The Tudor / Elizabethan Era (1485 - 1603)

Hardwick New Hall, England. Photo: Epochs of Fashion
Hardwick New Hall, England. Photo: Epochs of Fashion

The Royal House of was a royal Welsh dynasty which had risen during the War of the Roses and ruled the Kingdom of England and Ireland from 1485 to 1603. Its symbol is the famous Tudor Rose, the conjoined roses of the Houses of York and Lancaster. Henry II defeated Richard III in 1485 and lifted the Tudors onto the throne where they remained over the reigns of his son Henry VIII, Edward VII (Jane Seymour's son), Lady Jane Grey, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Elizabeth lived from 1533 to 1603 and was the last of the Tudor sovereigns. She succeeded to the throne after the death of her half-sister (Bloody) Mary I.

England’s fortunes changed dramatically over the course of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII had to work extremely hard to establish his rule given that he was an invader who had usurped the throne. Henry VIII left the state coffers very empty due to his taste for lavish courts. The time of his children was marked by religious tension, destabilisation, and threats from other countries such as Spain with its Armada. Yet Elizabeth I (with the help of shrewd and unscrupulous advisors, spy-masters and naval adventurers) kept a firm hand on the country and grew the kingdom's prosperity through, among other ventures, colonial activity in the Americas.

Detail from: Elizabeth I when a Princess, c.1546, Flemish School, Royal Collection. Photo: Epochs of Fashion
Detail from: Elizabeth I when a Princess, c.1546, Flemish School, Royal Collection. Photo: Epochs of Fashion

The Tudor/Elizabethan society was a class society and there were strict regulations and laws laying down for everybody what they could wear. Nonetheless, this by no means resulted in everybody of a certain rank looking the same. Clothing is very complex and personal and people made little attempts at stretching what they were allowed to wear, adding their own personal touches and reflecting their personalities and fortunes.

Fabrics were made from natural fibres (linen, wool, silk) which were blended and woven into a large variety of different cloths. An extremely luxurious material was cloth of silver or gold. Silk threads (already expensive in themselves) are wrapped with hair-fine wires of gold or silver and then woven into cloth. To drive the luxury to extremes, the cloth is sometimes woven not to be smooth but to have a toweling-like texture with little loops on the surface. This uses up even more thread and is a most ostentatious demonstration of luxury and nobility.

Fur and lace were popular, too. Wealthy and noble persons had, for instance, cloaks and over-sleeves lined and trimmed with furs. Lace could be the most expensive part of the whole attire, even more luxurious than jewels. This is due the cost of importing the fine textiles and the hours and hours of work that went into their making.


© Epochs of Fashion
© Epochs of Fashion

Women of all classes wore long gowns which reached at least to the ankles. The classic Tudor styles which are discussed in the following, it must be noted, are all worn by upper-class women. Over the course of the Tudor era, women's dresses changed quite significantly.


During the reign of Henry VII from 1485 until 1509, the style was still quite medieval. Gowns already often have a square necklace but they are still very high-cut and there is a strong pronunciation of the T-shape created by the central front seam and the square necklace. Sleeves are tight-ish and skirts are very full but do not yet have the strong cone shape of Henry VIII's day.


Portrait of Jane Seymour annotated with dress terminology (gable hood, linen shift, pomander chain)  Epochs of Fashion
© Epochs of Fashion

During the time of Henry VIII, fashion became a lot more 'Renaissance' which means sculptural, geometric and mathematical. The fluidity of the Henry VII gown changes into visible cone shapes. The skirt flares, the sleeves turn very wide, the neckline gets lower and the bodice is more strongly shaped.

From the waist downwards the silhouette is dominated by a full skirt. This was first achieved by the so-called bum roll, a padded roll under the skirts that was tied around the waist. Later, the hoop skirt, the farthingale, became popular. An invention of the Spanish fashion, this is a construction made of e.g. wood and stiff fabric to give the skirt a particular form. The farthingale was either cone-shaped and then called Spanish farthingale or in the coming up fashion like a cylinder (French or wheel farthingale; beginning at the waist with a great width and reaching until the feet; like a cylinder). The silhouette is essentially dominated by two cones: shoulders ↔ waist and waist ↔ hem.

