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Renaissance Costume And Dress - 1558-1614

( Originally Published 1926 )



Two very strong personalities, both of whom were women, dominated England and France during the latter half of the sixteenth century, Elizabeth of England and Catherine de Medici, the queen of Henry II of France. Women had progressed rapidly since Francis I had given them the freedom of the court and allowed them converse with the men. These two women not only had a great influence on the dress and social life of their day, but upon politics and learning.

Catherine ruled her two sons, who succeeded their father, and it is said of her that she was continually advocating the giving of "balls, fetes, and entertainments" of all kinds to keep the minds of the people from the affairs of the nation. The men of that time, especially in France, were very effeminate, and they spent much of their time in "embroidery, winding silk, and stringing beads," 1 following the example of their sovereign, Henry II, who spent some of his time in designing his wife's gowns and arranging her hair.

While Catherine was carrying on her intrigues with the pope and the high dignitaries of the Church of Rome, Elizabeth was patronizing the arts and industries of her own country and earning for herself the sobriquet of "Good Queen Bess."

It was during the reign of Charles IX, son of Catherine, that the massacre of Saint Bartholomew took place, which drove the Huguenots out of France. Many of these went to Holland and England, and as they were for the most part an industrial people, they advanced the industries 'of weaving and spinning in these countries, greatly to the detriment of France.

Extravagance in dress reached its height in England during this century, although it was probably surpassed in France by that of Louis XIV. Queen Elizabeth had 3,000 gowns in her wardrobe when she died, costumes from all different countries, and many of her courtiers presented her with articles of wearing apparel, such as "gowns, petticoats, kirtles, doublets, or mantles, some embroidered and adorned with jewels."

We now have a new means of information in regard to costume; the excellent portraits of the day that have been preserved in private and public collections give a correct idea. Elizabeth was extremely vain and had her portrait painted many times. Mr.F.M. O'Donohue, F. S. A., points out that the entire rise and progress of the ruff may be traced in the portraiture of Elizabeth.' This same ruff was one of the most striking characteristics of dress during this century. It was hinted at in the preceding chapter as a development of the ruffle around the neck of the men's shirts, but it grew to such dimensions that one wonders how the people of that day were able to partake of the elaborate repasts which were a part of the entertainments.

Materials.—Cloth of gold and silver, velvet, and satin seem to have been the materials most worn, but they were so incrusted with gold embroidery, and set with diamonds, emeralds, and pearls, that very little of the original material was visible. The material for a gown worn by Marguerite of Navarre at a fete given in honor of Henry III was of gold cloth covered with raised work of different tinted golds, and embroidered in a border of pearls and different colored jewels in a pattern of flowers and leaves. The cost of the material was a hundred crowns the ell, and it required fifteen ells to make the gown.

Sumptuary Laws.—The sumptuary laws of that time give some idea of the kind of materials in use. Charles IX issued edicts forbidding the use of embroidery, stitching, piping of silk and gimp, and limiting the width of a band of velvet or silk for trimming to one finger, while two borders of chain-stitching or back-stitching only might be used at the edge of the garment. Widows could use all silk materials except "serge and silk camlet, taffety, damask, satin, and plain velvet." Gold and silver seem to have been used excessively in the weaving of materials in the form of stripes or brocades.

Lace had been invented in the last century in both Italy and Flanders at about the same time, and was being used a great deal, although many edicts were published against its being imported into France and England, on account of the protection of their own industries. In fact, foreign stuffs of all kinds were forbidden, but were smuggled into the country just the same to satisfy the demands of the fashion crazed population. Cambric was brought from Cambrai in France, and calico from Calicut in India; these materials were made from cotton and were very expensive.

Women's Dress.—The vertugadine was still in evidence; its shape had changed somewhat; it now extended almost straight out at the hips in the form of huge panniers held out by a hoop of whalebone, and then dropped straight down ; in England this was given the name of "farthingale." The waist had a long point in front, sometimes extending almost to the knee, in the form of a stomacher. The shape of the neck varied; sometimes it was high and sometimes it was cut out in a low square; the sleeves were very full and extended on the shoulders; they were puffed or slashed, showing a contrasting color, and reached to the wrist, where they were finished with a ruff or cuff of lace. Elizabeth seems to have been very partial to white sleeves embroidered in black Spanish embroidery; several of her portraits show these in black velvet gowns. The upper garment was split up the front to show an elaborately embroidered under-petticoat, and large hanging sleeves matching the material of the upper gown were often worn over the full sleeve.

