Yesterday the sun was shining on Scotland, so with copious amounts of Factor 50+ applied (we’re Scottish ok?!), Karen, Ian our STV cameradude and myself headed to Stirling Castle for ‘In Vogue’, an event which promised to celebrate ‘the brilliance of Renaissance haute couture… Welcome to the dazzling world of 16th-century style.’ As a Vogue subscriber and make-up junkie who studied fashion history, it’s safe to say that I was very very intrigued. The castle was the busiest I’ve ever seen it, and to be honest on entering I was slightly concerned that that the crowds would ruin the atmosphere and generally irritate me, but I was proved wrong, and actually the number of visitors was a positive. We are so used to wandering around echoing and empty halls in historic houses and castles that we sometimes forget how full of life they once were. Courtiers, the households of the king and queen, kitchen staff, stable boys and soldiers, Stirling Castle in the 16th century would have been bustling with activity every day.
It’s one of my favourite Historic Environment Scotland properties, and it’s well worth buying a membership if you want to visit it more than once a year, as annual membership can be cheaper than 2 or 3 visits to Stirling Castle. I particularly like visiting the castle in the off season, late on a winter afternoon when there’s virtually no one about, the sky gets gradually darker and the palace takes on an otherworldy feel. Wandering round spaces like this in the twilight always sends a shiver down my spine and I find myself hoping I see a ghostly resident. On a brilliantly sunny Saturday though, the ghosts of the castle were resurrected, and the royal apartments looked bloody gorgeous, jewel-like and crowded with excited visitors.
The palace in particular sometimes gets sniffed at and called a theme-park, a historic site which is ‘disneyfying’ Scotland’s past. I personally think that’s a load of rot. Not only does this building function as a successful attraction which raises money for the care and maintenance of Scotland’s heritage, but it also dispels a lot of commonly held views that castles of all eras were draughty, damp and full of barren stone walls. Period dramas and our own visits to ruins have made us see the past as a dark and dreary place, and we couldn’t be more wrong. Walls were plastered and painted, tapestries provided warmth and texture, velvet, gold and silk glistened on upholstery, curtains and clothing, and its safe to say that more is more appears to have been the prevailing mantra. Styles and fashions change, but throughout history the rich, the well-born, and the fabulous have always striven for excess, whether in Adamesque dining rooms replete with silver and crystal, or in medieval vast great halls, these public displays of wealth were directly linked to one’s standing in society, and all this is made very clear in the scholarly recreation of the 16th century court at Stirling Castle.
Beautifully costumed interpreters milled around the courtyard and palace, and I was super jealous of how awesome they looked. Men and women decked out in courtly garb as well as the plainer clothing worn by those lower down the pecking order could be found in every room, and were happy to talk about the construction of the garments, their hair-dos and the people who would have worn an outfit like theirs back in the day. There were compered fashion shows in the Great Hall throughout the day, and there were outfits available for selfie taking in the Royal Chapel. Everybody looked like they were having a ball.
The importance of traditional skills were highlighted in the Queen Anne Gardens, and visitors could have a go at stone carving, or learn about traditional timber framed buildings. Hopefully a few youngsters were inspired to look into apprenticeships or see the heritage industry they would like to work in. We particularly enjoyed the marble stormtrooper helmet on show, hilarious and also very impressive.
But the best bits were in the Palace proper, courtly ladies were giving visitors 16th century up-dos and we were treated to this romantic image of a woman sat in the queen’s presence chamber doing embroidery by a sunlit window.
My favourite activity was the make-up table. Here we were guided through the beauty regime of a 16th century courtier, and were shown the tools, spices and poisonous products that made these stylish men and women look totally mental/on fleek. I’m really interested in the history of cosmetics, and own a couple of books on the subject, so for me it was particularly good fun to be able to learn more about the Scottish Renaissance style. It turns out it was a lot like the wider European style, involving eyebrow removal, lead on the face, and avoidance of dangerous bathing.
We had a thoroughly enjoyable day, and in the interests of a writing a full review, we also had a delicious lunch from the castle café. It was fantastic to see the link being made between fashion and architecture in such an interactive and celebratory way. I think events like these really aid our understanding of how spaces within buildings such as Stirling Castle were used on a daily basis. We just hope that the success of this event means that this will become an annual event.