Costume History/Elizabethan

Elizabethan edit

The Elizabethan Era! The Golden Age of English culture under the reign of Elizabeth the First, for which it was obviously named. From 1550 to 1625, peace reigned through much of England. This was the time of the English Renaissance, of Shakespeare and Elizabethan Theatre. The first official playhouse was built in 1576 by James Burbage [1], and by ’74, performances were made legit and became a weekly event. The performers in theatre gathered their costumes wherever they could, and usually used the handmedowns of the aristocracy, so while they did not strive for historical accuracy in their work, the dress of Elizabethan actors may be seen as a loose, warped reflection of fashions in an era known as the Peacock Age.

Elegance—that was the theme that echoed throughout this period of peace, and in the minds of the British, no one so perpetuated the definition than Queen Elizabeth herself [2], with her accentuated small head, long legs, and long body. At the start of the era, sleeves were worn large and complicated. Ruffled, and puffy, they were often comprised of many segmented pieces held together by jeweled clasps. Eventually, changing fashions slimmed these sleeves until they were tight fitting to accentuate the desired slender appearance. Shoulder Rolls and Crescents protrude out to enhance this slimming effect. One of the most memorable fashion additions popularized by the Elizabethan era is the ruff from 1550, a massive ruffled collar of fabric that rings the wearer’s neck like a frilled lizard [3][4]. Pleated ruffs were more common and encircled the entire neck, and upstanding ruffs drew more attention with “Seduction Value” as they arched high up behind the owner's head in a regal, peacock-like appearance while exposing the front of the neck as well as a hint of blossom. Like the corset, this item was renowned for being difficult, and at an average of 8 inches in radius, but styles varied and some had a full eighteen yards of linen. They were more a status symbol than practical wear, starched to enhance their stiffness.

In keeping with the styles of previous ages, women literally disfigured their internal organs with corsets, turning their waists into narrow triangular points, though as time went on, the bodice was altered to allow a straight line along the hips rather than a sharp point [5]. The bottom portion of the dress became a separate piece altogether: heavily embroidered and padded with bombast to the point where they ballooned outwards thanks to additions like the French Farthingale [6]. Pumpkinhose, cannions, and roundhouses served a similar purpose on men [7][8]; this was the age of huge hips and the hoop. Abandoned were the past's boxy designs and heavy buttoned jerkins, in favor of the Queen's slender elegance, with tights, breeches, makeup, and jewelry. The Gorget, a piece of battle armor worn over the neck and shoulder, might have seemed at the height of fashion impracticality, but Elizabethan England was the land of quick tempers and fierce honor. With virtually every man carrying a rapier or sword, the gorget may not have been all that ridiculous [9]. Slashing was still popular, and soap was introduced in 1524, but of course, it was expensive so bathing was not frequent and to top it off, the intricacy of the Elizabethan clothes meant that they also, could not be washed, and so perfume was an almost mandatory addition, even men's gloves were perfumed! Because their massive gowns tended to drag across the floor, women did not have much of a fashion for shoes as they were most often covered up. Perhaps the high heels were born at the end of the Elizabethan to deal with this. Usually, they were made of fine leather—much to the chagrin of the peasantry who considered such things a waste since they themselves, needed to make shoes out of leather. Men's shoes had far greater variety:

     Boots - Boots were made of smooth or wrinkled leather, fittings were loose or tight, used for riding and walking
     Gamache - A gamache was a high boot
     Buskins - Buskins were calf length shoes / boots
     Startups - Startups were leather shoes worn as protective coverings for outdoor use
     Pumps - Pumps were light, or single-soled slip-on shoes
     Chopines - Chopines, or Chapineys, were slip-on over shoes made of wood and covered with leather
     Clogs - The clog was an outdoor, wooden shoe
     Corked Shoes - Corked shoes featured a wedge of cork between the foot and the sole
     Galoche - A Galoche, or Galage, was a protective overshoe
     Pantofle - A Pantofle came in two styles - a protective, outdoor overshoe and a slipper for indoors
     Pinsons - A pinson or pincnet was a delicate shoe


Both sexes indulged in a variety of hairstyles and blonds and reds were back in fashion, as was the ‘frizzy’ look, leading many to dye their hair or take on wigs. Strangely, although pale was still the favorite color of skin, women could be seen exposing themselves to the sun under the belief that it added a gold tint to their hair. Their hair was drawn away from the ears and fluffed out at the temple. Pompadours were popular, and widow's peaks were fashionable details to the hairline. Long and flowing hair screamed virgin and was swept upwards after marriage [10]; although it remained long, fashion dictated that it was covered by a hat, veil, or some other piece of clothing. Hair nets—called Cauls, were decorated with jewels and gold trim and were popular accessories while hairpins, combs, and even enhanced their appearance [11]. Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn introduced the French Hood, while the Atifet was favored by Mary, queen of the Scotts. Plain white coifs, or “biggins” were generally worn by children, who otherwise did not really have a fashion of their own—their clothing was often a miniaturization of the adults, including that of infants. Men generally kept their hair at shoulder length, sometimes curled with hot irons into “love locks” [12]. Beards were attractive and as such, required special care, from daily brushings from wooden cases at night. Men's hats varied from small flat hats made from velvet or silk, to tall crown hats, covered by fine fabric or feathers. Copotains—high, inverted-bell hats were popular, and the brims were turned up to be attached to the crowns with jeweled broaches. Hat bands were largely decorative as well, often being made of scarves and fine materials such as satin or silk. Some of the more distinguished men wore crowned beaver hats alongside small capes. Like so many things, hats were a symbol of status and the taller/longer a hat, the mor important the wearer. Flabby headwares such as mutton caps were a peasant's clothing but as usual, peasant fashions have a trickle up effect and Flat Caps and Torques became popular with a variety of classes [13][14]. This was also the era of the Fool's Cap, adorned by horns and bells and trademarked by jesters.

Although Elizabeth herself passed away on March 24, 1603, the era in her name continued onwards for almost two more decades, a testament to her rule and the trends she established. It is no wonder why then, that people continue to refer to the Elizabethan Period as the Golden Age of British rule.

Works Cited

<> Britannica Online

Bergan, Thomas G. and Jennifer Speak. The Encyclopedia of the Renaissance. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1987.

Dorner, Jane. Fashion . London: Octopus Books Limited, 1974.

Cassin-Scott, Jack. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Costume and Fashion 1550–1920. New York: Blandford Press, 1971.

Ford, Boris. 16th Century Britain. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge.