The Royal House of was a royal Welsh lineage/dynasty which had risen during the War of the Roses and ruled the Kingdom of England and Ireland from 1485 to 1603 when the line failed with the death
of Elizabeth I. Its symbol is the famous “Tudor Rose“, the conjoined roses of the Houses of York and Lancaster.
The Elizabethan Era was named after Queen Elizabeth, “The Virgin Queen“ or „Gloriana“, the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn (who was beheaded in 1536). Elizabeth lived from 1533 to 1603 and was the last of the five members of the Tudor dynasty who were sovereigns. The Protestant became Queen in 1558 after the death of her half-sister (Bloody) Mary I, a devout, even fanatical Catholic. When Elizabeth became Queen, she was the head of a poor, by religious conflicts destroyed country, at war with France and without a sound economy or a standing Army. During her reign, she changed all for the better and a time of peace, after the Armada against the Spanish under Philip II (widower of Mary I) was defeated, and wealth begun. It was also a time of great innovation and progress and thus called “the Golden Age“. Elizabeth reestablished the English Church (which had been established by Henry VIII and then forced back again during the reign of the Catholic Mary) and she supported especially the arts and the theatre.
The Tudor/Elizabethan society was a class society and there were strict regulations and laws laying down for everybody what they could wear. Jewellery like gold rings, fabrics like silk and satin, colours, fur, trimming and other luxury goods were strictly constrained to prevent people from over-spending and to keep the class structure intact.
Fashionable were noble fabrics such as silk, brocade, damask, satin, taffeta and velvets; either monochrome or with geometrical patterns. Crimson was used by the most wealthy. Other luxurious materials were cloth of silver or gold. A version of these, worn in this epoch, is cloth of silver tissued with gold. This is cloth of silver with small loops of gold threat that are elevated above the fabric surface – a noble material as a great deal of gold threat is needed.
As only very few persons know of these regulations today, feel free to choose fabric, colour and embroidery according to your taste. People loved colourful clothing!
In Spain, however, where the origin of that fashion was, the most fashionable was black and fashion was plainer. The colour of the clothing gave information about the social status and the wealth as the brightest colours were the most expensive. Purple dye, for example, was extracted from an insect or the purple dye murex. It is obvious that a lot was needed to dye a whole dress or coat. Furthermore, colours were attributed with symbolical meanings, white stands for purity, black for darkness and sorrow but also for constancy, red for power and mercy, yellow (the colour of the sun) for warmth and green as the colour of nature for spring and youth. White and green, symbolizing spring were the colours of the Tudors and Elizabeth I was in her later years very fond of contrasting and stunning garments in black and white. Yet, the personal choice of colours was also simply due to preferences and tastes.
Fur and lace were popular, too. Wealthy and noble persons had for instance cloaks and over-sleeves lined with or made of fur. Lace and braid was usually used along the squarecut/crescent necklines and often also on the bodices and along the hems of the over-skirts. 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.
Women of all classes wore long gowns which reached at least to the ankles. The well-heeled (in the truest sense of the word; see Shoes below) ladies' dresses were highly decorated and colourful. A slim waist was considered beautiful and was desired by both women and men. In most cases, the dresses consisted visually of two pieces: a skirt and over it the dress (open from the waist downwards like a coat).
Stays were not yet worn in Henry VIII's time. Instead, a kirtle with a stiffened upper part (buckram, a tough type of linen, and boning) was worn under the visible dress and formed the torso. Towards the end of the 16th century when stays came into fashion, they were made similarly to the kirtle bodice, with buckram and boning as well. Usually, they had a busk down the front, made from wood or bone and sometimes decoratively carved and given as a present of love.
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 reason for this was that the Upper Class was influenced by the renaissance and had pleasure in geometric elements like the circle and the cone in fashion. The hips used to be accented not only by the hoop-skirt but also by the bum roll, a buckram or linen tube filled with padding and bound around the hips to make waist look smaller in contrast.
The silhouette is dominated by two cones: shoulders ↔ waist and waist ↔ hem. This stylization concealed every natural shape of the body. Frequently, a belt is worn around the waist which is both embellishing anduseful: these gem studded belts usually had a pomander attached to them which diffuses pleasant scents.
An important element is the embroidery, especially geometrical patterns. Every accomplished young lady learned embroidery. Embroidery with
pearls can often be seen in portraits and silk and metal thread for stitching, too. Apparently fashionable were the sleeves with slashes in the exterior layer through which the garment beneath
was visible. To increase this effect, the fabric beneath was pulled slightly through the slits. In some portraits the slits are clung together with brooches or a kind of noble fixing pin. One of
the most intriguing sleeve variations can be seen in the 'Portrait of an Unknown Woman, dated in the upper right corner 1567' where the lady's sleeves
are in a zig-zag pattern conjoined by straps made of the same fabric.
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
Queen Elizabeth wears of course pair of stays and the relatively new French or wheel farthingale. Her stomacher appears incredibly long and pointy but that that is partly due to foreshortening when reproducing a three-dimensional artefact two-dimensionally.
This portrait dates from c. 1592. In the 1590s the skirt over the wheel farthingale had many pleats – they were not stitched though. Every time when putting on the gown, several maids had to lay the fabric into pleats and fix them with pleats.
Elizabeth's sleeves are puffed and cone-shaped (called cannon sleeves), getting tighter from the shoulder to the wrists. In other portraits of her, she wears sleeves with several layers and with wide hanging sleeves (even floor-long). The fashion was rich in ornament, yet there were strict regulations considering the social class. As she was the queen, she could wear anything she liked considering the wealth of embroidery, ornament and decoration. 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). The round fan in her hand is made of ostrich feathers.
There are different types of collars:
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 frilly 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. Yet not everyone wore a ruff; there are e.g. portraits of Henry VIII's wives without the lace collar and a low, wide and square-cut/crescent neckline. In the early decades of the 16th century the neckline became constantly lower and wider. The ruffs became smaller and smaller. Sleeves always reached until the wrists. Usually the sleeves were not sewn to the dress but could be fiddled on and off again so that several different pairs of sleeves could go with one dress.
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.
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.
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. The French hood was worn at the back of the head revealing a part of the hair. It was not
gable-shaped but rather adjusted to the form of the head as a half-moon, reaching to the chin. With Anne's execution in 1536 this headpiece faded into the background for a few years (meanwhile
Jane Seymour reestablished the gable hood) but became fashionable again under Mary (later Queen Mary I „Bloody Mary“) and Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I), Henry VIII's daughters. 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 anymore, quite like a
planished French hood.
For masques fantastic headgear was worn. Masques were exceedingly popular among the rich and people tried to outperform the others with flattering costumes, spending lavish amounts of money. There is a painting from the 1590s of an unknown lady dressed as a persian maiden. The exotic, the far away, was a major source of inspiration.
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.
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 labourous 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.
- 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 -
Elizabeth I (Armada Portrait). George Gower [Public domain, Wikimedia Commons]
Keywords: gown, dress, robe, fashion, costume,
Henry, VIII, Anne, Boleyn, fabric, gloves, gauntlets, Elizabeth I, Gloriana, crimson, cloth-of-gold, French hood, flat hood, gable hood, farthingale, French, wheel, cresent neckline, bum roll,
buckram, cannon, coif, Mary Stuart, sleeves, Chopines, Holbein, era, century, time, collar, Elizabethan, sleeves, ruff, Katherine of Aragon, Catherine, fur, laws, society, wives, lace, Jane
Seymour, ermine, beauty, rouge, pansy, flowers, hygiene, wash, bath, fabric
© Nina Möller