- Elaborate styles included farthingales and ruffs
- Stiff laced bodices created a flat bosom
- Detachable sleeves made it easy to change the look of a dress
- Use of cosmetics to create
- A cool climate encouraged layering of heavy fabrics
The Elizabethan period in costume design refers to that time encompassed by the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (from 1558–1603) during the Renaissance. The daughter of King Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn, Elizabeth became one of the world’s most famous monarchs. The style of clothing and fashions of the Elizabethan era are distinctive and striking, easily recognizable today, and popular with designers of historic costume.
As in the Middle Ages, the fabrics used to create garments of the Elizabethans were wool and linen. Clothing worn by the upper classes also included silk, cotton, and other imported fabrics. Fashions worn by the elite inspired the dress of lower classes and rural women, though the fabric, weave, and embellishments improved with economic status.
The clothing worn by Elizabethans looks heavy and overdone to many of us today. But whether in England during the period was cool and wet as northern Europe shivered in the grip of a mini Ice Age. So the heaviness of Elizabethan fashion was out of necessity, yet is remembered as romantic and beautiful, and still popular as seen at the Renaissance Festivals of modern times.
Elizabethan England: Historical Background
Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn ascended to the throne of England after the death of her half-sister Mary (daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon). Henry VIII had assumed the role as the leader of the Church in England when the Catholic Pope refused to grant Henry an annulment from Catherine of Aragon. During those difficult times, the idea of freedom of religion was not on anyone’s mind. Religion was a state establishment, so the fight was over which religion would be the state religion.
England, at the time, was still basically a feudal society. Most people lived in the country. In Elizabethan family-based culture, the nuclear family, servants, and apprentices lived and worked in close proximity. While women were subservient to men and performed the usual household chores, their work also included the care of livestock and kitchen garden; assistance at harvest; the making of cheese, butter, candles, and soap. Women commonly had basic medical skills, spun wool, and knit.
Employment opportunities included domestic service, laundry, and seamstress work. The wife of a craftsman might assist in the shop, the running of a business, or take over the business if widowed. Women earned money by selling produce, eggs, butter, spun wool, and other items made or produced at home.
The population exploded during Elizabeth’s reign despite widespread disease, including several outbursts of plague. Irish troubles, war with Spain, and a growing underclass of unemployed poor added to Elizabeth’s challenges. But in a time when women were subservient to men, a woman ruled a great and powerful nation
Elizabethan Clothing: Textiles
Linen and wool were the most common fabrics used during the Elizabethan era. As in the Middle Ages, people wore linen undergarments next to the skin. Linen, made from the flax plant, is comfortable, cool, and easy to launder. In a time when people rarely washed their clothes, linen could be washed and became softer with use.
- Wool keeps the body warm in cold weather, and cool in warm weather. Wool produces long-lasting fabrics, takes dyes well, and does not absorb moisture.
- Fulled wool, or heavily felted wool is tough and durable. Felted wool, that is wool that is washed to shrink, was often so dense that it did not need hemming as it would not unravel.
- Both wool and linen appeared in finer weaves for the upper classes. Linen, imported from France and the Low Countries, appeared in heavy or finer weaves with Lawn being the finest weave.
- Imported cotton was used to create fabrics and blended with linen to make Fustian.
- For thick, dense fabrics, canvas was made of hemp.
The luxurious fashions depicted in Elizabethan artwork most often reflect the clothing worn by royalty, the nobility, and the elite. The upper classes wore garments made of silk, satin, velvet, damask, and taffeta, in addition to wool and linen. Finer linens were bleached in the sun, embroidered, or block printed. Fashionable embellishments included braiding, borders, embroidery, lace, guarding (ribbon trim), and gems or pearls sewn onto the fabric.
- Leather was used to make shoes, gloves, hats, belts, and men’s doublets and breeches.
- Colors came from natural dyes that often faded, so even richly colored garments became muted over time. Brown and gray, cheaper dyes, were the obvious choice of the lower classes. Blue, another somewhat inexpensive dye is associated with servants and apprentices. Blue fades easily, so a light shade was predominant.
- Black, an expensive to make and very fashionable shade, popular in Spain, shows up often in royal portraits of Elizabethan England, especially for men.
- Two shades of red frequently occur in Elizabethan clothing. A russet red, made from the plant called madder created a warm, homey hue, while a brighter crimson red, made from imported dyes was reserved for royalty.