Researching Early Modern History

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Dissecting diplomatic dress discourses, RBE 20 – TD Jacobs

While recovering from surgery this summer, I had time to reflect upon the fact that some aspects of diplomatic encounters are harder to unpack than others, and few more so than those related to clothing. This became hugely apparent with the bruhaha surrounding the purported “brooch warfare” of Queen Elizabeth II during the state visit of the Trumps in July. It was widely speculated on social media that the queen had worn a brooch given to her by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2011 during her meeting with the Trumps, and picked up by others, such as Natalie Reilly of The Sunday Morning Herald. However, while I can well understand the rush to associate the piece of jewelry with a distinct message of dislike in this context – the wrong pin was initially identified. Moreover, as Vanity Faircautioned, it may not be wise to assign too much meaning to any of the queen’s clothing choices given her constraints as a largely ceremonial head of state. Nevertheless, if we examine of each of the three brooches worn by the queen during the state visit it is difficult to view the selections as purely matters of fashion. The first was given to her by the Obamas, the second – which was worn during the meeting – was a snowflake shaped pin given to her by Canada (a country Trump had recently disparaged), and the third – worn on the day of his departure – was actually a piece of mourning jewellery.

Certainly, the queen would not be the only woman to have ever expressed herself through her jewellery during a diplomatic encounter.  Indeed, former US Secretary of State, Madeline Albright, was famous for selecting brooches to convey subtle messages and sentiments that perhaps could not be said aloud in her role as chief diplomat, such as insect shaped pins worn in meetings with Russians following revelations that they had attempted to bug the US State Department. Albright’s jewelry choices were by her own admission (eventually) consciously made, and while we may not yet know for certain with regard to the queen’s, a convincing argument can be made that this was the case. But this becomes even harder to establish in the Early Modern, where we must rely on textual descriptions of appearances and (where available) iconographical evidence that is usually not contemporaneous.

For example, the same questions regarding choice and message attend the appearance of Erik Holgersen Rosenkrantz, the Ambassador of Denmark, in 1652. He was described by Lodewijk Huygens thusly: “Rosencrantz, the first Ambassador, wore a suit of cloth patterned with large flowers; long, tight-fitting hose; high-heeled boots; a black, velvet coat trimmed in the old style with gold and silver lace, and a ribbon on each moustache. In a word, he looked more like a mountebank than an ambassador.” I have found a portrait of Rozencrantz and while it is not a perfect representation of Hugyens’s description, it does seem to give the general flavour of his dress.

 rosenkrantz_erik2
“Erik Rosenkrantz.” Artist and date, unknown. Rosenholm Slot, Denmark.

Rozencrantz’s dress, both according to Huygens and as he appears in the painting, strikes me as typical of what is now considered ‘Cavalier’ – the style of clothing associated with the party of the (then exiled) Charles II. The heavily trimmed long coat, tight-fitting hose, and high boots are all elements of Cavalier dress. Were the ambassador’s sartorial choices intended to be provocative? After all, it was also ‘court dress’ – and even Huygens seems to recognize it as such by describing it as the “old style.” The Cavaliers did not invent the costume, they simply maintained its use. Rozencrantz – despite what I currently think is an apocryphal story of a youthful confrontation with Cromwell possibly invented by James Granger – was born in 1612, and at forty years of age may have simply been wearing the style of clothing he was used to as a member of the Danish nobility rather than trying to send any particular political message.

Clearly, the matter of dress and decoration in diplomatic discourse during the Early Modern, while fascinating, is particularly fraught with difficulties – even as it is today.

Sources:

Albright, Madeleine. Read my pins. Stories from a diplomat’s jewel box. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

Granger, James. Biographical history of England from Egbert the Great to the Revolution. 2 vols. London: 1769.

Huygens, Lodewijck. The English journal, 1651-1652. A.G.H. Bachrach and R.G. Collmer, eds. trans. Leiden: Brill and Leiden University Press, 1982.

Reilly, Natalie. “Was the queen subtly trolling Trump with her jewellery?” In: The Sunday Morning Herald. 18.8.2018.


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