Fashionista Friday – the Capel Sisters

Fashionista Friday – the Capel Sisters

Sisters Capel

Sir Peter Lely, Mary Capel (1630-1715), Later Duchess of Beaufort, and Her Sister Elizabeth (1633-1678), Countess of Carnarvon, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Countess of Carnarvon is so fashion-forward she has an iPad…

I kid!

But the sisters Capel certainly do look picture-perfect in this mid-seventeenth century portrait, don’t they?  On the left, Mary Capel, later the Duchess of Beaufort, wears a chocolate-brown satin gown over a white shift with voluminous sleeves.  On the right, Elizabeth Capel, later the Countess of Carverdon, wears a similar dress in a gold hue.  Both are draped in additional yardages of silk.  Their hair is pulled back on top with curls falling to their shoulders, a look in vogue at the time.  Very little adornment is worn, save for a single pearl choker on Mary.

Both women are dressed in the height of fashion—but it is an invented fashion for portraiture.  In the second part of the century, this mode of deshabille in portraiture stemmed partly from a Restoration ideal of women’s sensuality.  The breast was the premier erogenous zone of the time: note the low bodice and wide-set shoulder straps that show off their chests.  Their red lips and flushed cheeks are additional symbols of sensuality.  This deliberate look of undress emphasized the softness, femininity, and therefore, power, of the Capel sisters.

For reference, here is a typical dress from circa 1660.  Note the wide neckline but a more modest coverage of the bosom.

silver tissue-8_v_Variation_1

Silver tissue dress, ca. 1660, silver tissue trimmed with cream parchment lace, Fashion Museum of Bath.

In the beginning of this fashion, most ladies chose to be painted in a dressing gown unsuitable for public wear but cleverly decorated with closures down the bodice front.


Sir Peter Lely, Elizabeth Capel, Countess of Carnarvon.

Swags draped across the body reminiscent of Classical looks were also popular.


Sir Peter Lely, Portrait of a Lady, ca. 1665. oil on canvas,
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Sometimes the “gowns” worn were nothing more than fabric carefully pinned to imitate a real dress, as on the portrait of Queen Mary II by Peter Lely.

NPG 6214; Queen Mary II by Sir Peter Lely

Sir Peter Lely, Queen Mary II, 1677, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery.

As the trend continued, the look became more and risqué.


Sir Peter Lely, Louise de Kerouelle, ca. 1671.

Until finally those false dresses couldn’t hold themselves up any longer and fell off the shoulders.


Sir Peter Lely, Eleanor Gwyne, ca. 1670.

Clearly, respectable women didn’t walk around half-naked.  There was a distinction between formal and intimate wear, and it was truly a mark of prestige to have a portrait taken in so private a manner.

But what of that iPad-looking thing?


It seems like the sisters were noticed for their accomplishments as well as their beauty, power, and sensuality.  Mary points to a sprig of greens; she was an avid botanist.  Elizabeth, an artist, holds up one of her own paintings, a study of a tulip, with her name signed under a coronet.  One of her works still exists today, a still life in the Royal Collection.

Baetjer, Katharine. “British Portraits: In The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, v. 57, no. 1 (Summer, 1999).
Ribeiro, Aileen.  The Gallery of Fashion.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
“Sir Peter Lely (Pieter van der Faes): Mary Capel (1630-1715), Later Duchess of Beaufort, and Her Sister Elizabeth (1633-1678), Countess of Carnarvon (39.65.3)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2006) (accessed December 6, 2012).
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