Renaissance Fashion: Women's Clothing in Elizabethan England
The Elizabethan period in costume design refers to that time encompassed by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (from 1558–1603) during the Renaissance. The daughter of King Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, Elizabeth became one of the world's most famous monarchs. The style of clothing and fashions of the Elizabethan era are distinctive and striking, easily recognizable today, and popular with designers of historic costume.
As in the Middle Ages, the fabrics used to create garments of the Elizabethans were wool and linen. Clothing worn by the upper classes also included silk, cotton, and other imported fabrics. Fashions worn by the elite inspired the dress of lower classes and rural women, though the fabric, weave, and embellishments improved with economic status.
The clothing worn by Elizabethans looks heavy and overdone to many of us today. But whether in England during the period was cool and wet as northern Europe shivered in the grip of a mini Ice Age. So the heaviness of Elizabethan fashion was out of necessity, yet is remembered as romantic and beautiful, and still popular as seen at the Renaissance Festivals of modern times.
Elizabethan England: Historical Background
Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn ascended to the throne of England after the death of her half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon). Henry VIII had assumed the role as the leader of the Church in England when the Catholic Pope refused to grant Henry an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. During those difficult times, the idea of freedom of religion was not on anyone's mind. Religion was a state establishment, so the fight was over which religion would be the state religion.
England, at the time, was still basically a feudal society. Most people lived in the country. In Elizabethan family-based culture, the nuclear family, servants, and apprentices lived and worked in close proximity. While women were subservient to men and performed the usual household chores, their work also included the care of livestock and kitchen garden; assistance at harvest; the making of cheese, butter, candles, and soap. Women commonly had basic medical skills, spun wool, and knit.
Employment opportunities included domestic service, laundry, and seamstress work. The wife of a craftsman might assist in the shop, the running of a business, or take over the business if widowed. Women earned money by selling produce, eggs, butter, spun wool, and other items made or produced at home.
The population exploded during Elizabeth's reign despite widespread disease, including several outbursts of plague. Irish troubles, war with Spain, and a growing underclass of unemployed poor added to Elizabeth's challenges. But in a time when women were subservient to men, a woman ruled a great and powerful nation.
Elizabethan Clothing: Textiles
Linen and wool were the most common fabrics used during the Elizabethan era. As in the Middle Ages, people wore linen undergarments next to the skin. Linen, made from the flax plant, is comfortable, cool, and easy to launder. In a time when people rarely washed their clothes, linen could be washed and became softer with use.
- Wool keeps the body warm in cold weather, and cool in warm weather. Wool produces long-lasting fabrics, takes dyes well, and does not absorb moisture.
- Fulled wool, or heavily felted wool is tough and durable. Felted wool, that is wool that is washed to shrink, was often so dense that it did not need hemming as it would not unravel.
- Both wool and linen appeared in finer weaves for the upper classes. Linen, imported from France and the Low Countries, appeared in heavy or finer weaves with Lawn being the finest weave.
- Imported cotton was used to create fabrics and blended with linen to make Fustian.
- For thick, dense fabrics, canvas was made of hemp.
The luxurious fashions depicted in Elizabethan artwork most often reflect the clothing worn by royalty, the nobility, and the elite. The upper classes wore garments made of silk, satin, velvet, damask, and taffeta, in addition to wool and linen. Finer linens were bleached in the sun, embroidered, or block printed. Fashionable embellishments included braiding, borders, embroidery, lace, guarding (ribbon trim), and gems or pearls sewn onto the fabric.
- Leather was used to make shoes, gloves, hats, belts, and men's doublets and breeches.
- Colors came from natural dyes that often faded, so even richly colored garments became muted over time. Brown and gray, cheaper dyes, were the obvious choice of the lower classes. Blue, another somewhat inexpensive dye is associated with servants and apprentices. Blue fades easily, so a light shade was predominant.
- Black, an expensive to make and very fashionable shade, popular in Spain, shows up often in royal portraits of Elizabethan England, especially for men.
- Two shades of red frequently occur in Elizabethan clothing. A russet red, made from the plant called madder created a warm, homey hue, while a brighter crimson red, made from imported dyes was reserved for royalty.
