Underwater Wardrobe: The Uncanny Study of Tudor Clothing in Relation to the Dead in Museums

‘St Augustine says, “the dead are invisible, they are not absent.” You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true […]. We sense the dead have a vital force still — they have something to tell us, something we need to understand.’ [1]

The above quote was taken from Dame Hilary Mantel’s lecture The Day is For The Living for the BBC Four Reith Lectures in 2017. It is also the same quote that I used for the first few sentences of my MA dissertation in the History of Design and Material Culture. I started my thesis with Mantel’s quote because her words resonated with the aims of my research. I believed that the individual that I was studying did have something to tell me, and I was on a journey to discover more about their life through the study of their surviving clothes.

Not only at this stage did I feel that the dead had, to quote Mantel, a ‘vital force,’ but equally, that their clothes, also had the capacity to communicate something I was attempting to uncover. I wanted to employ clothing in a way that combined more traditional interpretations of history with a theoretical framework, in order to understand the lives of those from the past, and additionally how modern day museum visitors responded to such objects within the gallery or exhibition space.

The topic of my research was centred around a sixteenth century leather jerkin discovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. The Mary Rose was King Henry VIII’s flagship, first built in 1509-1511, which later sank off the coast of Portsmouth during the Battle of the Solent in 1545. The ship was rediscovered by archaeologist Alexander McKee in 1971, and the vessel was raised to the surface in October 1982. 19,000 artefacts were uncovered from the wreck during 27,000 underwater dives between 1979-1982. [2] Of these, 655 items consist of clothing, fastenings, and linings for clothing, with over 300 pieces of recovered textile. [3] The remains of the ship and her artefacts can now be seen at the Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, in the South of England.

With a BA in Fashion and Dress History, I knew I wanted to base my research on the clothing uncovered from the Mary Rose. The Mary Rose Trust is fortunate in that they house such a large collection of Tudor clothing and textiles; I therefore wanted to highlight the significance and importance of this collection throughout my paper. To research the entirety of the textile collection was an impossible task to complete in the confines of a 20,000 word paper, so I therefore decided to narrow down my focus. After making the decision to choose one leather garment to study, I began to think about whether any in the museum collection resonated with me on a personal level. By personal, I wanted to study an object which evoked my attention, both on an intellectual and emotional level. I found one garment which appealed to both of my needs.

I eventually chose to study a leather jerkin. The sixteenth century jerkin in question was worn by the Master Gunner who served on board the Mary Rose. The Master Gunner was responsible for the control of ammunition on board, whist managing a number of other serving gunners. A jerkin, was a garment worn by Tudor men, consisting of a bodice, with either fitted or detachable sleeves, and a skirt. Jerkins were worn over the top of linen shirts and doublets, and varied in style and decoration. [4] Some could be pinked, snipped, or dyed. 46 were uncovered from the Mary Rose wreck, and show a variety of different styles and fits.

leather jerkin

Zoomed photograph depicting the Master Gunner’s leather jerkin (81A1963/2110) within the Men of the Main Deck Gallery at the Mary Rose Museum. Acrylic tabs preventing the slippage of the jerkin are visible. c16th century. [n.d]. 14 May. 2018. Photograph taken by the author.

museum of london jerkin

Photograph of 000438. Pinked and snipped leather jerkin. c1555-60. Museum of London Online Collections. [n.d]. Web. 31 June. 2018. http://www.museumoflondonprints.com/image/61159/leather-jerkin-c-1560. 

The Master Gunner’s leather jerkin however, is particularly unique to the museum collection, since it has been imprinted with the impression of a skeleton. The jerkin itself was discovered on the remains of a crew member found on the main deck of the wreck. After spending 437 years underwater, the jerkin, compressing (whilst additionally conserving) the skeletal ribcage, has been left with the striking and somewhat macabre impression of ribs bulging from underneath the jerkin’s bodice.

At this point, I would like to add, I had developed a somewhat morbid fascination with clothing’s relationship to death/or the dead. I was writing an essay for another course module which focused on clothing’s capacity to evoke the dead and their life experiences through remaining traces of the deceased ie, how the clothing remained moulded to the body who once wore it, traces of damage, repair, wear and tear, clothing which provoked a reminder of death or decay, and clothing discovered on the remains of the dead. Anthropologist Elizabeth M Hallam and sociologist Jennifer Lorna Hockey in their text suggest that objects belonging to the dead, are ‘akin to fetish objects in their powers of evocation – they are “other,” unsettling of familiarity, difficult to control, simultaneously fascinating and disturbing.’ [5]