Many were the changes in the sleeve: some hung down to the ground, or even trailed on it, and were cast over the shoulder like cow-tails; some were much shorter, "cut up the arm, drawn out with sundry colors, and pointed with silk ribands," and tied with love-knots, and some were tied on at the armhole by means of ribbons called points, similar to those of the men. Curious sleeves show in some of the portraits of Queen Mary. They fit snugly at the top and then flare out to the elbow and lower arm, where they are again brought into the wrist; they resemble an inverted leg-o-mutton sleeve; a puff of linen comes out between the edges, which are buttoned together at intervals. A huge cuff of fur is set on just above the elbow and hangs down to the bottom of the skirt. The regulation leg-o-mutton sleeves, large at the shoulder and fitting snug at the wrist, were worn for the first time; they were slashed to show color underneath and a false sleeve or mancheron hung at the back; epaulets or raised rolls of cloth finished these sleeves at the armhole, and were typical of this period.

The waist was contracted by means of stays with stiff pieces of carved wood in the front that pressed into the flesh and made the wearer endure agonies. The "corps pique" worn in France was a "hard, solid mould into which the wearer had to be compressed, there to remain and suffer in spite of the splinters of wood-that penetrated the flesh, took the skin off at the waist, and made the ribs ride one over the other." ' It is said that Catherine de Medici required all ladies of the court to wear stays that would compress their waists to thirteen inches.

The Ruff.—Perhaps the most curious of all these fashions was the ruff, which had been developing for several years, until it reached the enormous proportions seen in the portraits of Queen Elizabeth and the Dutch pictures of Frans Hals. Several authorities state that this fashion came from Spain and was probably introduced into England by Queen Mary, out of compliment to Philip, her Spanish husband. These ruffs were made of linen, or Holland cambric, "so fine that the thickest thread shall not be so big as the least hair that is." The material was plaited or arranged in huge flutes, and there seems to have been several layers; they extended to the shoulders and sometimes farther, and were the depth of the neck. Some of the huge ones were supported by a wire frame called in England an "under-propper," and in France a "supper-tasse," which was put on first.

There seems to have been quite an art in the way these ruffs were laundered and stiffened, as no one in England could do them up to suit the queen until a woman was imported from Holland who knew how to do clear-starching and use the poking-stick, as it was called. These ruffs were of a circular form when first worn, but later were separated in the front, and in the back rose to tremendous proportions. The neck of the dress was cut square, with the open ruff, and was buttoned to the neck ith the circular.

The "collet monte," or Medici collar, as it is called at the present day, was introduced by Catherine from Spain; it seems to have been part of a wrap or long cloak, which had flowing sleeves. This collar rose very high in the back, and in the portraits of Elizabeth it takes the form of two huge lace-edged wings that stand out at the side and rise above her head.

Head-dress.—This is the reign of the wired hair and wigs; it is also distinguished by the French or heart shaped head-dress so familiar in the portraits of Mary Queen of Scots. This latter seems to have developed from the linen square, worn in the house in the last century, which was put on the head cornerwise, drawn down, and the two ends tied at the back, and one corner brought down over the forehead; the hair was puffed out at the side to give the heart shape. This "French hood" was made of black velvet, with a stiffening of wire at the edge which bent it into a heart shape, with a point in the centre of the forehead and flaring at the side; it fitted close at the back and had a veil-like piece of velvet which hung down to the waist. It was also developed in lace, wired to shape, and decorated with jewels.

Another style of head-dress which was popular with Elizabeth was that of wigs of different colors, red being the great favorite. They were dressed with tight curls, and decorated with pearls and precious metals, feathers, or glass ornaments.

Velvet toques similar to the Spanish hats worn by the men, and trimmed with a white feather over the right ear, were worn over the cale, or bag, which held the hair in place at the back. Hats of rich materials and of felt, with wide brims and high crowns, were seen occasionally. In cold weather the hoods of velvet, cloth, or silk had strings and a curtain at the back, and a small piece of material fastened in front to cover the lower part of the face and to protect the complexion. Masks of black velvet were also worn; they were kept in place by a glass button held in the teeth ; in France they were called a "loup," the French name for wolf, because they frightened the children.

The use of cosmetics, rouge, and powder was very prevalent, and perfumes were so popular that gloves were scented and even rings had cavities which held perfume. Fans which had been brought in from Italy during the reign of Henry VIII were used by both men and women; the handsomest were of ostrich feathers with carved ivory, gold, or silver handles. Elizabeth had one presented to her which had the handle set with diamonds.

Foot-gear.—An innovation had come in in the way of high heels on the shoes; this seems to be almost the first time that heels are mentioned. Not content with torturing their bodies, they must perforce make themselves more uncomfortable by wearing high heels. The shoes or slippers were as elaborate as the rest of the costume ; they were made of black and colored velvet, Spanish leather and English leather, and were embroidered in silk, gold, and silver, and even set with precious stones; they had pattens with high cork soles, sometimes two inches thick, for wear out-of-doors; these kept the feet from the filth of the streets. The majority of women still wore stockings made of material sewn into shape, although Elizabeth .is said to have worn only those knitted by hand, after a pair had been presented to her for a New Year's gift by her silk-woman, Mistress Montague.'