© Epochs of Fashion
© Epochs of Fashion

Stays were not yet worn in either Henry's days Instead, an undergarment called kirtle with a stiffened upper part (buckram,  a tough type of linen, and boning) was worn under the visible dress and shaped the torso. They only became a common garment towards the end of the 16th century, under Elizabeth I. They were made from a buckram (tough linen) bodice inlaid with whalebone. These stays had had a busk down the front, made from wood or bone and sometimes decoratively carved and given as a present of love. It have the stays extra firmness and forced the wearer to have good posture.


While these elaborate dresses were not washed often (fabrics like velvet, brocade and satin are very fragile and rough cleaning with lye soap would destroy them), and instead aired and beaten, the shift was cleaned very regularly. Besides, people did bathe and kept themselves clean, contrary to popular belief.


Elizabeth I, Hardwick Portrait. Photo: Epochs of Fashion - fashion tudor elizabethan dress
Elizabeth I, Hardwick Portrait, c. 1599. Photo: Epochs of Fashion

When Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth begun her reign, fashion was to change dramatically over the ensuing decades.

What sets the fashion of Henry VIII's age apart from Elizabeth's is:


- gowns normally have a straight waistline, not a pointed one

- no ruffs yet

- Tudor sleeves usually consist of two layers, the outer one is wide and triangular shaped and buttoned or tied into it is the lower "undersleeve".



In this famous portrait, Queen Elizabeth wears a tight bodice and under it a pair of stays and she has also donned the relatively new French (or: wheel) farthingale. This portrait dates from c. 1592.

When studying portraits, it is always crucial to remember that portraits are modes of representation with an agenda. In this case, this is a painting of a queen who used symbolism for maximum effect and carefully controlled and manipulated her public image. Therefore, we cannot take this portrait at face value. Nonetheless, it serves to illustrate the basics of the fashion of Elizabeth's later years and that is the wheel farthingale style and the cannon sleeves. Elizabeth's sleeves are puffed and cone-shaped (called cannon sleeves), getting tighter from the shoulder to the wrists.

 Her stomacher appears incredibly long and pointy but that that is partly due to foreshortening when reproducing a three-dimensional artefact two-dimensionally.

Elzabeth's dress is rich in ornament. On the second-left pleat of the silk skirt at the hem we can see a pansy, a favourite flower of Elizabeth I. The pansy stands symbolical for "thoughts", other popular motifs were i.e. clasped hands (friendship) and a blazing heart (love). Her dress of black silk is over and over encrusted with pearls which stood for virginity, purity and loving god (just what Elizabeth wanted to be seen as). It is likely that this dress never existed like this but was given her by the artist.

The round fan in her hand is made of ostrich feathers, which as an exotic bird demonstrates wealth and colonial activity.


Ruffs were a novelty of Elizabeth I's age. Huge amounts of lace were necessary and its maintenance difficult. The collars frequently had to be dyed, starched and there even existed special appliances to iron them. To keep them in place, supports made of wire were used. The Elizabethan ruff runs in a circle around the head. Another type of collar is the Medici collar, a fan-shaped collar with a V-opening in the front. There is a slight variant of the Medici collar: sometimes it did not go all around the neck but just in a semi-circle along the neckline of the dress. The ruffs in Elizabeth's time were sometimes heart-shaped, looked like wings and made of gauze what can be seen in several portraits of her.


Elizabeth I in the late 1590s (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, flickr, picture by Lisby)
Elizabeth I in the late 1590s. She holds richly embroidered gloves in her hands (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, flickr, picture by Lisby)


The Elizabethan glove fashion is extraordinary and full of interesting facts. There were two types of gloves: plain gloves for everyday and richly embroidered gloves that are often visible in paintings of those days. They look like consisting of two sections: the normal glove until the wrist and from the wrist on a trapezium shaped highly ornamented section. This second section is called gauntlet (pl. gauntlets) although this term is sometimes used for the whole glove. Gauntlets are open on the inner edge of the wrist/hand; either completely or conjoint by straps.


