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. Its symbol is the famous “Tudor
Rose“, the conjoined roses of the Houses of York and Lancaster. Its founder was Owen Tudor who lived approximately 1400 to 1461 but the line failed with the death of the childless Queen Elizabeth
I of England.
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 what to wear for every class. The wearing of jewellery like gold rings, fabrics like silk and satin, colours, fur, trimming and much more was strictly regulated concerning social rank and income. By way of example: no one under the rank of an earl was allowed to wear any sable fur. Disregard was punished severely. The reason was to keep the “fabric of society” as the clothing gave information about the social standing. 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 had 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.
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 (yes, fine lace was more valuable than jewels!). The reason was that hours and hours of work were needed to create but a litlle part and the finer the lace the more time-consuming was the work! So hours and hours are behind a lace collar!
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.
To get this look, the women (and sometimes men!) wore corsets made of very stiff material (for example buckram, a hard-wearing type of linen, boned with metal and whalebone). Corsets for women had a busk in the front, usually made of wood, that should make the front of the body even more stiff and straight. The front of the bodice was pointed, sometimes even placing the waist under the natural line and enlongating the upper part of the body, which makes the waist look smaller. The figure below the waist was always dominated by the the hoop skirt called farthingale [an invention of the Spanish fashion, 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.
In most cases, the dresses consisted visually of two pieces:
- The main gown; usually bodice sewn to the skirt (which was open from the waist downwards in the front) and the sleeves (at least the basic layer) were made of the same fabric.
There were gowns, though, which had a bodice made of a different fabric than the rest of the “over-gown”.
- The skirt underneath which can be seen due to the open skirt of the gown.
The main gown and the skirt below often consisted of fabrics with different colours (often red and gold). Commonly, only one of the two pieces was eye-catchingly patterned. This is the skirt in most cases while the main gown is uni. Noblewomen wore up to six pieces of underwear. Stockings reached over the knee and were fixed with garters. After putting on your smock (usually white linen, full gathered sleeves, close-fitting to the chest), you put on your kirtle protect your legs from cold. The kirtle would be called petticoat from the middle of the 16th century onwards. The kirtle is tied in the front and consists of a long pleated skirt and a bodice. This bodice, however, has only a back piece and in the front is cut as minimal as possible - the "neckline" is cut very low and wide and goes down to the waist. The reason for this is that the kirtle is worn underneath the corset and therefore unnessecary bulk would be non-productive.
If thou hast no one to do your make-up, dress your hair and put on your jewellery then thou needst to do all in advance of dressing up as it is going to be hard afterwards: the next piece is the corset. It is stiffened which is important as only this creates the right fitting and look of the dress. Now it is the hoop-skirt's turn, followed by the bumroll. Over this, you might wear more skirts. Finally, before the main dress, you get on the visible skirt.
The dresses were either high-cut or had a square-cut or crescent neckline and often a big lace collar, called ruff. The amounts of lace needed for this fashion were huge and the 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. Starching needed wheat and therefore, frivolously, used a major food source for fashion while the poorer part of the population struggled with poverty and hunger.
The main differences between Tudor and Elizabethan fashion are these:
[With the term "Tudor" I mean the time prior to Elizabeth's becoming queen. Elizabeth I. is of course a member of the house of Tudor but the fashion during her reign was distincly different in several points, therefore my separation between the terms]
- Tudor gowns normally have a straight waistline, not pointed (much)
- no ruffs during Tudor time
- Tudor sleeves usually consist of two layers, the outer one is wide and triangular shaped.
There are different types of collars:
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.
The in my opinion most famous Tudor style of female dress can be wonderfully seen in a portrait of Catherine Parr, attributed to Master John, which was formerly believed to be Lady Jane Grey. Catherine Parr was the last and sixth wife of King Henry VIII. Her dress features nearly all main elements and due to that I would like to convey them on the basis of this picture. Catherine Parr's figure below the neck is dominated by two cones: shoulders ↔ waist and waist ↔ hem
With the help of the corset her upper part of the body is triangular-shaped. Her skirt is cone-shaped, she wears the Spanish farthingale. The aim was to create a geometric shape with accentuation on the two cones. This stylization concealed every natural shape of the body, so that for instance no curvature of the bust was seen. Around the waist, King Henry VIII's wife wears a belt. Except from the fashionable element and the possibility to underline the wealth, these gem studded belts usually had a pomander attached to them. This pomander should odorant the sweet scent of rose leaves or whatever it was filled with. 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.
In Catherine Parr's case, over the main sleeves are (triangular shaped) over-sleeves, a common feature of this epochs dresses. Yet the fact that they are entirely made of fur is special; normally, they are of the dresses fabric and lined with fabric in a strong colour.
Queen Elizabeth wears of course a corset 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.
In her later years, Queen Elizabeth was lavishly fond of pearls (in fact of every kind of adornment) and had a proud collection. By the time she died she was in possession of 6000 (!) gowns hardly plainer than the one in the painting and she had 80 wigs – well, if you got it flaunt it!
In her portraits, Queen Elizabeth I usually wears dresses that look like sprinkled bonkers with all embroidery styles/elements/techniques possible. This conglomeration offers us views on the most elaborate and probably also most expensive ways of textile decoration.
Those elaborate dresses were not washed often, if they were washed at all. It was very difficult to clean the garments without a washing machine and soap powder. Fabrics like velvet, brocade and satin are very fragile and rough cleaning with lye soap (wood ash and fat) would destroy them. So normally, the garments were only aired and beaten. That evidently was not hygienic at all, it did not reduce smells and created a paradise for fleas and other insects. Only the undergarments made of linen, as well as bedsheets, were washed frequently. The general cliché of people never bathing of washing their clothes is definately not true.
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.
Beauty and hygiene:
Pale skin was considered beautiful as it showed that the person did not had to work outside in the sun on fields. In the days of King Henry VIII make up was not commonly used. A bit of rouge at the most. The ideal Elizabethan woman, however, had almost white skin, bright eyes, red cheeks and lips and fair hair. As a consequence, the women put on make-up consisting ingredients like lead, sulfur and other harmful substances that had after-effects. The most prosperous could afford to have cosmetics made of crushed pearls.
The standard of personal hygiene was not so very low as often anticipated. Bathing frequently was not uncommon. Those who could afford it had their bath arranged in their own rooms. Heating all the water and
having it hauled up by servants required labour and money for the firewood. Working class members could bathe in
public bath houses. But naturally, there were grave drawbacks on health, like drinking contaminated water or wearing clothes that were not washable and thus prone to attract
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 introduced the French hood, replacing the heavy gable hood in the 1520s after she had returned to England and had become lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII. 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
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
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