Elizabethan Style: The Layered Look
Undergarments made of linen were easy to wash, and often the only garments that were laundered. Both men and women wore similar undershirts, much like the under tunics of the Middles Ages. Women's under-gowns, or smocks, reached the knee or fell full length.
A kirtle was a long, slightly fitted dress without a defined waistline, a simple garment similar to those worn during the Middle Ages. On top of this, a woman wore a bodice, several layers of petticoats (or skirts), and a cloak.
Layers were needed for comfort in the chilly, damp climate of Elizabethan England.
The Elizabethan Bodice
A bodice is a close-fitting garment for the upper body. Elizabethan bodices were quite stiff, severe, and almost masculine in a shape that presented wide shoulders, and a small waist like an inverted triangle. Some bodices drew into a narrow V shape at the waist as pictured on the right.
Necklines changed over the years. While low necklines were popular at the beginning and toward the end of Elizabeth's reign, necklines were high in the middle years.
Young, unmarried women wore lower bodice necklines. Often, a high necked smock, worn with a low necked bodice, created an interesting contrast between the heavy bodice fabric and the lighter muslin or linen of the smock.
Bodices often featured decorative tabs called pickadills at the waist. Also, with embellishment by rolls or wings at the armholes, the same bodice could appear quite different with detachable sleeves for variety.
The fashionable elite used whalebone (baleen) stiffening, willow wood, or steel in their bodices. A busk was an extra piece used for stiffening and was made from wood, bone, or ivory, and attached by a ribbon at the top. The tiny ribbon often seen today at the top center of a bra is a last reminder of the busk.
The flattened bosom and stiffened upper torso restricted upper body movement, so it was limited to the idle elite. Working women and commoners would have been unable to function with such restriction. Front laced bodices (so popular with Renaissance Fair attendees) were worn by working and common women. Back laced bodices were limited to women with servants. Bodices were fastened by lacing or with hook and eye.
Detachable sleeves added variety to a bodice (as mentioned above). The wide, cuffed trumpet shaped sleeves of the 1540s–1550s gave way to a narrower Spanish style sleeve. A high, wide appearance with slashed upper sleeves evolved int shoulder loops, pads, and the elaborate shoulder rolls of the 1580s.
False sleeves created an elegant style when elongated at the back to drape down to the floor.
The Ruff: An Elizabethan Collar
One of the most distinctive elements of Elizabethan fashion is the exaggerated collar called a ruff.
Early on, a gathered neckline produced a simple ruffle at the neck. Later, a separate piece of detachable ruffle could be tied around the neck. The ruff became more elaborate and eventually took on the gargantuan proportions that framed the face.
In 1565, the addition of starch created the ability to increase the size and height of the ruff. By 1580, ruffs became so massive that they required a wire framework for support. Ruffs were made of fine muslin or lace, or muslin trimmed with lace and often paired with matching cuffs at the wrist.
Late Elizabethan fashions included a falling band, which was a separate, detachable collar made of lace or embroidered linen.
Common women and country women often wore a chin cloth to protect their faces and skin from the sun and wind. They also wore a kerchief over their shoulders.
Elizabethan Skirts and the Farthingale
Elizabethan style demanded a tight upper body paired with a voluminous lower body. A heavy outer skirt split open into an A-line shape in the center, revealed an attractive under-skirt or petticoat. Sometimes the exposed under-skirt or forepart was paired with matching bodice sleeves.
While cool weather created the need to wear several layers of petticoats for warmth, skirt size became an extreme fashion trend.
The Farthingale was the hoop skirt of Renaissance costume. Beginning as a padded roll to extend the width of the top of the skirt, it evolved into a hoop skirt—circular strips of whale bone (baleen), wood, or steel were inserted horizontally into the fabric of an underskirt.
Originating in Spain to create a dome-shaped skirt, a farthingale held skirt fabric away from the legs and offered ease of movement. A lower-class woman might wear a padded roll for fashion as well as convenience.
The wheel farthingale produced the exaggerated, huge skirt pictured at the right.
Skirts often featured hems or borders that could be easily replaced if worn out or soiled.
A belt or 'girdle' functioned as a hanger for carrying items such as purses and bags for the elite and common people of both genders.
Elizabethan Shoes and Footwear
Shoes of the Elizabethan period were generally blunt toed and flat, and made of leather or fabric. Women's dress shoes made of silk, velvet, or brocade were often decorated with embellishments.
