his marriages.  Other work focuses on historic embroidery and clothing, domestic architecture, and the development of the tri-state area.  She works in the library of the Fashion Institute of Technology while restoring a nineteenth-century home, and pursuing design and needle-arts.  This lecture is based on her work at the Bard Graduate Center where she pursues a Doctorate in the History of the Decorative Arts.  Her meanderings on design and clothing can be followed at

For more lectures from the Wertheim Study, click here.