To quote from Blackadder II:
Blackadder : What are you wearing around your neck?
Percy : Ah! It’s my new ruff!
Blackadder : You look like a bird who’s swallowed a plate.
Percy : It’s the latest fashion actually and as a matter of fact it makes me look rather sexy!
Blackadder : To another plate swallowing bird perhaps. If it was blind and hadn’t had it in months.
The Ermine Portrait by Nicholas Hilliard (1585)
The ruff, one of the more eccentric garments of the Elizabethan era, was a fashion statement to rival those of the 1970s. Starting life as a simple collar, the ruff grew more elaborate through the course of Elizabeth I’s rule to become symbolic of the era. It was a circular collar made from a pleated frill worn by both men and women. On women it covered the neck, chin, shoulders, and breast, and on men it covered the neck and shoulders.
The quality of a ruff was a sign of status. They were worn by aristocrats and proletarians alike, although the quality of material would vary greatly. In the aristocracy, a ruff was likely made of lawne or camerick, both very expensive fine linens. Quality ruff’s were decorated with lace, gold, silver, and fine silk. Ruff’s belonging to wealthy women would often be decorated with decorations to represent the sun, moon, and stars. For the poorer folk, a ruff would likely be made of cheap fabric that would have likely irritated the skin.
Sir Walter Raleigh
When the first ruff came into fashion in the 1560’s, it was a simple accessory measuring approximately 3″ wide by 2″ deep. This was known as either the cartwheel ruff or a fan-shaped ruff. This was a common adornment of the adventurer and courtier to Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh.
As the ruff became bigger and more flamboyant, it was necessary to use a metal wire frame (gauze wings) at the back to the neck to hold it in place. Laces or strings (band strings) were attached to the opening of the ruff to secure it around the neck. It was common for an elaborate ruff to be held together with hundreds of pins. The material to create a single ruff, in later stages, amounted to as much as five metres of material. Pins were an essential part of Elizabethan clothing which in turn led to a very buoyant pin-making industry.
Cleaning the ruff was far from trivial. Being a fashion accessory it was mandatory to keep the garment in pristine condition, and this was done using vast quantities of starch. This also helped to maintain the shape of the ruff and keep it upright.
The ruff was at times used to add finesse to cuffs and sleeves of clothes.
The ruff was eventually replaced by the standing collar during the reign of James I, but it could be said it led the way for neck ware in years to come.
Portraits of ruffs
Portrait by Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt of Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia 1623
Portrait by Abraham Rombouts of Anna de Looper c1627
Portrait by Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt c1628
Portrait by Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt c1630
Portrait by Thomas de Keyser 1596-1667
The following article is written by Bess Chilver, costumer and Tudor dress expert.
Women’s Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII
It is without doubt, that the clothing for noble men and women in the reign of King Henry VIII were exquisite. Portraits show a woman’s silhouette is conical in shape whereas the men’s silhouette is wide and square. For both men and women, fabrics are rich and luxurious using sumptuous silks and satins, the finest linens and velvets with abandon.
Sir Henry Guildford. c. 1527. Artist – Hans Holbein.
Queen Katherine Parr c. 1545. Artist – Master John.
The fabrics and decorations used are only part of the story. Each garment worn adds to the complete ensemble. To modern eyes, the number of layers worn seem excessive, yet each layer is necessary to the whole.
So what are the garments and layers that are worn by women in the Tudor Period? The minimum number of layers actually worn would be four: Smock; Petticoat; Kirtle and Gown. Depending on where within Henry VIII’s reign one was, other layers such as the farthingale, forepart and partlet would also be worn. Headwear would be the finishing touch.
Jane Seymour, Queen of England. Detail of Embroidered cuff. c. 1536 Artist – Hans Holbein.
Smock of fine cambric with wide sleeves, … of fine linen”
25 Jan, 1522/1523 – Lord Monteagle’s Goods.
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic – Henry VIII Vol. 3
Everyone, no matter what their rank, age or sex, would have had enough changes of linen to last at least a week. The higher the rank, the more changes were available. It was a matter of pride to wear clean linens every day.
The smock in the upper ranks would be made of very fine linen, as white as possible. The necklines and cuffs could be exquisitely embroidered in black-, red- or white work. Some may have been worked with an early form of lace called drawn threadwork.
In the early part of Tudor period, the neckline was usually square in shape, following the line of the bodice. Later on, a high necked smock was worn which had a small standing collar edged with a frill – this would eventually become the ruff of the Elizabethan era.