(Mood board of related images)

skeleton dress schiaparelli

T.394&A-1974. The Skeleton Dress. Elsa Schiaparelli. c1938. Silk crêpe, trapunto quilting, cotton wadding. The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O65687/the-skeleton-dress-evening-dress-elsa-schiaparelli/

Schiaparelli’s dress is like a second skin, the sinister ‘bones’ protruding through the silk crêpe. It is like an artificial recreation of the impressions produced onto the Master Gunner’s leather jerkin.

hussein chalayan the tangent flows

Hussein Chalayan, The Tangent Flows Collection, c1993. Chelsea Material Study. http://chelseamaterialstudy.blogspot.com/2015/10/1-hussein-chalayan-tangent-flows.html

In 1993 Chalayan buried garments with iron fillings in a garden to produce these decayed, deteriorated items of clothing that oxidised in the dirt. They look like they have been unveiled from an archaeological dig site. I think damaged and fragile clothing reflects the ephemeral nature of fashion and subsequently reflecting our own temporary life spans.

medici jerkin

8726, 8727, 8728. Burial clothes of Cosimo I de’ Medici: Doublet, stockings with codpiece. Palazzo Pitti, Florence. https://www.uffizi.it/en/artworks/burial-clothes-of-cosimo-i-de-medici-doublet-stockings-with-codpiece-cappa-magna-cope-of-the-order-of-st-stephen-made-in-florence

Cosimo I was buried in this doublet. It took ten years to painstakingly conserved his garments which arrived at the Palazzo Pitti in a fragmentary and fragile state.

I had recently read Hilary Davidson’s paper Grave Emotions: Textiles and Clothing from Nineteenth-Century London Cemeteries, and I had found myself relating to many of the issues Davidson discusses in her paper. During her study of clothing and textiles from nineteenth century London cemeteries, I found myself in agreement with her when she asks, ‘what do I do with the confusion of the way the pieces left me feeling during the analysis and then in memory? Where is the place of the poetics of tenderness […] the poignancy, the repulsion, the curiosity […] private contemplation […] a horrible fascination?’ [6]

When I viewed the jerkin, I could not help but feel simultaneous sensations of intrigue, confusion, disgust, fascination, fear, and an experience of the uncanny. When I looked at the garment, detached from the body, yet eluding to the presence of the body, flesh, and skin, I struggled to articulate my feelings into words that could be translated into an academic paper. How was I supposed to explain how a garment could make me feel this way? Could I even base an entire MA thesis on how an object made me feel?

Museologist Sandra Dudley writes that an engagement with objects from an emotional or sensory perspective can be of benefit to researchers, as she theorises what it could be like for visitors and researchers to:

‘experience an embodied engagement with [objects],’ forming their ‘own ideas and/or a tangible, physical connection with those who made and used it in the past,’ enabling a ‘rich, physical and emotional, personal,’ experience for all who encounter museum objects. [7]

Dudley goes on to term this capable relationship between museum objects and humans as ‘object-subject interaction, a process including the interaction between the inanimate, physical thing and the conscious person. I found that the physical characteristics of the jerkin, triggered as Dudley stated, ‘emotional and cognitive associations,’ [8] in myself, which constituted the object’s materiality. As I began to informally question staff, volunteers and passing visitors if the jerkin induced any emotion reactions, I found that individuals experienced similar, shared emotions to one another which matched my own.

I concluded that a majority of these reactions stemmed from the presence of the skeletal impression. I wanted to situate such reactions in relation to Freud and his phenomena of the uncanny, which I believed was being experienced when individuals came into contact with the jerkin. Nicholas Royle describes the phenomena of the uncanny with indication to Freud’s psychoanalytical interpretation of the encounter as ‘concerned with the strange, weird and mysterious [involving] feelings of uncertainty [and] a critical disturbance of what is proper […] an experience of strangeness and alienation [and] the familiar and unfamiliar.’ [9]

Elizabeth Wilson echoes this sentiment in her seminal text by suggesting that:

‘when we gaze at garments that had an intimate relationship with human beings long since gone to their graves… clothes hint at something only half understood, sinister, threatening; the atrophy of the body and evanescence of life.’ [10]

There was something about the tactility of the leather material which creeped me out yet at the same time amazed me; the leather jerkin produced from calfskin fused with the flesh and bones of another being, was to me, the epitome of the uncanny, if not slightly gory. The jerkin’s close resemblance to skin is only exemplified by the fact that it is displayed flat, as if sliced off the body, on a custom-made mount that prevents it from further deterioration.

The jerkin is as equally fragile as skin; the tear down the centre of the jerkin caused by the pressure and movement of the spine conserved under the garment echoing a similarity to human skin when it is damaged and scarred. Its decayed disposition, alienation from the missing human body, its hint at the remains of the archaeological dead with its unnerving imprint of human bones, produced a reaction in myself so well captured by Wilson’s opening statement of Adorned in Dreams. 

