September 17, 2014

Closet Histories #2: Elizabethan

Though Elizabeth herself was a Tudor, and therefore one could say the fashion of her time could also be considered Tudor fashion, fashion changed dramatically during Elizabeth's reign. That's why today we make the distinction and categorize Elizabethan fashion as a style separate from the dress of fifty years prior. Elizabethan fashion, ranging roughly from the years 1560 to 1615, took the luxury fabrics and stiff silhouettes of Tudor fashion and blew them into new and gravity defying proportions!

Fig. 1                                                                                            Fig.2 

Above we see two half sisters and two queens. Mary I, Henry VIII's daughter from wife #1 Katherine Howard reigned, from 1553-1558. Her reign came after the short reign of her sickly half brother Edward VI, and the even shorter reign of 9 days queen Lady Jane Grey. Mary I, sometimes known as Bloody Mary, was a staunch Roman Catholic who tried to reestablish Catholicism in then Anglican England. After Mary I had burned over 200 protestants at the stake for refusing to convert to Catholicism, her death ended up leaving her protestant half sister Elizabeth the throne. Elizabeth returned England to the protestant Anglican church and achieved a much higher level of popularity than her sister.  Queen Elizabeth I reigned from 1558-1603, and her 45 year tenure of the throne is today called a Golden Age. It was under Elizabeth that the Renaissance fully arrived and flourished in England.  This was the age of Shakespeare, of music, of literature, and of the Virgin Queen. Elizabeth's controlled and curated image and cult of personality exist even to this day.

Clothing under Elizabeth's reign was similar in several ways to that of her father's court before her. Women wore many layers resulting in an elaborate, highly decorative, and rigid structure. The first layer was still a long chemise (also called a shift or smock), though underneath an early form of drawers (early underwear) could be worn (but are generally considered more of an Italian garment than a northern one). Over the chemise went the bodies or stays, which are much less debated for this period as opposed to the earlier part of the century. Bodied were ridged, boned with whalebone, and created the fashionable conical shape as well as a stiff base to support the rest of the ensemble. Over the bodies went several other structural garments used to create the final silhouette. These included a bum roll (a roll of fabric tied round the waist to hold out the skirts), a farthingale (the conical Spanish farthingale at first, which gave way to the wheel farthingale later in the century), and an under petticoat. Finally over all of these supportive under-garments went the gown which itself could also consist of a few layers, when you include things like over-sleeves and under-sleeves!

The images above are complied from a truly beautiful reconstruction of one of Anna of Austria's (b.1549-d.1580) gowns. I thought, though a reconstruction and interpretation of the period, that the costume would give you all a good idea of what the layers of an Elizabethan ensemble would consist of in the mid-1570's. The costumer's name is Saya and the costume can be found here.

Fig.3                                                              Fig.4                                                          Fig.5
These ladies, all in portraits dating to the 1560's show a transitional style between the Tudor fashions and Elizabethan styles. All three gowns are black and have a center front closure with a high collar. The beginnings of the Elizabethan period's defining accessory can be seen along the sleeve cuffs and the ladies collars, ruffs! Here they are small accents, though they would soon become a huge part of the overall costume. Also note the conical shape of these women's skirts, they are clearly still sporting the Spanish farthingale. All three ladies also wear a variation of the french hood, now seemingly made up more of embellishments than actual structure and becoming more heart shaped. This heart shaped headdress, called an atifet, became the most popular style in the Elizabethan period.

Fig.6                                                            Fig.7                                                           Fig.8

These three ladies are pictured in the 1570's. The style has moved to an even more pronounced conical waist. The partlet of the Tudor period has evolved into a more elaborate collar with a larger and decorated ruff. Lace has started to become a more important part of the costume. Lace was a surefire way to show off one's wealth as it was extremely expensive, being of course made entirely by hand.The sleeves are now small and structured with defined slashes stuffed with puffs of the chemise or separate linen under-sleeves. The lower larger under-sleeves are elaborate, either made of an incredibly rich fabric, embroidered, or even made entirely of lace. The style of a darker or colored gown with lighter or white sleeves can be seen as a commonality withing the style. The first lady above is wearing a hat with ostrich feathers while the other two still wear a sort-of french hood. All three also seem to have red hair, or a red haired wig, or even have colored their hair red artificially in the style of Elizabeth.

Fig.9                                                             Fig.10                                                        Fig.11

No, all three of these women are not the same person, they all just look remarkably alike due to trends in fashion and portrait painting combined! All portraits date from the 1580's and my how far we have come from those simple Tudor beginnings! All three women sport a huge lace trimmed ruff, though Elizabeth herself in fig. 9 seems to wear a ruff made almost entirely of lace (befitting her level of wealth and status as queen no doubt). All three gowns are black, which was of course a very expensive color of fabric to make and dye and therefore another popular way to showcase how very rich you were to your contemporaries. The smaller puffed sleeve still exists but is playing major second fiddle to the large hanging over-sleeves and puffed under-sleeve. All aspects of the costume are considered areas for showcasing wealth in the form of fine fabrics, lace, gold thread embroidery, jewels and pearls. The exaggerated silhouette is still that of an hour glass shape, but the bloated skirt shape is on the cusp of the next innovative farthingale style, the wheel.

Fig, 12                                                          Fig.13                                                  Fig.14

Now we have reached the zenith of Elizabethan style, the wheel farthingale! Instead of the supportive hoops making up the farthingale starting out smaller at the waist and getting gradually larger as they reached the hem, the wheel farthingle had hoops of equal size starting from the waist so that the skirt was held out nearly 90 degrees from the waist! Let's be honest, these women basically have a silken table around their waists, fashion is crazy! The ruffs here all extend nearly around the whole of the neck but now leave a gap at the front neckline. The sleeves are huge, to visually balance the look of the huge skirts! There are still hanging over-sleeves too, though they are less sleeve-shaped and hang mostly to the back of the gown. Lace and elaborately embroidered textiles are used in profusion!

Fig.15                                                       Fig.16                                                          Fig.17

All but one of these portraits date from after Elizabeth's death (in 1603) but still show the lingering Elizabethan tastes before the Jacobean styles emerge, The silhouette (or at least the sleeves) has begun to slim down from the outrageous proportions seen in the last twenty five years prior. Even the ruffs have started to change, becoming softer and more transparent large collars as opposed to the stiff wheels of starched linen and lace. We have a lot of Elizabethan fashion left to talk about before we move onto the Jacobean's though, so for today, fini!


-Grand Ladies (portrait library)
-National Portrait Gallery in London
-Excellent Costuming

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!

Thanks for reading! 


  1. Spellbindingly stunning fashions. I've always felt a strong pull towards this era. There was such a resplendent sense of opulence to the (aristocratic/royal) styles of the day and the elongated bodices/torsos really appeal to a short (and fairly short waisted) gal like me. :)

    ♥ Jessica

    1. It is funny how a certain era can do that to us modern gals, for me its the late 18th century! Though I wouldn't mind incorporating some Elizabethan opulence into my wardrobe anytime!

  2. There is so much look to love in this era! I do love all the styles of ruff, as silly as they often seem by themselves, as a part of the right costume, they just add something special!

    1. I will be dedicating an entire post to ruffs as well, they really epitomize the Elizabethan era!


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