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Oranges and Lemons - 17th Century Sambenito
14-Piece execution ensemble, inspired by the curious death of Mrs Anne Turner - April, 2017
It is said that truth is stranger than fiction. This elaborate ensemble was designed and constructed as part of my 2017 course in costume construction at Melbourne Polytechnic, Prahran Campus. The assignment was to create a piece inspired by a nursery rhyme or piece of folklore. Naturally, I set out hoping to also weave some history into the project, when I stuck upon a very intriguing tidbit of forgotten London scandal, wrapped within a common children's rhyme.
The song "Oranges and Lemons" is one such rhyme, traditionally used to name the bells of the various parishes in districts of London, and thereby help children get to know the layout of the city by the sound of the bells. However, as is the case with many children's rhymes of the era, it holds a darker significance. The rhyme clearly references public executions, which were traditionally signaled with the ringing of the church bells. And among the macabre crowds at the infamous Tyburn Tree, peasant girls and prostitutes would sell citruses studded with cloves to ward off the stench of the filthy streets.
Among the unfortunates who faced the executioner in such an undignified circumstance was a Mrs Anne Turner, of Paternoster Row.
A talented chemist and intimate companion of the Duchess of Somerset, Anne had made a reputation with the invention of a decadent saffron-infused starch, which would be used to colour and stiffen the ruffed collars so commonly associated with the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. But when the Duchess ensnared her in a high-society poisoning scandal in 1615, Anne was sentenced to be hanged at the dreaded triple-tree, wearing the iconic yellow ruffs that had so aided her rise to prominence. This tradition of executing prisoners in a costume that denotes their sins, (in this case, pride, haughtiness and shedding of noble blood), was used widely in the 17th century, particularly in the Spanish Inquisition, and these penitential garments were known as Sambenito.
The project was an especially intricate one. Though certain elements of the gown are fantastical, the bulk of it was made using accurate Jacobean draping and tailoring techniques, referring primarily to The Tudor Tailor, an illustrated resource by Jane Malcolm-Davies and Ninya Mikhaila.
The undergarments were up-cycled from a cotton sateen bedding set, and stays made from cotton ticking. The petticoat fabric, a light cotton embroidered with a crosshatched feather motif, was given its striking colour by soaking it in vinegar and binding it between rusted fragments of steel rebar found in a local demolition site. It was then left on a roof for 7 days to tarnish and weather. The overskirt and peplum were tightly cartridge pleated onto a waistband and dotted with hooks on which to anchor the rest of the garment. The wearer's decolletage is shielded by a silk organdy partlet, bound with black satin ribbons and hung with a crucifix. A cotton belly pad is tied to the waist to support the elongated stomacher of the bodice.
The bodice fabric was found in a dumpster (literally), during a clean-out of fabric samples that were cluttering up the interior design classroom on campus. By chance, it was a perfect match in colour, design and weight to produce the bizarre silhouette. The stomacher at the center front is tacked in by hand, and the bodice back-laced, ensuring an adjustable fit. The entire ensemble is crowned with a bolero jacket festooned with starched ruffs of various sizes and materials, predominately petersham ribbon and cotton duck. Each one was made entirely by hand, decorated liberally with pearls and coloured with saffron, rusted water and powdered dyes. The huge yellow collar piece is supported by a wire supportasse, or rebato, at the center back. It is designed specifically to move and flex with the wearer's shoulders without breaking or losing shape. The ensemble is accessorized with a satin noose, customized suede booties with miniature black ruffles, large signet rings, customized pearl earrings and a profusion of crucifixes, amber poison vials and lace.
The piece earned top marks at the end of year runway, and has thus far been my most complex, challenging and rewarding endevour. Although intensive, the entire outfit came together very easily, and was a genuine labour of love to resurrect the peculiar and forgotten lady who inspired it.
Constructing this costume was one thing. But getting INTO it is a skill in itself! Click below to see how it's done...
Photography courtesy of Mr Imran Abul Kashem / Styling by Luxuria Makeup Artistry