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Joyce's Best Dress

Joyce Leveson died in the 1570s, and has lain in silence for centuries in St. Peter’s Church in Wolverhampton, along with her husband, John.

The passage of time has not been altogether kind to Joyce’s alabaster effigy, which rests on top of an elaborate tomb, the sides of which show their children and family coats of arms. Her face is worn smooth, so her features reveal little of what she may have looked like in life, although it is by no means certain that an accurate portrait was ever intended; the grandeur of her and her husband’s monument, with its richly detailed carving, presents an image of wealth and family prestige with little need of explanation.

Her dress is an excellent example of a typical late Tudor costume, consisting of a gown with a close-fitting bodice over an under gown known as a kirtle. Bands of what may be decorative braid or a contrasting fabric such as velvet decorate the bodice, the gown possibly being made of a high quality finely woven wool, which falls open below the waist. It can be seen that it was possible to fasten the gown together all the way up from hem to neck if required, as there are ties along each skirt edge, and a chain girdle of heavy angular links gives shape to the silhouette. There is something suspended from this, although it is no longer to make out what it might be, possibly a prayer book or pomander.

The gown has short puffed sleeves, and the tight sleeve beneath may either belong to the kirtle or be a separate pair, laced or pinned on to provide a fashionable contrast to what may well have been a black or dark coloured gown. They also are tied together with small one-sided looped bows.

Joyce has her gown open at the neck in order to display her finely crimped chemise and gold chain necklace, and is topped by a closely gathered ruff, a tribute to the launderess’s skill with starch and a goffering iron. It is closely ruffled under her chin, and close examination shows that it extends all around her neck, requiring her to pay careful attention to her posture at all times.

Her headdress is a later variation of the French hood, ornamented simply with a row of beads over neatly centre-parted hair, and it is a nice touch that the sculptor, one Robert Royley of Burton on Trent, has depicted the veil at the back in a neatly folded fashion to prevent its smooth folds becoming creased.

The heavy folds of her gown appear to not conform to the laws of gravity, and hang resolutely parallel.

St. Peter’s is open during the day, and many people come and go here, for reasons of their own. I hope they notice the quiet lady in the corner, still wearing her best dress.

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