Early Elizabethan slip-ons gave way to laced or buckled shoes.
Most shoes of the time were made the same for both feet. After wearing, the leather or fabric molded to the shape of the foot.
Platform or high heeled shoes originated for convenience. Pattens were tied on over shoes that held the foot up off the ground, protecting the shoe from dirt, mud, or debris. Similarly, chopines made of cork or wood lifted the foot up away from debris or dirt in workplaces, on roads, or in the street.
The Renaissance introduced the wearing of high heels for vanity and style. Mary Tudor (1/2 sister of Queen Elizabeth) wore high heels to improve her stature and appear more regal.
Elizabethan Hair, Hats, and Face
Women wore their hair long when young and unmarried, often adding headbands or circlets of fresh flowers. After marriage, women pinned up and covered their hair. Fashionable women added hair extensions, golden chains, pearls, or feathers int elaborately braided or twisted hairstyles.
A coif was a close-fitting cap made of linen, sometimes referred to as a Mary Stuart cap (after Mary Queen of Scots) who wore one in a famous portrait. A Woman might wear a hat on top of a coif.
Early Elizabethan women wore a French hood, a fabric bonnet shaped with wires, a style introduced to England by Elizabeth's mother, Ann Boleyn. The half-moon or crescent-shaped style was a glorified head-band with a veil attached at the rear.
The Attifet, similar to the French hood, dipped in the center to create a heart shape, often decorated with the addition of lace.
A caul was an attractive hair net or snood, worn simply or festooned with decorations such as pearls or beads.
Between 1568–1574, Sumptuary laws (an old fashioned method of keeping people in their place by regulating attire) required all women, unless gentlewomen, the wives of nobility, to cover their hair.
A kercher or kerchief, a triangular piece of muslin tied around the head and was worn under a hat.
Women also wore pillbox hats, flat hats (like a beret), and small brimmed hats similar to men's hats.
The ideal Elizabethan face was pale and sometimes highlighted by the application of cosmetics—rouge for the cheeks and a bit of color on the lips. Occasionally, eyelids were tinted. Cosmetics were used by the fashion elite and were lead-based products.
Perfume was popular for both men and women and almost necessary at a time when bathing was rare.
For Further Reading
Costume and Styles: The Evolution of Fashion From Early Egypt to the Present by Henny Harald Hansen: E.P. Dutton & Co.
Daily Life in Elizabethan England, by Jeffrey L. Singman; Greenwood Press
English Costume in the Age of Elizabeth by Iris Brooke
Elizabethan Costuming for the Years 1550 - 1580 by Janet Winter
Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; edited by Valerie Steele: Scribner Library
Encyclopedia of the Renaissance; Scribners
For more reading on Queen Elizabeth's fashions, check outhttp://www.elizabethancostume.net/influence.html
Questions & Answers
How were cosmetics made in Elizabethan England? What were they made of? Why did people think having a pale face was a trend of some kind
A pale face indicated high status. Women who worked outdoors on farms were exposed to the sun which tans the skin. The pale face shows that a woman spends her time indoors or protected from sun and wind. The thick makeup was also supposed to hide the effects of aging. Ceruse was a mixture of white lead and vinegar used as face makeup that made a woman look very white. A combination of egg white and talcum powder was also popular. Cheeks and lips were reddened with madder. Kohl was used as eyeliner. Belladonna eye drops made eyes look bright (it's poison). Women also plucked their eyebrows as thin, arching eyebrows were seen as beautiful.Helpful 11
Were there any strict rules about clothing in Elizabethan England?
Elizabeth I enacted the Proclamation Against Excess in 1597. The law was supposed to curb excessive spending on luxury goods. There was a fear that the lower classes, particularly the merchant classes were dressing above their station. Also, many luxurious garments were made of imported fabrics and the government wanted to make sure the English textile industry did not suffer.
The law allowed certain people to wear specific types of clothes. The most extravagant fabrics such as purple satin and gold embroidered cloth were reserved for royalty. Anyone of a status lower than a knight could not wear velvet outer garments. A knight's eldest son was allowed to wear a velvet doublet but his younger brothers could not.
For more information, Google Elizabeth I's Proclamation Against Excess 1597.Helpful 2
© 2011 Dolores Monet