Sunday, 8 May 2016

Two dresses - four centuries


There are many known paintings of Elizabeth Wriothesley (née Vernon), Countess of Southampton (1572-1655) ,however, this one painted by an unknown artist in about 1600 is of great interest to embroiderers.

In the portrait the countess is shown at her toilette combing her hair. She is wearing an embroidered jacket (then known as a waistcoat) with twining flowers (honeysuckle, lilies, roses, etc), over a rose-coloured corset. Her petticoat is embroidered with a pattern of gold and blue plants and insects. There is a transparent skirt covering the embroidered garment and to her left is shown the edge of another, grey embroidered garment, probably an over skirt.

On the table to the left there is a rectangular pin cushion, as well as some jewellery. Behind the Countess there is a purple curtain embroidered in gold. Floating in front of the curtain is a lace ruff (the small dog at her feet is also wearing a ruff of some kind). To the right of the countess there are three embroidered cushions and what appears to be an embroidered garment of some kind with a gold coloured edge, which is possibly embroidered.

Before the age of machines can you imagine the skills and the number of hours of needlework needed to create the various textiles shown in this painting.

Fast forward to 2016 and Manus x Machina, the Costume Institute's spring 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Robert Lehman Wing has opened. The exhibition will explore how fashion designers are reconciling the handmade and the machine-made in the creation of haute couture and avant-garde ready-to-wear.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a wedding dress by Karl Lagerfeld for House of Chanel, Autumn-Winter 2005/6 haute couture collection which was created using a combination of digital pattern modelling, hand stitching and machine sewing.


With more than 170 ensembles dating from the early 20th century to the present, the exhibition will address the founding of the haute couture in the 19th century, when the sewing machine was invented, and the emergence of a distinction between the hand (manus) and the machine (machina) at the onset of mass production. It will explore this ongoing dichotomy, in which hand and machine are presented as discordant tools in the creative process, and question the relationship and distinction between haute couture and ready-to-wear.

Looks on display at the "Manus x Machina" exhibit at The Costume Institute.

Divided by four centuries both Elizabeth Vernon and Karl Largerfeld ensembles are breathtaking but as a needleworker I know which one excites me the most.

If you are unable to visit the exhibition you will enjoy this video.



As a young woman (depicted here in court dress), Elizabeth Vernon was a maid in waiting  to Queen Elizabeth. In August of 1598, Elizabeth secretly married Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, the patron of William Shakespeare. Upon discovering this, the Queen had both Elizabeth and Henry locked in Fleet Prison. After their release, they were never again to be allowed in the company of the extremely displeased Queen Elizabeth.


On the accession of James I Southampton and Elizabeth resumed their place at court and he received numerous honours from the new king.

Copyright The Fitzwilliam Museum / Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton (1572-1655), probably dressed for the coronation of James I of England in 1603 in white with her countess's coronet & mantle. Copyright of The Fitzwilliam Museum.

In 1999, a German professor of English, Hildegard Hammerschmidt - Hummel, proposed an intriguing, but highly tenuous, theory about Elizabeth Vernon  mainly based on a sonnet whose authorship remains debated. She claims that the sonnet was written by William Shakespeare, & that additional evidence from portraits show that Elizabeth Vernon Wriothesley was Shakespeare's lover. Her eldest daughter Penelope was, according to this theory, a child of Shakespeare. If this were true, the late Lady Diana Spencer would be a descendant of William Shakespeare. (See: Hildegard Hammerschmidt-Hummel: Das Geheimnis um Shakespeares 'Dark Lady'. Dokumentation einer Enthüllung Darmstadt: Primus-Verlag 1999).

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