The gauntlets are embroidered and trimmed with lace. The stitching is often of the highest quality with numerous different embroidery stitches and colourful silk and silver and gold metal threads. Plenty of gauntlets are ornamented with animals which had symbolic meanings. Furthermore, seed pearls were used and occasionally even gems. Gloves of this type were owned by the wealthy and high class society (both men and women) as they were very expensive and only worn for special occasions. Looking at those gloves, you notice that they often have very long fingers – longer than actually necessary (or biologically possible). This showed that its wearer was wealthy and had not to work where the over-long fingers would hinder. Gloves were made of a coarse leather called doeskin. For the more soft and tender ones, sheep, goat or kid skin was used. Gloves used to be scented with perfume as none of the visible garments was often washed (as there was nothing like mild detergent) and unwanted smells needed to be covered. 


Shoes of the female nobility were normally hidden under the skirts. Fortunately, there are a few paintings which let us have a look at Tudor/Elizabethan footwear. Queen Elizabeth I was proud of her small and slender feet and wore her skirts only ankle-long so everybody could admire them, but also (probably) Lucy, Countess of Bedford reveals her ankles. What we can see in those pictures are ballet flats or slippers which taper but have squared toes. Such shoes could be decorated with pearls, gems and stitching (like those of the Queen) or plain (like the ones of the Countess). The heel that Caterina de'Medici had brought to France (see Renaissance) was still fashionable, but so very high. Boots made of soft leather were worn for outdoor activities like riding and hunting. Normally shoes had thin leather soles. The upper layers were silk, taffeta, velvet or leather, too.

Before leaving the house wooden pattens or Chopines were put over the shoes to protect them from mud. Those protectors had thick soles of wood or cork; sometimes just an inch but others were quite high. To fix them on the shoe a strap for the forefoot and ribbons to tie over the dorsum of the foot were used.



Sketch of Anne Boleyn wearing a Gable Hood by Hans Holbein (flickr, picture by Lisby). Tudor Elizabethan Fashion, Henry VIII, wives, dress, gown
Sketch of Anne Boleyn wearing a Gable Hood by Hans Holbein (flickr, picture by Lisby)


The headpieces and hairstyles were frequently not less geometric and stiff than the dresses and very detailed. Headdresses had not only an adorning function but they should help protecting the face from the sun to spare the pale skin and to cover the hair demurely. There were various types of headpieces during this Period, succeeding each other or being in vogue alongside. Beneath all kinds of hoods and hats and as a domestic headpiece, women wore the coif. This tight-fitting white cap, made of linen and tied under the chin, was often adorned with blackwork and lace. In the early Tudor period, women wore the gable hood. Its form looks like the walls of a house with a gable roof, therefore the name. This hood reached to the chin or even to the shoulders. With its long fabric flowing over the back it covered the hair completely. The gable was often decorated with white pearls, trimming and embroidery.


Queen Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, was educated at court in France attending Queen Claude and allegedly introduced the French hood to the English court after her return, replacing the heavy gable hood in the 1520s. This cannot be confirmed by scholarship, however. The French hood was worn at the back of the head revealing a part of the hair. It ran around the forehead as a half-moon, reaching to the chin on either side.

A variation of the French hood, called flat hood, became fashionable with Mary I when she became Queen in 1544. It is still similar to the French hood yet not so round and convex any more.



Mary Fitzalan wearing a FLAT HOOD, 1565 (flickr, picture by Lisby)
Mary Fitzalan wearing a FLAT HOOD, 1565 (flickr, picture by Lisby)

The atifet is another variant of the French hood. It is similar but has a heart-shaped crescent. Mary Queen of Scots wore the atifet in white trimmed with lace.