The sleeves would be finished with a small narrow cuff and frill. This, and the neckline, is usually all that can be seen of a smock in contemporary portraiture.
Elizabeth, Lady Audley Detail of Embroidered Smock Neck c. 1538 Artist – Hans Holbein.
“…a peticoate of scarlet, the upper bodyes of crimson tapheta…”
Royal Wardrobe Accounts of Queen Mary Tudor. 1554.
The term “petticoat” comes from the French for a “little coat” and both men and women wear garments named as such.
For women, it clearly has a skirt and may or may not be upperbodied. Ninya Mikhaila of “The Tudor Tailor” suggests the bodice could be minimal – mostly seen on the back and sides of the body but the front being little more than a pair of “braces” supporting the skirt. This allows for the bare minimum of fabric being used but also minimises the amount of bulk worn beneath the next two layers.
Petticoats are mostly made of a red fabric – red being thought of as a health giving colour. This idea is seen as late as the 19th century.
Upperbodied Petticoat Made and modelled by Bess Chilver
Silk Petticoat with minimal upperbody. Maker – Bess Chilver. Model – Etty.
The first image shows my own petticoat made of an unbleached linen bodice which is lined with itself. A fine weight buckram is used to interline the bodice and is supported by boning of cane. Its fastens via laced on both sides. The skirt is a very fine weight scarlet wool. This petticoat essentially doubles as a “petticoat” and “kirtle”.
The second image is the petticoat made with the bare minimum required for the bodice. It has a deep “U” neckline. The back neckline is a deep “V” shape. It is fastened at the waist with a laces through a pair of worked eyelets. The skirt is made of a silk dupion and lined with itself. There is a lining of cotton wadding to give the skirt a bit of weight.
“5 yds. of white satin for a kirtle.
2½ yds. of red cloth to line her kirtle.”
June 1533. Coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn. Inventory of Apparel.
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic – Henry VIII, Vol 6.
The kirtle was a garment that supported the bust and created the correct silhouette for the period. It was worn over the petticoat, and from the 1540s onwards, over the farthingale. It seems that the kirtle bodice was stiffened in some way, usually with buckram. This was a stiffened linen which may have had additional stiffening consisting of some kind of “boning”. However, it is also clear, that whatever stiffening methods were used, the bodice of the kirtle was not made in the same way as a Victorian or modern corset is. Nor was it designed to cinch in the waist and torso in the same way.
Side Laced Kirtle. Maker and Model: Victoria Henige
The kirtle depicted above is very similar in construction to my upper bodied petticoat, but is designed to be seen beneath the overgown. It is also side laced and has a stiffened bodice providing a firm foundation for the overgown.
Portraits show a tantalising glimpse of the kirtle – usually at the neckline as can be seen here in Mary Boleyn, Lady Carey’s, portrait:
Mary Boleyn, Lady Carey. c. 1530s Artist – Hans Holbein or School of.
Gown, Forepart and Foresleeves
“…a gown of right crimson satin, to be lined with cloth of gold of tissue…”
Coronation of Queen Anne Boleyn.
Inventory of Apparel. June 1533.
The gown is the garment in Tudor Dress which is seen in its entirety by other people. The Smock and Petticoat are very much underclothes. The kirtle is usually only seen peaking out above the gown neckline so this too is mostly hidden.
As the gown is so visible a garment, it needed to make an impact. This is where sumptuous fabrics could be used such as velvets or damasks or Cloth of Gold. The wealthier a person was or the higher the status, the more sumptuous (and expensive) the fabrics.
Jane Seymour, Queen of England c. 1536 Artist – Hans Holbein
1520s/1530s - Red Silk Taffeta Gown with Red Cloth of Gold undersleeves, Maker – Ninya Mikhaila, Model - Bess Chilver
1535 – Brown Velvet Trained Gown, Maker and Model – Victoria Henige
“And as for Mrs. Anne’s French hood, my lady Sussex had, and Mrs. Katharine gave hers to Mrs. Parr”
28 Jan, 1538 – Lisle Letters. John Husee to Lady Honora Lisle
Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic – Henry VIII Vol. 3.
Most people, when thinking about Tudor headwear, will bring to mind, images of two headdresses that were worn during King Henry VIII’s reign. These are the French hood and the English or, as is more commonly termed now, the Gable Hood.
It is a common misconception, that Queen Anne Boleyn was responsible for bringing in the ubiquitous French Hood whereas her predecessor Queen Katherine of Aragon and also Anne’s successor, Queen Jane Seymour, both preferred the English Hood.