October 1, 2014

Closet Histories #2.2 : The Ruff

The ruff, a garment so distinctive of the Elizabethan era as to have become synonymous with the time period. What began as a simple ruffle on the collar and cuffs of the chemise and undershirt grew to crazy, literally crazy, dimensions by the end of the age. Much research has been done on the subject of ruffs, some of which I will point you towards as it is much more succinct and accredited than my own foray into the subject.

Beginning, as I said, as the small ruffle at the edge of the chemise, the ruff began to grow into something different and independent around the mid 1500's. Originally attached to the partlet or chemise, the ruff eventually became a separate garment. Ruffs were made with fine linen, starched and pleated with irons to achieve their distinctive figure-8 rounded curves. They could be edged with blackwork embroidery, decorated with cutwork embroidery, or edged with lace. Even metallic laces and cord was used to edge ruffs for a bit of extra luxury and sparkle. Ruffs grew in size, in width but more so in circumference, as the sixteenth century drew to a close. The ruffs of the 1580's and 1590's were so large as to require wire or cardboard supports, supportasse, to hold them up and out in the stylish manner of the time.

The ruff styles changed frequently, this link gives a good breakdown of the styles through time. As you can see in the portrait timeline above, style grew in proportion and became separate from the partlet of the previous era.

Though the ruff had reached gargantuan proportions by the turn of the 17th century, it seemed no less popular for the next quarter of a century. Above you can see how the style continued to be popular long after Elizabeth's reign had ended. The style was slowly transitioning into the wide flat collars of the middle of the 17th century, but the ruff too held on. By the 1610's the flat lace style of collar had begun to really compete with the traditional ruff. The ruff seems to feature in the more formal portraits from the time perhaps suggesting it was by then viewed as a more formal garment. The styles begin to vary even more by the 1620's.

It seems from my research that the ruff remained popular longer into the new century in the Netherlands and other parts of mainland Europe. In England the styles seemed to transition towards a flatter collar sooner, judging by portraits alone. I assume the same can be said of France and that England was following along as it tended to do in fashion.

A needle lace trimmed Italian ruff dating from 1600-1620, V&A
Above is an excellent photo of an early 17th century ruff from Italy, now housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Not really a true survivor, the cutwork linen and needlework lace has been mounted onto modern linen to replicate this style of ruff.

"The technique of cutwork used to make this piece of lace was the creation of a delicate structure of needle lace stitches across the spaces cut in a fine linen ground. It reached the height of its popularity in the late sixteenth and early seventeeth century, when it was used to decorate every type of linen and in particuar to draw attention to the face and throat in the form of collars and ruffs.

This short length of border may well have been part of a ruff, and it has been reconstructed in this way in the museum with the attachment of a linen support." (V&A)

As someone who has worked in textile museums I can tell you that they must have been very confident the lace would have been part of a ruff to mount such a delicate artifact in this way. Such reconstruction decisions are not made lightly at museums.

Though surviving examples of ruffs are rare, especially of the early styles, this link has some great examples.

Other great ruff resources include:

-How to make Elizabethan ruffs 
-More information on ruffs
-Beautiful and exquisite replica ruffs for sale
-My Closet Histories Pinterest board with all of the images (and credits) from this post

Though my ruff expertise is very limited, I do adore them. What a crazy extravagant garment right? I have only ever made one myself, a quick attempt at the style in black nylon lace. I would love to try again with some nice crisp linen and perhaps some blackwork embroidery. A project for the future indeed!

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. I did a terrible cheap costume version once, which is a bit embarassing compared to how lovely and intricate they really were. But it was fun to wear :)

    It seems amazing that such an odd item of clothing could remain so popular for so long, and go through so many style changes, but I guess they are a great display of opulence, which seems to be a strong theme of these eras!

    1. I had no idea that ruffs were popular so far into the 17th century until I researched this post! It seems strange that after the pile it on opulence attitude of the late 16th and early 17th centuries that the rest of the 17th century seems tame in comparison with the less adorned silk dresses.


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