Clothing in Elizabethan England

Clothing in Elizabethan England

  • Article by: Liza Picard
  • Themes: Elizabethan England, Shakespeare’s life and world
  • Published: 15 Mar 2016
Liza Picard describes the laws, trends and standards of hygiene that determined who wore what in Elizabethan England.

Status symbols

Cloth of gold and silver, tinselled satin, woollen cloth embroidered with gold and silver, sables and other furs… the clothes worn by the rich make any fashionista’s mouth water. But that list was taken from one of a series of Proclamations against 'excess of apparel'. Who was allowed to wear what was supposed to be strictly controlled. It was essential that the Queen’s subjects should know their place, and dress accordingly, so that no one could be misled.

The 1597 Proclamation went into minute detail. Only earls could wear cloth of gold, or purple silk. No one under the degree of knight was allowed silk ‘netherstocks’ (long stockings) or velvet outer garments. A knight’s eldest son could wear velvet doublets and hose, but his younger brothers couldn’t. A baron’s eldest son’s wife could wear gold or silver lace, forbidden to women below her in the pecking order.

Proclamation against Excess of Apparel by Queen Elizabeth I

Proclamation against Excess of Apparel by Queen Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I issued numerous proclamations about clothing. This edict, from 1574, details the colours and fabrics people could wear according to their social rank. Only barons and others of high degree could wear 'golde' or 'tinseld sattern'.

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Usage terms: Public Domain

Furs in bewildering variety were similarly controlled. Elizabeth and her favourite the Earl of Leicester enjoyed the softness of sables. She had hers from an unexpected source – Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of Russia, who sent them, as well as two ermine gowns, with a proposal of marriage. She kept the furs but refused the proposal.

Proclamations do not always change human behaviour. Great offence was caused by prostitutes who dared to flaunt themselves in rich garments. Young apprentices who were supposed to dress in modest blue were apt to burst out in colours, such as popinjay blue or lusty-gallant red. ‘Great ruffs’ and over-long swords were regularly forbidden, too, and as regularly worn.

Rapier, c. 1600

Rapier, c. 1600

Swords, such as this ornate rapier, were an important part of male dress.

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Ruffs

Ruffs were worn by both sexes, by old and young, courtiers and working people. They began as a simple frill at the neck of a full-cut shirt, where it was gathered into a neck band. They culminated in the astonishing structures worn by Elizabeth in her state portraits. At first they sagged limply round the neck, until someone hit on the idea of starching them – an art in which the Dutch excelled. Successive restorers of portraits have made all the ruffs in ancestral portraits a uniform white, but in fact they were tinted pink or yellow, much more becoming. Blue seems to have been reserved for prostitutes.

Doctor Lopez is accused of poisoning Elizabeth I

Doctor Lopez is accused of poisoning Elizabeth I

This illustration, from a 1627 book recounting an Elizabethan scandal, shows two men wearing large ruffs.

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Usage terms: Public Domain

Portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke, 1617

Portrait of William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke

Pembroke, a favourite at King James’s court, wears a handsome white ruff.

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Usage terms: Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, 2016 / Bridgeman Images

Women’s dress

Working women wore fitted bodices and long full skirts. For the more fashionable, the bodice was stiffened to lie flat across the bosom, and skirts were often divided in front to show an underskirt. The edges of the skirt could be adorned with jewelled borders. A fashionable Elizabethan woman’s wardrobe was complex. Sleeves, bodice, ruff, skirt, underskirt – all came as separate pieces which were held in place by pins, and could be reassembled with other elements to look quite different. The Queen was always pleased to accept presents of valuable garments, such as a pair of sleeves embroidered with pearls, or a ruff with matching cuffs.

Photograph of Mark Rylance in Olivia costume in Shakespeare's Globe's production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Photograph of Mark Rylance in Olivia costume in Shakespeare's Globe's production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Mark Rylance dresses for the role of Olivia, showing the many parts of an Elizabethan woman’s outfit.

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Portrait of Mary Fitton, c. 1595

Portrait of Mary Fitton, c. 1595

This fashionable lady was soon to become a maid of honour at Elizabeth I’s court. Each piece of her complex outfit – the sleeves, bodice, ruff and skirt – was a separate bit of clothing.

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Skirts were held out on a frame or ‘farthingale’. If you couldn’t afford a farthingale, a ‘bum roll’ tied round your waist under the skirt would do almost as well.

Elizabeth’s portraits show her wearing a staggering amount of jewellery, especially pearls. She bought the six ropes of pearls that had belonged to Mary Queen of Scots. New ones were coming in by the chestful from the New World, and needed only boring and polishing to be ready to wear. Diamonds needed careful cutting, and were never so prized. Other stones might be worn as charms. Sapphires and unicorn’s horn averted the plague, coral was useful against witchcraft. A bezoar protected against poison, but was hardly attractive; the best came from the intestines of Persian goats.