Caroline Evans suggests that psychoanalysis ‘uncovers repressed materials [resembling] those of archaeology, digging up material that has long remained buried, excavating remnants from the past and making sense of them in the height of the present.’ [11] If I could make sense of how the jerkin could make people feel in the modern-day, perhaps I could explain why the study of material culture should incorporate or at least consider advocating a stage of consideration and reflection that includes emotional response to an object as a result of its materiality, purpose, meaning, condition ect.

To me, the jerkin became a metonym for death, or memento mori. The fact that the garment was worn during the final stages of this individual’s life was always in the back of mind. But whilst simultaneously evoking these feelings of absence, I felt that the jerkin also induced a haunting presence of the individual who once was.

To see the impression of the skeleton, the missing body which once, moved, breathed, and lived in these clothes, produced a blurred boundary between the existence of an individual who once was, and the absence of the individual today. I imagined how the Master Gunner would have worn the garment, how he moved in it whilst working, what he felt whilst wearing it. Was it simply just a functional garment to protect the body, or was it something more? How did it feel, and how did it smell when it was worn? Where was it made, purchased, brought?

The phenomena of haunting has always been classically attached to a where, but not so often a what, or a thing. But as my research drew to a close, I proposed that material culture, and in particular clothing, has just as much potential to become haunted with historical events or the presence of an individual after death. Hallam and Hockey state that the role of material culture can shift from ‘its role as a personal item to become material evidence of a devastating collective experience.’ [12]

I came to realise that the jerkin, like so many other possessions in the museum collection, had come to symbolise the event of the sinking of the Mary Rose, a survivor object, which had become haunted with the presence of its owner, who did not survive. His presence, no longer physical, had transcended death, existing in some way, memorialised through the survival of his clothes worn on the day of his passing.

If you are interested in the topics that I discussed during my MA thesis, there are several papers and texts I found invaluable during my research. They are as followed:



Downes, Stephanie, Holloway, Sally and Sarah Randles. Feeling Things: Objects and Emotions Through History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. Print.

Dudley, Sandra H. Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Davidson, Hilary. “Grave Emotions: Textiles and Clothing from Nineteenth-Century London Cemeteries.” Textile. 14: 2 (2016): 226-243. Taylor & Francis. Web. 17 Feb. 2018.

Evans, Caroline. Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity and Deathliness. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2003. Print.

Hallam, Elizabeth M, Hockey, Jennifer Lorna. Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg, 2001. Print.

Hauser, Kitty. “A Garment in the Dock; or, How the FBI Illuminated the Pre-History of a Pair of Denim Jeans.” Journal of Material Culture. 9:3 (2004): 293-313. Sage Publications.Web. 13 Mar. 2018.

Hjemdahl, Anne Sofie. “Exhibiting the Body, Dress, and Time in Museums: A Historical Perspective.” Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice. Eds. Marie Riegels Melchior and Birgitta Svensson. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

Mikhaila, Ninya, Malcolm-Davies, Jane. The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Dress. London: Batsford Ltd, 2006.

Sturken, Marita. “The Objects That Lived: The 9/11 Museums and Material Transformation.” Memory Studies 9:1 (2015): 13-26. Sage Publications. Web. 27 Dec. 2017.

Tierney, Jo. “Fashion, Freud and Foucault: Thoughts on the Immateriality and Embodiment of Dress in Museums.” Un-Making Things.Royal College of Art. [n.d]. 2013. Web. 1 Nov. 2017. http://unmakingthings.rca.ac.uk/2014/fashion-freud-and-foucault-thoughts-on-the-immateriality-and-embodiment-of-dress-in-museums/.

Wilson, Elizabeth. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. London: I.B Tauris, 2005. Print.



[1] Dame Hilary Mantel, “The Day is for The Living,” BBC Four Reith Lectures, 13th June. 2017.

[2] Mary Rose Museum, Mary Rose Exposed (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016) 12.

[3] Julie Gardiner and Michael J. Allen, Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2009) 18.

[4] Julie Gardiner and Michael J. Allen, Before the Mast: Life and Death Aboard the Mary Rose (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2009) 18.

[5] Elizabeth M Hallam and Jennifer Lorna Hockey, Death Memory and Material Culture (Oxford: Berg, 2001) 121.

[6] Hilary Davidson, “Grave Emotions: Textiles and Clothing from Nineteenth-Century London Cemeteries,” Textile. 14: 2 (2016) 329.

[7] Sandra Dudley, Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations (London: Routledge, 2010) 4.

[8] Dudley, Museum Materialities, 4-5.


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