If every picture tells a story, does it matter if it's not the full one?

If a new exhibition illustrating the art of Tudor and Stuart fashion from the Royal Collection is anything to go by, I'd say not at all.

Anna Reynolds, curator of paintings at the Royal Collection Trust and author of a magnificent book to accompany the exhibition, says that even when it conceals the body, clothing is revealing. However, examples of costumes worn in the period between 1485, when Henry VII acceded to the throne of England as the first monarch in the House of Tudor, and the death of Queen Anne, the last Stuart monarch, in 1714, are scarce - especially from the earlier period. So their story is gleaned largely through portraits in the Royal Collection, which by definition make them high fashion reserved for high society.

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Reynolds' book examines the way monarchs and their extended families, the men and women making up the court, and the upwardly mobile and increasingly wealthy gentry classes, clothed themselves. Portraiture of the 16th and 17th centuries inevitably shows the elite members of society - those whose wealth made the commissioning of portraits possible.

The word "finery" was first used in the 1670s as a term for elaborate, showy attire. In their rich fabrics, shimmering jewellery and complex hairstyles, monarchy and those surrounding them were moving displays of expensive finery from head to toe.

Some things never change. Reynolds explains the "trickle-down" fashion theory, where the clothes of the elite were imitated in modified form by the lower social orders, was evident even back then. The higher orders would then change their styles in order to differentiate themselves from the masses, and the process starts again.

To illustrate this, the gallery has published Robe, a 17th century-style fashion and beauty magazine that looks like a copy of Vogue, available in addition to the book. The wealthiest section of society not only had the money to buy the most complex and decorated silks, they also had the time to devote to the pursuit of fashion. Conspicuous consumption was even viewed as a form of charity, a way for the rich to redistribute wealth by providing employment and work for idle hands.

Among the Stuart monarchs, Charles I cultivated a less ostentatious style than his predecessors - its restrained elegance fitted with the monarch's reserved personality and tendency to favour grandeur and formality, a taste tempered by his young, vivacious French queen Henrietta Maria and the influence of fashions from an increasingly powerful French court.

Upon his restoration to the throne in 1660 their son Charles II, with limited funds at his disposal, could not compete with other European rulers for lavishness of clothing. Yet he made his mark in other ways - and his pivotal role in the development of the three-piece suit will forever give him a starring role in the history of fashion.

Mary II, as a glamorous young woman on the throne, enjoyed contemporary fashions and spent a significant sum on clothing and accessories. James I, while neglectful of his own appearance, strove to present his court as cultured and fashionable, and expected his courtiers to be finely dressed. William III is traditionally regarded as a military-minded and serious monarch, yet his dedication to the Calvinist faith did not preclude him from wearing stockings in vivid colours or running up an annual lace bill of £2459 in 1695-6 (equivalent to over £215,000 in today's money). Such insights help bring alive this fascinating period.

The influence of the royal family over their households and the court meant they were seen as leaders of fashion. Catherine of Braganza, for example, announced in 1666 that she would start a fashion for shorter skirts to coincide with the launch of the new male vest by her husband (Charles II). The resulting trend for raised hemlines, which revealed shoes and silk stockings to the ankle, spread throughout the court and was reported by the French ambassador.

Paintings allow us to see the fashionably correct way of wearing clothing - how garments looked on the body, how they were padded, how they were combined, accessorised or held. Reynolds suggests portraits let us imagine how it would have felt to wear the clothes and what noises they would have made - the tinkling of metal tags attached to ribbons used to tie garments together, or the rustling of a thick silk overshirt as it passed against petticoats beneath. They give a sense of the posture required and the rules of deportment to be obeyed. Even the height of a waistline can be of historical importance.

But portraits can also limit information. You don't get to see the back of an outfit; nor are many shoes seen. Colours can fade or change. Portraits also represent garments in pristine condition, untainted by signs of wear such as staining or the running of non-colour-fast dyes.

Reynolds has some fascinating details about the sheer effort involved in keeping such incredibly heavy, rich and complex garments looking good. Clothing was infrequently replaced due to its prohibitive cost, and since exterior garments were not washed but spot-treated or brushed down, artists would have had to demonstrate some sensitivity in hiding visual imperfections. Outfits would be frequently changed rather than replaced - requiring a battery of servants to keep one looking good, and a large enough wardrobe to swap a lightly soiled garment for a fresh alternative.

Surviving garments show sweat marks, alterations and occasional mistakes in decorative effects - and they reveal what a garment looks like from the back and side, enabling an understanding of construction techniques, such as the number of layers of fabric required to create a stiffened doublet, or how breeches were prevented from falling down. They show how people got into their clothes, whereas portraits can give the impression of a figure sewn into their garments. Alterations can reveal how a person changed shape over a lifetime (records show that Elizabeth I's clothes were let out, indicating that she put on weight). Patterns of wear can even show whether someone was left or right-handed.

