Fashion: Bring up the bodices
PUBLISHED: 11:30 21 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:34 21 April 2015
Barnet fashion designer Megan Doyle has a passion for Tudor clothing. Sandra Deeble follows the threads ahead of an exhibition of her recreations at Knebworth House
Wednesday nights without Wolf Hall’s Tudor treat of sumptuous costumes, historic houses and Damian Lewis’ imposing presence as Henry VIII has left a wide-shouldered gap in the TV schedule of many a viewer.
So, for a fix of glamorous gowns and dashing doublets, make your way to the equally historic and imposing Knebworth House this month at it hosts a new exhibition of Elizabethan costumes and all things Tudor.
Two of the most intriguing pieces in the exhibition are designed by Barnet’s Megan Doyle, a third-year student at the London College of Fashion, studying for a BA in Costume for Performance.
Two years ago, invited by a family friend who volunteers there, Doyle visited Much Hadham Forge Museum to view its largely-unknown Elizabethan wall paintings. The visit was the beginning of her very own Tudor history adventure.
‘The Forge Museum is the tiniest building. You wouldn’t think there were these amazing 16th-century paintings there,’ Doyle says. ‘One of them is the Judgement of Solomon where Elizabeth I is King Solomon and she finds who a child’s real mother is by suggesting they cut the baby in half. The painter is unknown, although the building used to be home to the Newse family and the painting may have been commissioned by Clement Newse.’
Learning of Doyle’s skills in costume design, museum curator Cristina Harrison asked her to recreate the costume worn by one of the courtiers in the painting, Lady Kytson. For a first year-student, this was quite an undertaking. But Doyle set off for Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum with her sketchbook and examined how Tudor garments were constructed. She was also inspired by a book called The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing 16th Century Dress by Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila.
It was an exciting day when in the Tate gallery she discovered a 1573 portrait of Lady Kytson by George Gower, serjeant-painter to Queen Elizabeth. In the Much Hadham wall painting, the colours of Lady Kytson’s costume are faded but in Gower’s portrait, where she is wearing a similar costume, Doyle could get a better idea of the dress, in particular the intricate pattern and ‘blackwork’ embroidery on the sleeves.
As someone who wants to be a costume designer for film, Doyle is growing used to the gruelling hours and intricate work involved in making such costumes. For the BBC’s six-part dramatisation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, costume designer Joanna Eatwell worked 16-hour days. Doyle says she carries her whole life around with her and has learned how to make use of every minute: for example, she worked on Lady Kytson’s sleeves while commuting to college on the tube.
With Wolf Hall, the budget for candles alone was reported to be £20,000-plus but for Doyle the Much Hadham museum budget was a bit more limited.
‘With materials I tried to be authentic but you have to think about what’s affordable,’ she explains. ‘The last layer on the lady’s costume probably would have been some amazing silk. I had to buy so many metres of it, which wouldn’t have been budget-friendly. I used polyester but the effect is the same.’
Doyle sourced fabrics from shops on Goldhawk Road in Shepherd’s Bush and for other would-be costume designers also recommends the market at St Albans for materials.
Needing to make the costume ‘for someone’, Doyle, a self-confessed lover of dressing-up and admirer of Alexander McQueen, Sandy Powell and John MacFarlane, designed it to fit herself. When the Lady Kytson dress was finished, her mum laced her in and her cousin did her hair. With a postcard of Lady Kytson pinned above her bed, Doyle says the Elizabethan aristocrat ‘became my friend on the project’.
When she put on the costume, Doyle says she underwent something of a transformation: ‘Corsets make you stand up straight. They’re actually not that uncomfortable.’ The corset would have traditionally been made from whalebone or cane. Doyle chose to use steel and a plastic boning called rigilene.
The success of the dress landed Doyle another commission, this time to recreate Lord Kytson’s costume. This time she used her dad Jim Doyle as a model.
Doyle says Hertfordshire is a real source of inspiration to her. ‘There is so much history here. I think it’s fascinating that Queen Elizabeth passed through the Hadhams on her progress.
‘Whenever I drive past the sign that says Welcome to Hertfordshire, County of Opportunity, I think, “Yes! That’s me!”’
The 16th century wall paintings that inspired Megan can be seen at Much Hadham Forge Musuem. See hadhammuseum.org.uk for visitor times.
Megan’s costumes are on display at Knebworth House, as part of its Tudor exhibition during this year’s open season.
Follow Megan’s blog at http://showtimestitches.blogspot.co.uk