Manuscripts à la mode: Nabil Nayal's new collection
Manuscripts are hot in the fashion world right now! Attendees of the 2018 Met Gala drew inspiration from medieval manuscripts. The actor Ezra Miller recently caused a stir at the UK première of the new Fantastic beasts film (was it inspired by this manuscript in our Harry Potter exhibition?). And this September, the British Library itself hosted a London Fashion Week event: Nabil Nayal’s presentation of his Spring 2019 collection.
Dr Nayal is no stranger to the Library. He did his research here for his PhD in Elizabethan dress, and Elizabeth I and the British Library’s manuscripts were major inspirations for his recent collection. As he said at the launch, he hoped his collection will inspire modern women to ‘stand up for what you believe and be your true self, unleash your inner queen’.
Here are the stories of just a few of the manuscripts that inspired Nabil Nayal.
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and the page from a 15th-century Book of Hours that inspired it: Harley MS 2971, f. 13r
One of the earliest manuscripts that was featured in Nayal's collection was a Book of Hours made in Paris around the 1450s. This manuscript was possibly made for a woman: a prayer on f. 20v uses the female form 'famule tue' (‘your female servant’), although a prayer a few pages later uses the common masculine form 'miserrimo paccatori' (‘most miserable sinner’). The fine illuminations have been associated with the workshop that produced the Bedford Hours. Nayal’s dress is based on a page that shows St John the Evangelist writing while in exile on Patmos.
Nabil Nayal SS19 dress and a page from the calendar in the Beaufort Hours: Royal MS 2 A XVIII, f. 30v
Meanwhile, Nayal transformed a calendar owned by Margaret Beaufort into a chic suit. The suit is based on the page for June. Notes in the margin record victories won by Margaret’s son, Henry VII, at the battles of Blackheath and Stoke. These notes were not made by Margaret herself — she had dreadful handwriting — but were probably added by members of her household. There are also notes on the birth of her grandson, the future King Henry VIII, on 28 June. A later hand has added a note about Margaret’s own death on 29 June 1509. We love the way Nabil Nayal laid out the jacket so that one side is dominated by the Gothic script of a fine scribe working in the first half of the 15th century, while the other side has the quicker, cursive scripts of the added notes from the late 15th and early 16th century.
Nabil Nayal SS19 outfit and a page from the Tilbury Speech: Harley MS 6798
The manuscript that inspired the most outfits was Harley MS 6798. It records the Tilbury Speech, which Queen Elizabeth I supposedly delivered in 1588 at Tilbury Camp ahead of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. It includes such memorable lines as 'Let tyrants fear!' and 'I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm …' You can read the whole speech here.
Nayal has said he used this manuscript repeatedly in his collection because it ‘was so important for me to remind people of this speech. It's the moment she revealed herself to be a strong, defiant woman who was going to overcome the obstacles she faced.'
Nabil Nayal SS19 coat, that has both a similar design to garments worn in depictions of Elizabeth I's funeral and also reproduces a contemporary image of part of Elizabeth's funeral procession: Add MS 35324
Elizabeth I remained in remarkably good health into old age, but even the most powerful of queens had to contend with mortality. Depressed after the death of her second cousin and chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, Katherine Howard, countess of Nottingham, Elizabeth stopped eating and lost the ability to speak. She died in the early of hours of 24 March 1603 at Richmond Palace in Surrey. Her funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on 28 April. The total cost of her funeral and burial was about £3,000.
Nayal’s collection included a coat inspired by drawings of Elizabeth I’s elaborate funeral procession, now in Add MS 35324. The coat features the part of the manuscript that depicts Elizabeth’s coffin draped in purple velvet, carried by six knights and surrounded by twelve barons, who bore banners displaying her pedigree. Atop the coffin is her funeral effigy, constructed of wax, wood and straw, which in turn was based on her death mask. She wore her parliament robes, with a crown on her head and a sceptre in her hand. We can get a sense of what that effigy looked like from other sources. Between 1605-7 her successor, James I, employed the Frenchman Maximilian Colt to construct Elizabeth a tomb and effigy at a cost of £965. The effigy in white marble was based on her funeral effigy, which survived until the mid-18th-century, when a reconstruction was made (still housed at Westminster Abbey). The original corset worn by the effigy also survives, and was probably one worn by the queen in life.
If you're feeling inspired, the British Library has launched a new Fashion web resource. In collaboration with the British Fashion Council and its Council of Colleges, we hope to encourage design students to use our unique collections.
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