Slashing, Spangles and Splendour

Hannah Marples, Historic Costumer and Museum Coordinator takes a look at key portraits in The Portland Collection. She explores how people decorated their clothes with spangles, slashing and embroidery.


Unseen Treasures is my favourite exhibition here at the Portland Collection museum. It’s full of amazing paintings from my favourite time period – and what lustrous clothes these people are wearing. In this article, I’ll take a look at some of the key portraits with a focus on the spangles and slashing of the costumes – and share exactly what this means.


William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire (1552 - 1626) Bess of Hardwick’s second son John de Critz and his studio, around 1605 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire (1552 – 1626) John de Critz and his studio, around 1605 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


I’m going to start with the slightly more violent word, slashing! Here we have the 1st Earl of Devonshire in this in-your-face, vibrant, truly amazing outfit. There’s much to talk about here, but I’m going to focus on just one element – the slashes.

They cover his entire outfit, and yes that lustrous (what looks like) silk is literally slashed, it won’t be hemmed but it won’t fray either.

This is because slashing is made with an incredibly sharp blade. When the fabric is laid flat before its turned into a fully functional garment, the blade is placed on the flat, 2D fabric on the bias line (diagonal to the grain) and then a hammer hits the handle of the blade creating a clean slice in the fabric.

Reproduction 16th-century slashing tools

Adding lustre

Because the slashing is created diagonally across the grain lines it will not fray the fabric into nothing. The fabric will retain its structure without causing too much weakness in the weave. Sometimes though, it was purposefully frayed to create a fluffy edge to the slash and it would look a little blurry and less crisp in comparison. It’s the little details that really matter.

It was the fashion during the 17th century to add lustre to the slightly lower-quality English silks. This was achieved by simply putting holes into it using blades. Because English silks were not as high quality as the Italian imported silks, we had to spruce them up a bit. Don’t think English silk was cheap and horrid, it was still expensive and saved for the elite. It just didn’t have to travel as far.

In Charles I’s clothing accounts he had a suit made which included a “carnation (red) satin doublet, with a faire border, in cloud work (silver), in every seam, and also on both sides slashes of the body and sleeve” so a description that is very similar to that you can see in this painting here. Charles I actually paid over £50 in 1634 for his outfit, which is £9,300 in today’s money.


Rachel Ruvigny, Countess of Southampton (1603–1640) Cornelius Johnson © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

Rachel Ruvigny, Countess of Southampton (1603–1640) Cornelius Johnson © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


Here we have Rachel Ruvigny. She is another person wearing red, also wearing silver lace, and in addition, she is embellished with spangles.

Spangles were the ancestors of sequins. But throughout history, spangles were made out of actual silver or actual gold. A tiny coil of either metal would be then cut to produce tiny singular circular pieces. They would be hammered flat to produce the spangle. You can also see spangles decorating Charles as a young boy’s panache very faintly, in the painting by Van Dyck.

Spangles were beautiful and they decorated anything from gowns to doublets to gloves and mittens to shoe roses. They were reserved for the wealthy, of course, they were they were made from silver and gold.

The artist has also included a hint of lining on Rachel’s overgown or jerkin sleeve. This is clearly shot or changeable silk where there is a direction of one colour and a direction of another colour. This would have looked incredible. It’s also very unusual as linings were often red or a pinky/peach colour.

Experimental archeology

Unknown woman, painted around 1580 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

Unknown woman, painted around 1580 © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


This unknown lady’s outfit is extraordinary. Quite mind-boggling, to say the least.

This is where Experimental Archeology comes into play. We’re trying to figure out “what is going on there?”. The only way to hazard a guess is to try and replicate it in fabric, so that is exactly what I have done.

So, what is going on with her outfit? My theory is that this is a take on a much earlier Tudor fashion of pulling your linen smock or shirt through slashes in your expensive garments. Sometimes though, people faked this trend and didn’t shove their underwear through to their outerwear. Sometimes they had a layer of fabric sandwiched within the garment itself. This creates an illusion of what is going on, and I think that this is what we can see in this portrait.

Very helpfully, there is another lady who wears a very similar outfit in the book The Elizabethan Image by Sir Roy Strong. This painting is of Elizabeth I’s procession, but was painted just before Elizabeth died in 1603. There are many different versions of that painting. In each one, it seems like Elizabeth’s procession is all in different clothes each time.

This lady is dated 1580, so she could have been a trendsetter. For both paintings the artist is unknown so maybe a bit of artistic license is going on. This is a case where we could do with a time machine certainly.


Thought to be Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, Early 1620s, Geldorp George. © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection

Thought to be Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, Early 1620s, Geldorp George. © Harley Foundation, The Portland Collection


I believe that this woman is wearing a smock edged with lace and then an embroidered linen waistcoat or jacket over the top, a petticoat of yellow or gold colour and a fine linen or muslin apron. She’s in a slight state of undress but she does actually still have multiple layers on here.

Her embroidered jacket is phenomenal. It’s a great example of motifs that can be found in The Schole-House for the Needle, a book from 1624 containing patterns and designs for lace and embroidery by a printer called Richard Shorleyker. Embroidered jackets like these were very expensive.  In Queen Henrietta Maria’s accounts she was billed £300 for a richly embroidered waistcoat, which today would be £55,000.

Other embroidered spangled garments were also documented for £215 in Henrietta’s accounts, with her embroiderer describing the work as “tedious”. I’m sure you can imagine the hours and needle power behind a garment like this, and remember there were no sewing machines. We can only imagine how long it would take to embroider this garment. It then had to be stitched together and constructed by hand as well.

Examples of jackets such as these though do still exist today and one can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is exceptional in its condition. They know it belonged to a lady called Margaret Layton, and they also have a painting of her wearing it too.

Silk threads and spangles

The waistcoat/jacket we see here was probably made of linen, like Margaret Layton’s. But the embroidery itself would have been carried out with silk threads. Some would suggest the embroidery is crewel work as the motifs and designs are often very similar. But crewel work was actually wool threads on a linen base, and this would definitely have been silk.

Popular Elizabethan and Jacobean stitches for embroidery were detached buttonhole stitch and plaited braid stitch. The embroidery on the jacket is mainly motifs of insects and flowers. These were popular in the early 17th century, and some of these designs can also be found on gloves, coifs (a type of linen headwear), and men’s nightcaps.

You can also see specks of gold blobs in between the embroidery, and they will be spangles. It was quite common that spangles would then be added to such embroidered items just for that extra little bit of pazazz. As if the embroidery wasn’t enough, we then have goldwork plaited braids swirling around each motif and spangles to add even more bling. Can you imagine a piece of clothing like this in candlelight? How it would glisten and sparkle.

Hannah Marples

Hannah Marples

Hannah’s passions lie within historical costume, embroideries, and tech. She has made historical costumes for film, TV and museums which include The National Civil War Museum and Leeds Royal Armouries. She has appeared in the BBC4 television series A Stitch in Time.

Hannah undertakes costume commissions, digitizes patterns for The Tudor Tailor books (The Typical Tudor and The King’s Servants), and also sells her printed fabrics and historically inspired textiles and embroideries on Etsy.

She is a Museum Coordinator at the Harley Foundation and has been a tour guide on the Welbeck Abbey State Room Tours.

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