Jewelry.—Not only were jewels used for trimming gowns and shoes, but elaborate necklaces of gold and pearls, with a cross hanging from them, were worn with low-necked gowns below the ruff ; also rings, bracelets, and amulets of gold and jewels. Gloves were embroidered and set with precious stones, and nearly every one carried a jewelled mirror. When Mary Queen of Scots was married to Francis II, her dress was so covered with diamonds that she was "too dazzling to look upon," according to a chronicler of that time. Diamond stars worn in the hair seem to have been quite the fashion in France, as we find them described many times.

Men's Dress.—The costume worn by the men during the latter part of the sixteenth century shows much more change than that of the women. A strong Spanish influence is seen, brought about by the marriage of Mary of England with Philip of Spain. This change showed in France as well as England, for the dress of these two countries was practically the same at that period.

Like the women, the men were constricting the waistline; their tunics, or doublets, as they were called, were tight-fitting and stuffed out in front in a sort of pouch, or "peascod." A short full skirt finished them below the waist, and they buttoned up the front to the neck, where they ended in a large ruff. In 1578 Henry III wore a ruff made of fifteen widths of cambric, half a yard in depth. "To see his head against this ruff put one in mind of Saint John the Baptist's head on a charger." The armhole had a roll, or epaulet, and the sleeve was separate, and tied on by means of points with metal tips. The trunks, or Venetian breeches, as they were called, had become much larger, sometimes extending out a foot, and were slashed or puffed and stuffed with anything that came handy, wool, rags, or bran and were of such proportions that the seats in the Houses of Parliament had to be enlarged.

Over the doublet was worn a jacket, or "jerkin," with sleeves slashed to show those underneath. A short, full cape called the Spanish cape clasped at the neck and fell to the waistline. All these garments were as elaborately embroidered and jewelled as those of the women, and many authorities say that the men exceeded the women in extravagant dress, frivolity, and caprice.

An exquisite of that day appeared with emeralds in his ears, a lace-trimmed handkerchief held in his hand, which was covered by an embroidered and scented glove, and leading a white poodle by a rose-colored ribbon.

Head-gear.—The hats worn with these costumes were of velvet; some had the high Spanish crown and the narrow brim, some were the flat tam shapes of Henry VIII's reign. They were trimmed with gold cord and jewels around the crown and had a feather, generally white, at the side. The men of England wore the hair rather short and curled, and a pointed beard, and rather long moustache with the ends turning up. Frenchmen seem to have worn the hair longer and curled and dyed black ; they also wore the pointed beard and moustache. Men as well as women wore wigs, and it was during this period that the "periwig" came into general use. It is said that it was dangerous for children to be on the streets alone, as they were liable to have their hair cut off for the manufacture of these wigs.'

Foot-gear.—Shoes were still made the shape of the foot, but high boots were being introduced; they reached to the knee and were held up by straps; half-boots with the tops turned over were also in vogue. The low shoes were decorated with rosettes or roses on the toe, and were embroidered and jewelled. Woven or knitted stockings seem to have been used to some extent, although those made of materials . shaped to the leg and ornamented with a silk clock were still worn; they were also embroidered with silver and gold.

The men painted their faces, and wore stays similar to those of the women to make their waists smaller. They were a "walking geography of clothes with French doublets, German hose, Spanish hats, Italian ruffs, Flemish shoes."

Sumptuary Laws.—In the fifth year of Elizabeth's reign venders of foreign apparel were not allowed to sell their wares to any one with an income under 3,000 pounds. Other acts passed by her regulated the cut and decoration of costume, and the kind of material used, also the type of beard worn by the men. Charles IX forbade the use of vertugadines measuring more than one and one-half yards in width, gold chains, and gold work either with or without enamel and all other buttons for ornamenting head-dresses. In 1567 he issued an edict regulating the dress of all classes; only princesses and duchesses were allowed to wear silk ; velvet seems to have been forbidden to all, and the bourgeoise were allowed to ornament their rosaries and bracelets only with gold and pearls.'

Taken altogether, the dress of this period was perhaps the most gorgeous in history, but it was certainly not the most artistic, as nearly every law of good design was broken. We may well wonder where the money came from to bear this tremendous expense and we would not be surprised to find great suffering among the lower classes, both in England and France: The middle classes, however, were very prosperous, they being the ones who benefited from the elaborate dress, as manufacturers and makers.



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