Fashion’s muse for party season 2019 stares coolly from an oil painting in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Her velvety black dress and extravagant headdress are studded with pearls. At her throat is an extraordinarily Carrie Bradshaw-esque accessory: a gold-and-pearl initial-B necklace.
This is Anne Boleyn, or rather the idea of her as created posthumously in the late 16th century. Her look is also very now – think square necklines, OTT sleeves and embellished headgear. It is all part of a wider trend described as “Renaissancecore” by the style blog Manrepeller.
The renaissance of the Renaissance is popping up far and wide. On the Strictly Come Dancing results show a fortnight ago, Tess Daly wore a black velvet dress with a very Boleyn-ish square neckline and leg-o’-mutton sleeves. The same week, the Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie wore a “Renaissance-inspired” gown on the red carpet. The square necklines are also very Ganni spring/summer 2020.
Embellished headbands are fast becoming central to the aesthetic of 2019. The Duchess of Cambridge is so attached to hers that British Vogue was moved to run a piece on her life in headbands. The headband’s status as the go-to accessory for women in the public eye was confirmed by its appearance on Carrie Symonds’ head during the Queen’s speech on Monday. Meanwhile, among the very young and hip, they have become winter’s answer to the flower crown, ever larger and more ostentatious.
Tudor monarchs were the style icons of their day, Henry VIII’s Wags in particular. Having previously lived in France, Boleyn was a standout fashion leader, credited with popularising Gallic styles such as the “french hood” – described as an adorned “half moon – or crescent – style band or brim sloping away from the face”.
Anne of Cleves was no style slouch either, with some saying she popularised the leg-o’-mutton sleeve. Incidentally – whether ballooning or draped – fancy sleeves are very Renaissance, and very Roksanda Ilinčić and JW Anderson. Then and now, big sleeves are a way of taking up space with clothing, a power move that reverberates through the ages.
What should we make of the return of a look in which opulent fashion was employed as a defence – albeit one that so often proved futile in the face of the (literally) cut-throat establishment? Perhaps nothing too encouraging. But the fact that the English Renaissance has been described as “the peacock age” by some historians explains its appeal for Christmas-party season in the attention economy.