Fashion in the period 1550–1600 in Western European clothing was characterized by increased opulence. Contrasting fabrics, slashes, embroidery, applied trims, and other forms of surface ornamentation remained prominent. The wide silhouette, conical for women with breadth at the hips and broadly square for men with width at the shoulders had reached its peak in the 1530s, and by mid-century a tall, narrow line with a V-lined waist was back in fashion. Sleeves and women’s skirts then began to widen again, with emphasis at the shoulder that would continue into the next century. The characteristic garment of the period was the ruff, which began as a modest ruffle attached to the neckband of a shirt or smock and grew into a separate garment of fine linen, trimmed with lace, cutwork or embroidery, and shaped into crisp, precise folds with starch and heated irons.
Charles V, king of Spain, Naples, and Sicily and Holy Roman Emperor, handed over the kingdom of Spain to his son Philip II and the Empire to his brother Ferdinand I in 1558, ending the domination of western Europe by a [[richness of dress would dominate fashion for the remainder of the centurname=”Bouc|single court, but the Spanish taste for sombre richness of dress would dominate fashion for the remainder of the century. New alliances and trading patterns arose as the divide between Catholic and Protestant countries became more pronounced. The severe, rigid fashions of the Spanish court were dominant everywhere except France and Italy. Black garments were worn for the most formal occasions. Black was difficult and expensive to dye, and seen as luxurious, if in an austere way. As well as Spanish courtiers, it appealed to wealthy middle-class Protestants. Regional styles were still distinct. The clothing was very intricate, elaborate and made with heavy fabrics such as velvet and raised silk, topped off with brightly coloured jewellery such as rubies, diamond and pearls to contrast the black backdrop of the clothing. Janet Arnold in her analysis of Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe records identifies French, Italian, Dutch, and Polish styles for bodices and sleeves, as well as Spanish.
Linen ruffs grew from a narrow frill at neck and wrists to a broad “cartwheel” style that required a wire support by the 1580s. Ruffs were worn throughout Europe, by men and women of all classes, and were made of rectangular lengths of linen as long as 19 yards. Later ruffs were made of delicate reticella, a cutwork lace that evolved into the needlelaces of the 17th century.
Since Elizabeth I, Queen of England, was the ruler, women’s fashion became one of the most important aspects of this period. As the Queen was always required to have a pure image, and although women’s fashion became increasingly seductive, the idea of the perfect Elizabethan women was never forgotten.
The Elizabethan era had its own customs and social rules that were reflected in their fashion. Style would depend usually of social status and Elizabethans were bound to obey The Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws, which oversaw the style and materials worn.
Elizabethan sumptuary laws were used to control behaviour and to ensure that a specific social structure was maintained. These rules were well known by all the English people and penalties for violating these sumptuary laws included harsh fines. Most of the time they ended in the loss of property, title and even life.
Regarding fabrics and materials for the clothes construction, only royalty was permitted to wear ermine. Other nobles (lesser ones) were allowed only to wear foxes and otters. Clothes worn during this era were mostly inspired by geometric shapes, probably derived from the high interest in science and mathematics from that era. “Padding and quilting together with the use of whalebone or buckram for stiffening purposes were used to gain geometric effect with emphasis on giving the illusion of a small waist”.
The upper classes, too, were restricted. Certain materials such as cloth of gold could only be worn by the Queen, her mother, children, aunts, sisters, along with Duchesses, Marchionesses, and Countesses. Whereas, Viscountesses, or Baronesses, for instance, were not allowed to use this material.
Not only fabrics were restricted on the Elizabethan era, but also colours, depending on social status. Purple was only allowed to be worn by the queen and her direct family members. Depending on social status, the colour could be used in any clothing or would be limited to mantles, doublets, jerkins, or other specific items. Lower classes were only allowed to use brown, beige, yellow, orange, green, grey and blue in wool, linen and sheepskin, while usual fabrics for upper crusts were silk or velvet.
Fabrics and trims
The general trend towards abundant surface ornamentation in the Elizabethan Era was expressed in clothing, especially amongst the aristocracy in England. Shirts and chemises were embroidered with blackwork and edged in lace. Heavy cut velvets and brocades were further ornamented with applied bobbin lace, gold and silver embroidery, and jewels. Toward the end of the period, polychrome (multicoloured) silk embroidery became highly desirable and fashionable for the public representation of aristocratic wealth.
The origins of the trend for sombre colours are elusive, but are generally attributed to the growing influence of Spain and possibly the importation of Spanish merino wools. The Low Countries, German states, Scandinavia, England, France, and Italy all absorbed the sobering and formal influence of Spanish dress after the mid-1520s. Fine textiles could be dyed “in the grain” (with the expensive kermes), alone or as an over-dye with woad, to produce a wide range colours from blacks and greys through browns, murreys, purples, and sanguines. Inexpensive reds, oranges and pinks were dyed with madder and blues with woad, while a variety of common plants produced yellow dyes, although most were prone to fading.
By the end of the period, there was a sharp distinction between the sober fashions favoured by Protestants in England and the Netherlands, which still showed heavy Spanish influence, and the light, revealing fashions of the French and Italian courts. This distinction would carry over well into the seventeenth century.
Women’s outer clothing generally consisted of a loose or fitted gown worn over a kirtle or petticoat (or both). An alternative to the gown was a short jacket or a doublet cut with a high neckline. The narrow-shouldered, wide-cuffed “trumpet” sleeves characteristic of the 1540s and 1550s in France and England disappeared in the 1560s, in favor of French and Spanish styles with narrower sleeves. Overall, the silhouette was narrow through the 1560s and gradually widened, with emphasis as the shoulder and hip. The slashing technique, seen in Italian dress in the 1560s, evolved into single or double rows of loops at the shoulder with contrasting linings. By the 1580s these had been adapted in England as padded and jeweled shoulder rolls.