Unmarried girls could wear their hair loose; it is recorded, however, that Henry VIII's wife Anne Boleyn's hair flew loosely over her back when she was on her way to her coronation at Westminster. Married women were normally not allowed to do so; with the exception of the French hood that revealed the front hair. Unmarried working-class women wore their hair loose or gathered with ribbons, married ones wore a cap. Queen Elizabeth's heart-shaped hairstyles, decorated with pearls, are very famous. It was not her own hair, though. She helped herself with wigs (of which she owned many with different hairstyles) to conceal her thin, sparse hair. Other paintings show noblewomen with the hair done up over the head, either in curls or straight.In this epoch, the hairstyles are frequently refined by diadems, tiaras and other adornments.


Queen Elizabeth I in very old age (ca. 1600; flickr, picture by Lisby)
Queen Elizabeth I in very old age (ca. 1600; flickr, picture by Lisby)


Looking at portraits of that time it seems like pearls were the absolute latest trend; worn as earrings, in the hair, in several rows around the neck and as embroidery on the clothing. Pearl necklaces appear in the paintings in any variation from short to waist-long and in several rows. I cannot name a portrait of a lady of those days without a single pearl being shown. In the 15th and 16th century, pearls came from saltwater oysters in India or Arabia. The diving for those wild pearls was laborious and dangerous.


Gemstones and precious stones were likewise popular in any kind of jewellery. They were not only fashionable and luxurious but  people attributed to them various virtues and meanings: sapphires to protect against poison and emerald green denoting love and spring. The so called „marriage pendant“, which you can read more about in the Renaissance chapter, was still very much worn. Very popular was also personalised jewellery like e.g. an element of the families´ coat of arms as brooch or wearing the initials as adornment - just think of Anne Boleyn's famous "B"-necklace!
An invaluable source of information on 16th and 17th century jewellery is the Cheapside Hoard. It was found in 1912 underneath a cellar floor in London and
features more than 400 exquisite pieces.


Elizabeth I is famous for her extreme use of cosmetics and in films she is generally portrayed as utterly white-faced with red cheeks in later life. Cosmetics were indeed very popular and Elizabeth, as court records and gifts show, was rather fond of make-up and scented waters. She contracted smallpox in her early reign and probably survived this terrible illness with facial scars. 
Make-up was often made of metallic powders, chiefly from lead. Ceruse, as it was called, was an incredibly shiny, viscous paste that looks beautifully especially in candlelight (scientists have recreated and tested it in lab conditions). Sadly, as we know and as the Tudors already knew, lead is poisonous and enters the system through the skin. 
The Tudors were well aware of the importance of dental hygiene which was especially crucial as the newly introduced cane sugar, stemming from colonial expansion, caused an increase in tooth decay. People used mouth rinses (often with herbs that have actual antibacterial qualities) and tooth polishes made from chalk, vegetable powders and other mildly abrasive substances. Scented waters were extremely popular, such as rose water but also essences of foreign spices like myrrh. 


  • Butterick 5114 (dress)
  • Butterick 5440 (dress)
  • McCall's 2242 (Lady's and maidservant's outfit)
  • McCall's 2798 (dress)
  • McCall's 4082 (dress)
  • McCall's Sewing Pattern 3282
  • Simplicity 2589 (gown, French Hood, 2 kinds of sleeves)
  • Simplicity 2621 (undergarments including corset and hoop-skirt)
  • Simplicity 3782 (1 gown, 1 mantle dress)
  • Simplicity 4508 (2 dresses with different sleeves)
  • Simplicity 8881 (Elizabethan style dress)
  • Simplicity 9832 (dress with Medici ruff)
  • Simplicity 9929 (Elizabethan dress with Gable Hood, a Renaissance dress and a medieval gown)
  • Period Patterns No 56


- Please note that this list does claim no completeness and does not operate as advertisement. It was merely composed for informative purposes. Furthermore, no valuation of the patterns is implied or intended -


© Epochs of Fashion