Very few items of clothing have survived from the 16th and 17th centuries, due to the fragile nature of textiles, being highly sensitive to atmospheric conditions and exposure to light. The raw materials and laborious processes involved in producing fabric made it highly valuable, resulting in continuous recycling. Even small off-cuts of fabric were retained for reuse.

According to Charles I's wardrobe accounts for 1633-4, an elaborately embroidered black suit similar to that being worn by the monarch in van Dyck's the Greate Peece cost £146. His less ornate suits cost between £40 and £50 each, while a sumptuous example of light-blue satin embroidered in gold cost £226 (equivalent to over £20,000 in today's money).

Given the value of the materials (as opposed to the cost of tailoring), clothes were often repaired, re-lined and altered. Anne of Denmark is believed to have cut up Elizabeth I's clothes for use in the court masque of 1604. Clothes were often sold via a thriving second-hand market; metal threads in fabric could be melted down to released the precious metals. Linen rags which had originated as shirts were recycled into paper.

Inventories reveal a lot. We know that in the autumn of 1694 Mary II ordered 43 pairs of shoes, and between September and December she ordered 31 mantuas, 15 nightgowns and 16 pairs of stays.

The details of what women had to put on each day are astonishing, especially when compared with today's habit of pulling on a pair of leggings and a stretchy tunic top. The first item women of all classes would put on was a long linen smock or shift, a washable layer next to the skin. Elite women would change this daily. The neckline varied in shape and was often embroidered. A portrait of Mary I depicts a decorative frill at the wrists of her linen smock.

On her upper body over her smock a woman would wear a stiffened garment to shape and support the torso. In the first half of the 16th century this had an integral skirt, though by the second half of the century these had been cut separately to create the bodice and stays. Stays are rarely shown in paintings, though the seated figure in Jan Steen's Woman At Her Toilet has her fur-trimmed jacket open to show the pink stays underneath. Dressing was a time-consuming process which for an elite lady would require assistance. A pin-cushion was an essential means of fastening items of dress together. While pins are rarely seen in painted portraits, pin-holes are often seen on surviving garments. Thousands of pins were supplied to Elizabeth I every six months.

During her reign the farthingale developed from the Spanish colonial style into the drum-shaped wheel farthingale, worn with the skirt arranged into flounces pinned to the farthingale beneath, then left to fall to the ground. Anne of Denmark admired this style of dress, and wore fathingales four feet wide. Elizabeth of Brunswick, in a portrait of a very similar date, wears her skirt pinned in a different arrangement with a narrow ruffle encircling the edge of the farthingale. Then there are the sleeves, the bodices, the head-dresses, and the collars and cuffs of lace from Venice and Flanders and, later, France.

Gloves are common and depicted status and friendship, often given as favours at weddings, to mourners at funerals and to monarchs as gifts. Queen Mary II ordered two dozen pairs each month as it was common for the monarch to wear new gloves nearly every day. In Daniel Mytens's portrait of Elizabeth of Bohemia, the sitter wears gloves of a supple, fine beige doeskin or kid which crumple gently at the wrist. The skin colour of her hands shows through, and the fingers of the gloves extend some distance beyond the end of the finger-tips, creating an elegant length to the fingers.

By contrast, women's shoes are infrequently shown, because of the vogue for bust-length portraits or because they were hidden under long skirts. Inventories are more revealing. Queen Henrietta Maria's red velvet mules from 1651-70 are of red silk velvet decorated with raised silver thread and sequin embroidery of a particularly high quality.

A recognisable form of head-dress worn during the 16th century was known as a Paris head (now commonly known as a Mary Stuart cap). Worn by widows, it consisted of a wired linen cap with dipped over the centre of the forehead. In Francois Clouet's portrait the 19-year-old sitter wears a form of mourning dress known as deuil blanc to mark the loss of her father-in-law, mother and husband within the space of 18 months. She wears a white Paris head over a white undercap, with a white veil down the back known as a head-rail. Beneath her chin is a barbe of fine transparent linen through which it is possible to see her black dress with its fashionably arched neckline.

It's impossible on these pages to present more than a fragment of what this mighty and ultimately moving exhibition contains. But then sometimes even the

merest scrap can offer a glimpse of greater things. n

In Fine Style: The Art Of Tudor And Stuart Fashion, an exhibition of more than 60 paintings, plus drawings, garments, jewellery, accessories and armour, is at the Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, until July 20. The book accompanying the exhibition, by Anna Reynolds, costs £29.95 and Robe, a magazine of 17th-century fashions, will also be on sale priced £3.95 (they can also be bought online). Visit royalcollection.org.uk.