It was completely inevitable that a Tudor themed blog was going to end up discussing aspects of the TV show “the Tudors”. You will no doubt be aware that for a variety of reasons this caused a bit of a stir – this piece by Clemmie Moore in the Daily Mail sets the scene nicely. Perhaps I will go into our opinion of this program at a later date but I thought I would touch upon the subject of breasts for this post.
I had been looking at an illustration in R.E. Pritchard’s book ‘Shakespeare’s England’ and came across a picture of a wealthy and well dressed lady. The image was taken from the Roxburghe ballads – I was interested to note that the dress the woman is wearing is so low cut as to expose her breasts. As copies of this are freely available online (and are well worth browsing through if you have a spare hour or two) I had a look at some of the images, I have reproduced a few of them here.
As you can see – it is quite clear that the women depicted are either showing a great deal of cleavage (left) or have completely exposed their breasts. What is going on here? Could ‘The Tudors’ actually be more accurate than we have given them credit for?
There is a suggestion that it was not uncommon for women to bare their breasts in public and that the fashion for doing so was adopted following the example set by women from the upper classes. Liza Picard discusses women’s dress in her book ‘Elizabeth’s London’ and covers the issue of Tudor attitudes towards the display of female breasts.
Apparently, the French ambassador was surprised to see Queen Elizabeth I with her bosom completely exposed. Picard goes on to say that reformers deplored this fashion and saw exposed breasts everywhere. Exactly what they really saw may be uncertain though as what is considered ‘indecent’ tends to vary from person to person?
I wonder though, about the extent to which images from the ballads can be taken as evidence for frequency of breast exposure? It is quite well known that putting a half naked woman on the front of a magazine is likely to increase it’s sales. I was (briefly) tempted to call this post something like ‘Warning! Naked Tudor breasts exposed’ – I suspect it would have increased our hits! but how many people would have come back and do we really want/need lots of hits from people who surf the net looking for breasts? (see this re this subject).
I think it is likely that the publishers of the ballads were just as aware that sex sells and this is the reason they include lots of half naked women? I also wonder about how acceptable it really was to show breasts? I don’t recall seeing any painted portraits of Queen Elizabeth or other court ladies with exposed breasts – unless anyone can correct me about this?
This post has also been featured on this website which is well worth a look.