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1583

Sieve Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, c.1583

Queen Elizabeth in a lavish gown with ruff and jewellery.

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One essential garment for the English climate had not yet been invented: the raincoat. A starched ruff would collapse if it got wet. If you were going to a party you would carry your ruff – also known as a ‘band’ – in a bandbox, and get your maid to pin it on when you got there. A hooded cloak would keep off the worst, but unless it had been made colour-fast by that elusive alum, you risked arriving in a puddle of leaking dye.

Men’s dress

‘Except it were a dog in a doublet you shall not see any so disguised as are my countrymen of England’, wrote a contemporary historian, and indeed the Elizabethan era saw men’s clothes depart more widely from their physique than in any other time. At least if you had good legs – and they were important – you could show them off up to crotch level. Next to your skin, a white linen shirt, which might support your ruff unless it had become a separate item by then.

Photograph of Michael Brown as Viola/Cesario and Rhys Meredith as Sebastian in Shakespeare's Globe production of Twelfth Night, 2002

Photograph of Sebastian and Cesario - looking remarkably similar due to makeup and wigs

Designer Jenny Tiramani took inspiration from contemporary portraits to create costumes that resembled fashions for young men in c. 1600.

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Portrait of a young man among roses by Nicholas Hilliard, c. 1587

Portrait of young man among roses

If you had good legs, you could show them off up to crotch level.

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There were extreme fashions which surely were not always followed by every man, and did not always last long. Sleeves were swollen far beyond the shoulder line, kept that shape by mountains of stiffening and padding (‘bombast’). The doublet was cut tight across the chest, swelling out at diaphragm level and back again, making an ugly – to our eyes – ‘peasecod’ shape, unrelated to the natural body.

The doublet had a skirt, of varying length, under which were ties (‘points’), or hooks, onto which the breeches were tied or hooked. The breeches of a working man were baggy and knee-length, like old-fashioned plus fours. The fashionable Elizabethan could opt for short ‘hose’ (breeches), at groin level: or longer ones covering his thighs, or even down to knee level. But they were all padded, so that they looked like melons or marrows, and made it difficult to walk gracefully, let alone dance. That was not all; they were ‘paned’ – cut into narrow panels, joined at the waist and hem, with a coloured lining showing in the spaces between the panes. The great days of the codpiece were declining, giving way to a modest buttoned or lace-up opening; but they were still useful as somewhere to keep pins – they were heavily padded – or your purse, and maybe a refreshing orange or two. Both doublet and hose were decorated by ‘pinking’: slits cut in the fabric, in a pattern, with a differently coloured lining pulled through the slits in little puffs.

The Life of a Satirical Puppy Called Nim

The Life of a Satirical Puppy Called Nim

17th-century male fashion: in this satire, a young dandy called Nim shows off his new suit of clothes.

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Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, c. 1600

Portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, c. 1600

The Earl of Southampton (1573–1624) was well-known for his showy, expensive clothes. In this painting, he wears a silk doublet, hose, coloured garters and embroidered gloves.

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Usage terms: NPG L114
Private collection; on loan to the National Portrait Gallery, London

The ensemble was completed by a hat or cap with a feather or a jewel, and a cloak, varying from a useless waist level to a practical full length.

Personal hygiene

For a modern lavatory, read ‘close stool’: a padded box with a hole in it, the lid making a comfortable back. For lavatory paper, read ‘old linen rags’.

Former ages were rarely keen on washing. A deodorant could be made from camomile, wormwood and alum, which may have worked. (Alum is an ingredient in most modern deodorants.) But how often was it used? An advice book of 1547 suggests that after you’ve got out of bed and stretched, and coughed, and spat, and defecated, and put your breeches on, ‘comb your head… and wash your hands and wrists, your face and eyes and your teeth with cold water’ – and that was that. A really fastidious person might clean her teeth with burned rosemary wood, to ‘make the teeth white and flee (drive out) the worms in them’, which as everyone knew caused holes and toothache.

Cosmetics

Ceruse, a thick white toxic paste containing mercury, gave a smooth complexion until it melted and turned grey, shiny and smelly. Its pallor could be corrected by a round dab of vermilion on the cheeks. The Queen relied increasingly on ceruse.

© Liza Picard

  • Liza Picard
  • Liza Picard researches and writes about the history of London. She spent many years working in the office of the Solicitor of the Inland Revenue and lived in Gray’s Inn and Hackney, before retiring to live in Oxford.