The dress and jewellery represented in the Lady in a Fur Wrap portrait may provide invaluable clues as to the status and identity of the sitter and the dating of the portrait, yet the combination of elements remains puzzling. Over the years, scholars have commented on a number of aspects of the dress and jewellery in the portrait, interpreting them to support their arguments around the attribution, the sitter, and the dating. In 1986, the renowned historian of Spanish dress, Carmen Bernis dedicated a whole article to the topic, in which she argued, in particular, for a later dating for the portrait (1590s) than had previously been considered.¹ Her article raised many questions, around which there is still no consensus, but it led the way in showing how research on the history of dress might be used in the study of portraits.
As part of the multidisciplinary approach of our Unwrapping an Icon project, we decided to reassess the evidence presented in this important but contentious article by inviting scholars and curators working in the fields of dress and jewellery history, Spanish art and technical art history to a workshop to exchange ideas about the respective items of dress, jewellery, hair and makeup present in the portrait. Held at the Furniture, Textiles and Fashion Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London on Friday 23 February, the workshop was an extremely useful opportunity to consider how current scholarship and thinking in relevant fields of history of fashion and decorative arts might be applied to the knotty questions surrounding the Lady in a Fur Wrap. It also afforded us the privilege of examining and discussing relevant items in the Museum’s collections. In this month’s posts, we present some of the highlights from the day, through a selection of images of the presentations and discussions.
Maria Hayward discussed the historical context of the wearing of fur, and Jonathan Faiers pondered its fascinating, possible symbolic meanings in relation to the portrait and the sitter. Using a real piece of ermine as comparator, they also convincingly demonstrated that, despite the popular Spanish title of the portrait – La Dama del armiño (the Lady in Ermine), the fur portrayed bears little resemblance to ermine and appears closer to lynx.
Clare Browne (V&A) initiated lively debate on the other textiles depicted in the portrait by sharing her thoughts and expertise on lace and linen. The frilled cuff and its unusual yellowish-brown colour is particularly intriguing to historians of dress, as well as to art historians and technical art historians.
The edging of the veil, how it would have been made, whether it was lace, how it would have been combined with the rest of the veil, and indeed, what the material used for the main part of this item was (linen vs silk), formed key topics that engaged much of our attention during the workshop. Susanna Burghartz outlined the context of the veiling of women in Early Modern Europe, and Katy Bond considered examples in several areas of Spain, including in relation to specialist linen production and trade.
Hilary Davidson declared in favour of silk in the question of the veil, based on her study of the draping and translucency of the fabric depicted in the portrait, and backed up her view with a demonstration of these qualities in the fine silk she used to reconstruct the veil – more on this in a forthcoming post.
The demonstration and the vigour of the debate, especially on the veil, showed how much everyone present had thought about the materials used in the fashioning of the beautiful portrait of the Lady in a Fur Wrap.
Lesley Miller introduced another example of just how much a reconstruction based on a portrait can teach both specialists and the wider public of all ages about fashion and society in history. The doll of Isabel Clara Eugenia, sister of Infanta Catalina Micaela (whom many scholars, including Carmen Bernis, believe is the sitter in the Lady in a Fur Wrap), was made in 2016 for the Learning Department at the V&A by the School of Historical Dress as part of an AHRC funded project “Early Modern Dress in your Hands”, led by Kings College London. It is based on the depiction of Isabel Clara Eugenia in the Museum’s painting by Denis van Alsloot of the 1615 celebrations in Brussels for her rule as Archduchess of the Netherlands.
Our workshop brought together scholars and specialists from as far afield as Spain (Prado Museum, Madrid), Switzerland (University of Basel) and even Australia (University of Sydney), as well from institutions here in the UK (University of Southampton; King’s College and Courtauld Institute, University of London; and several colleagues from the V&A itself), in addition to members of the core project team from the University of Glasgow and Glasgow Museums. It was organised by Lesley Miller, who is both Curator at the V&A and Professor of Textiles and Dress History at Glasgow University, and myself, assisted by Ruby Hodgson (V&A) and with additional help from Ana Cabrera (Marie Curie Research Fellow, V&A). All photos courtesy of Joseph Briffa. We are most grateful to everyone involved for their contribution to such a stimulating and thought-provoking day.
Join us again in a few weeks for more on the dress and jewellery, including video footage from the workshop and highlights of the reconstruction of the veil as we continue unwrapping (and, in this case, rewrapping) an icon …
¹ Carmen Bernis, ‘La dama del armiño y la moda …’ [The Lady in Ermine and Fashion …], Archivo Español del Arte, 1986, 59:234, 147-170