Would a male historian ever be asked to present a programme about clothes? Can you imagine David Starkey or Niall Ferguson or Simon Schama ever doing something as trivial, and dare I say it, girly as a show about dresses?
Loading article content
The answer's no and that's because, with the exception of news programmes, female presenters are still by and large kept in shows about interior design, cookery, shopping and clothes, leaving the boys to handle the big stuff. In fact, Dr Worsley presenting a show about clothes and even dressing up in some of them underlined how little has changed for women in the public eye: 500 years ago they were judged for what they wear and still are; famous men, by contrast, are now largely free of that nonsense and can wear whatever they like.
Dr Worsley did point out that it was not always this way for men and proved it by going to see the Holbein portrait of Henry VIII. The great king knew how important clothes were to promoting his image and one part of his image in particular, which in the portrait is covered by a gargantuan codpiece. These days, a man would buy an expensive car to try to prove the size and potency of his genitals; in the 16th century, you whacked them into an eye-catching leather pouch and got the leading artist of his age to do a painting.
Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, was another royal who understood the power of clothes: one of her gowns was covered in decorative eyes and ears which was meant to suggest that whatever you said and did, your queen was watching. The queen's clothes weren't practical - most of the clothes worn by wealthy women weren't - but that had its upsides. Rich women of the 18th century, for example, were forced to wear huge tea-cosy dresses but they also didn't have to wear knickers because they hadn't been invented yet. This meant that one lady at court who was refused permission to withdraw to the loo could just do the toilet where she stood. According to one contemporary account, the puddle "threatened the shoes of bystanders".
These Georgian clothes look silly now, but the point which Dr Worsley didn't make in her programme is that the modern royals still dress in silly clothes. In their world, hats and gloves are worn indoors and plus-fours are worn to kill animals; it's the royal way of suggesting that they are somehow traditional and immovable.
But I wonder if the royal outfits serve another function too. They are symbols of power, but do they also change the wearer? Perhaps there are moments when the Queen, in private, has doubts about her status, when she feels just like any other human being. But then she puts on her uniform - the white gloves, the jackets in primary colours - and the doubts disappear. It's a process of transformation: you dress like a Queen, therefore you are one. And it's what the royals' clothes are all about: fooling us, but fooling them as well.