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Online talk on Monday 8th January 2024

Ninya Mikhaila - A Gown of ten thousand Pearls:

Reconstructing the clothing of Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon


How do you start to reconstruct a 500-year-old costume from a painting which shows only the front from the waist upwards?  And just to make it more difficult – make it two costumes.  This was the task historical costumier Ninya Mikhaila was set in 2020 when she was commissioned to recreate the clothing worn by Mary Tudor (youngest sister of Henry VIII) and her husband Charles Brandon in a famous double portrait held at Woburn Abbey.


Ninya gave us a potted history of Mary and her controversial marriage to her second husband, the Woburn Abbey portrait and Tudor fashion, before outlining all the things she needed to know about the costumes she was about to make: what undergarments would be worn, what the back and lower part of the clothes might have looked like, what they were made of and how they were fastened.  She also had to understand how people got in and out of the clothing, as these costumes would be repeatedly worn at a Tudor mansion during period reenactments.


Contemporary paintings and documents give hints to all of this, with wardrobe accounts being particularly useful for amounts of fabric used, but much of it came down to experience and guesswork.  Ninya has spent nearly 30 years replicating highly accurate historical dress for the museum and heritage sectors, so she knows what works to give an authentic Tudor look.  She described the layers of clothing Mary and Charles would have worn, the shape of each garment, and how she recreated these; explaining each one in turn, from the simple linen smock or shirt worn next to the skin, out to the sumptuously decorated gown or coat and headdress.


The pattern of pearls on Mary’s black velvet sleeves was particularly troublesome – in the painting, each motif looked different, and it made no sense laid out on the fabric.  Then she was reminded of a second version of the painting, and here the artist rendered the pattern in a more lifelike way, and she was able to produce a design of repeating flowerheads and tracery.


Charles’ broad-shouldered coat posed a different problem.  Though Dresden Museum has a roughly contemporary coat, the method used in this for shaping the sleeves could not be used.  The Dresden coat is made of lightweight silk damask, the sleeves held up with tapes.  Charles’ fur lined black velvet coat would be much too heavy: wired shoulder supports were needed.


We learned so much from Ninya about Tudor clothing, fabrics, customs and beliefs.  Red cloth called scarlet was worn near to the body by almost all classes of society, not just because it was expensive (it was) but also because it was believed to be health-giving: Queen Elizabeth I’s recovery from smallpox was partly credited to her being wrapped in red flannel.  Perhaps we’ll all be dyeing our petticoats red now!

See more of Ninya's work on her website:

Words © Liz Wilmott/CETG 2024

Photos © Ninya Mikhaila (unless credited otherwise)

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Mary Tudor & Charles Brandon Woburn Abbey Portrait

Photo © Wikimedia commons

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