Late 16th Century- Elizabethan age

October 22, 2009


The Late 16th Century is often called “Elizabethan Age” due to Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She came to the throne of England in 1558 and was a powerful and successful ruler for 45 years. The latter half of the 16th century is still considered the Renaissance, but it has
undergone a change as trading and the wealth of the middle class become prominent and
the era was greatly influenced by the works of William Shakespeare. England emerges
as a great power after her defeat of the Spanish Armada; France continues a great power
and supporter of Catholicism, and Spain declines in power.
Elizabeth took summer tours in the country side taking with her 300 to 400 baggage carts, 1,000 horses. She visited nobles, supported pageantries, visited different towns, and made herself visible. Can you imagine being a host for such an entourage? However,she was a ruler who demanded to know her people and was well loved..The world of Elizabeth and William Shakespeare, the playwright, was a courageous, nota whining world. Elizabethans never cringed with fear, nor wasted precious time in selfpity. Treatises instructed men in the art of dying with dignity. Sir Walter Raleigh, on thescaffold, ran his thumb along the edge of the headman’s axe and wryly commented:“This is sharp medicine, but it is a sound cure for all diseases.”

The French were dominated by Catherine de Medici which was Queen of France, wife of Henry II from 1547-1559, then Dowager Queen Mother from 1559 to 1589. She was the ruling force behind her sons: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. It is said she was a cruel but faithful woman. Her best physical asset was said to be her legs, so she brought into fashion the use of the side saddle so that her legs would be exposed. She and Elizabeth were fashion rivals, although they never met. For more information on this lady go to:

Religious Conflicts:
In England Edward IV (son of Henry VIII) had a Protestant rule, Mary Tudor had a Catholic rule, Elizabeth I had a protestant rule (yet she lived fear of Catholic plots). You can imagine the strife as monks, priests, preachers, and nobility were tortured and put to death because of not changing their religious views. France’s Catherine Medici is noted for turning a blind eye to the infamous massacre of St. Bartholomew where Catholics slaughtered Protestants. The protestant leadership falls on England as in 1559 the national church was broad and flexible enough for both Protestants and Catholics. Inquisition is going on with torturers, witch hunts (The 1486 treatise, The Malleus Maleficarum, is the guideline for identifying witches.). There were statutes against witchcraft and just as many revoking the statutes in England, France and Germany. These “witch hunts” will carry into the 17th century. Reformation condemned finery, gay colors, and manifestation of fantasy in clothing. Thus you begin to see religious changes in costume. However, these changes will not be widespread until the 17th century.

Scientific research:

The scientific aim of scholarship was to “achieve a comprehension of the meaning and significance of things, above all the chief end of man, the meaning of human life and all creation related to it.” It seems after 500 years we still do not have this lofty aim achieved, but the Elizabethans thought they could accomplish it. Reason has a dignified role in Science; reason and faith are no longer joined; reason is no long subservient to faith. Learning becomes practical. Gunpowder used, the printing press, even though invented 150 prior, becomes very important in communicating different ideas. This is the time of Galileo, Copernicus.

Women’s Dress:
Farthingale and the ruff are the two most significant changes in women’s dress. Official costumes were wider and longer than costumes of private life. The bodily movements were slower and more formal, dignified in appearance. The body revealed or was accentuated by clothing.

Elizabeth I in court dress. This white jeweled encrusted garment was one of the 3000 dresses Elizabeth had inventoried in her wardrobe when she died. The garment is a dress that is supported or controlled by the farthingale frame under the skirt and the tight corset with long pointed stomacher under the bodice. The farthingale is a frame (like a hoop skirt frame) made from reeds, boning, and fabric into a round shape. It tilts up in the back, making the skirts a bit shorter in the back of the body. It also juts out at the hips. Often a ruffle (as you see in Figure 6) is attached at the waist and called the cartwheel ruff.

Court Lady. This white and pink brocaded dress with farthingale support clearly illustrates the high control the late 16th century culture valued for clothing. The lady has a cartwheel ruff at her waist, a tight bodice with bombasting (the padding of bodice sleeves and torso to achieve a smooth and puffy look, worn by men and women) and a Medici collar, the collar that stands up behind the neck. The collar in Figure 9 is called a ruff. It is detachable and goes around the entire neck. Worn by men and women.

Court dress was typically more extreme than daily dress. Note the lady in Figure 11; her neck insert (white fabric with blackwork…embroidery) is called a tucker. It has a whisk, a small ruff at the upper edge.

Court scene. From a painting and shows the macheron or false sleeve on the female. Also note the elongated waistline point. These points were supported by long pointed busks. Imagine bending over!

Illustration from Tilke. The two ladies are wearing farthingale style gowns with petticoat (underskirt) showing. They support cartwheel ruffs at their waist and have bombasted bodices. The sleeve style of both women is called virago (bombasted with indents up and down the arm) and turns up again in the 19th century. They both have a Medici collar.

Men’s costume:
Recall the early 16th century with the very wide shoulders of the male. In the late 16th century of shoulders of the male become narrow, but the hips and thighs tend to get larger with their variety of trunk hose (breeches).

Trunk Hose or breeches. Many v variations and the naming of them remains a mystery. Your text does not agree with other costume historians. Generally Venetians were trunk hose (breeches that extend from waist to knee. Some authors say they are tight, your text identifies them as full (see figure 17 for both versions). . Galligaskins start at the waist and are very full generally ending at mid thigh (see Figure 16); pumpkin breeches are very full and may go to the knee (see figure 18); culottes are very, very short breeches

Portrait of a man with bombasted doublet and peasecod belly, paned culottes, codpiece, and ruff. His doublet is bombasted to the point that it develops a peasecod belly which looks to us like a beer belly. It was the fashion. His culottes have slits or panes in them showing another fabric underneath. The sleeves on his doublet are detachable.

The ruff is an important element of the last 16th century costume for both men and women. Figure 24 shows a ruff shop, a place that ruffs were made a fitted for the society. The ruffs were made of starched and pressed fine linen and sewn together at the neckline. They could also be made of lace.

Wigs were used as were dyes and hair bleaches. Hair puffed up around temples and sometimes combed over padding. High control in all aspects of the costume. Heartshaped hat often called the Mary Stuart cap.

Chopines, shoes that were put on a raised platform making the wearer taller (obviously)
and keeping their gowns out of the mud. They wearing of boots also became common.

Pins were used in abundance to fit v various parts of the costume in position and often
jeweled and given as gifts, hence, “pin money.” Rings were used in abundance as well as
necklaces and earrings.
Knitting, lace becomes important. Sheer fabrics for ruffs, blackwork, yellow and red
were fashionable colors. France loved white, Italy had many contrasting colors on one
gown, and colors were identified for professions: red for scholars, black for lawyers, etc.

The commoners are wearing costume similar to the early 16th century. Their clothing is
not changing as rapidly as the court costume. They use common fabrications such as
wools and linens made into burlaps, plain wovens, napped wools for warmth, and

A period of high control in dress as seen through the use of ruffs and Medici collars, the
use of lace and decorative fabrications, the use of bombasting, the right hosiery on the
men, the farthingale, highly trimmed facial hair for men and controlled hairdos for the
women. There was not much in the way of spontaneity in fashionable clothing for this
time period.


Elizabeth R
Elizabeth I
Mary, Queen of Scots
Shakespeare in Love
The Virgin Queen
Queen Margot

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