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About the Author
Christiane Truelove was an odd kid from North Jersey who turned into an odder adult with interests in history, costuming, fashion, clothes, and music.

A former newspaper copy editor and now a writer and editor for a trade magazine, she lives in Bucks County, PA, with her loving and extraordinarily patient husband, Thom, and two cats, Pixel and Noon.
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Tudor Fashion
Christiane Truelove
Tudor fashion in England consisted of many style variations over a period of about 100 years. While the style best known is personified by Henry VIII and his many wives, the styles worn in the time of Henry’s father, Henry VII, and his daughters Mary Tudor and Elizabeth I must also be considered as part of the Tudor fashion period.
By the reign of Henry VII (1485-1505), the prevalent mode of dress for men and women, the late medieval houppelande and cotehardie, had started to give way to something else. The cotehardie, a form-fitting gown (worn long or short by men, and very long by women) had evolved into the kirtle for women, which was essentially the same as the cotehardie, being tight through the bodice and over the hip, with skirts flaring out from the hips. Minor neckline and belting changes differentiated the kirtle from the cotehardie.
For men, the cothhardie had shortened to become the doublet. Meanwhile, the houppelande worn over the cotehardie, previously worn very loose, became cartridge-pleated and belted at the waist, and became referred to as “the gown.” When Henry VIII took over the throne, the gown relaxed its lines again. In Henry VIII’s reign, the gown was considered rather old-fashioned and worn by scholars and old men. Its lines can still be seen today in graduation gowns and the formal gowns worn by college professors on ceremonial occasions.
By the end of Henry VIII’s reign, the kirtle for women as a main item of clothing had given way to the gown. The gown was sometimes worn over a kirtle, or could be worn by itself. Unlike the men’s gown, the women’s gown was a form-fitting dress, usually with a square neckline and bell-shaped sleeves folded back to show off the sleeves of the kirtle underneath, or a false undersleeve. The gown continued to be made in one piece; the separately-cut skirt and bodice did not evolve until later. starch and care, ruffs could now be worn several times.
Shoes for both men and women were low, broad and square-toed, with soles of cork or leather.
By 1505, slashings (small slits in apparel to show different-colored material underneath) started to appear. This German custom originated, according to the chronicles of the time, in the victory of Swiss troops over Charles the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, at the Battle of Grandson in 1476. The troops used fabric captured as booty to patch their own ragged clothes. The slashings were copied by the German mercenary troops, the Landsknecht, who brought the style back with them to Germany. It came to France through the royal court, where the half-German Guise family ruled. After Henry VIII’s sister Mary married Louis XII of France, English courtiers adopted the slashed style.
In the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign, in 1509, the somber, rich colors of his father’s time gave way to a brighter, gaudier look. This reflected Henry VIII’s more free-spending ways. The wardrobe accounts of his household, according to James Laver’s “Costumes and Fashion,” showed Henry had doublets of blue and red velvet lined with cloth of gold. “Some of the King’s garments were so heavily encrusted with diamonds, rubies and pearls that the underlying material was invisible,” Laver says.
Women’s garments were generally more conservative in color and style than men’s. Still, many bejeweled gowns can be seen in the portraits of Holbein.
The next phase of Tudor style came to England from Spain. Spanish style was introduced to the court when Katharine of Aragon married Henry’s brother Arthur in 1501. Katharine then married Henry when Arthur died in 1502. In Spain, stiffened bodices and skirts with hoops sewn into them can be seen in portraits as early as 1475. These cone-shaped skirts evolved into the farthingale, which became a support for other skirts, while corsets went under the stiffened bodice. The cut of the gown also changed; bodice and skirt were cut seperately. Sometimes two skirts were worn, with the overskirt slit to show off the rich fabric of the underskirt.
Men’s fashions, however, were dominated by Henry VIII. As Henry grew heavier, the sleeves of his doublets grew wider, emphasizing his bulk and producing his famous "square" silhouette. The doublets were usually slit in front to show off the codpiece. Codpieces, modest pouches in their earliest incarnations, in themselves were elaborately decorated and stuffed to appear ridiculously large.
They were even used to hold money and other small valuable items. The nether garments were breeches, with stockings sewn or laced onto them. Stockings at this time were not stretchy knits, but of cloth cut on the bias. They were more like gaiters, worn by both men and women, and held up at the knee by garters.
Spanish fashion for men (short-skirted, tight doublets with visible breeches) did not come into fashion until after Henry’s death. But the influence was beginning to be felt by the end of his reign, and Spanish fashion was already popular through the rest of Europe. Courtiers were eager to copy the fashions of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who was known for his sober dress.
When Philip II succeeded Charles in 1556, the Spanish Court became the example for all Europe. Even Henry II of France followed Spanish fashion and almost always wore black.
In England, Spanish fashion for both sexes came decidedly into vogue when Mary Tudor ascended the throne. Mary had been influenced by her mother, Katharine of Aragon, and Mary’s marriage to Philip II of Spain in 1554 solididied the trend. Even when her half-sister, Elizabeth I, took the throne and even during wars with Spain, Spanish fashion, with Elizabethan and French modifications, continued until the end of the century.
The hallmark of 16th century fashion, the ruff, developed slowly. Men’s shirts and ladies’ chemises closed at the neck and wrists with a drawstring. When the drawstrings were pulled tight, the lace-edged ruffles produced something like a ruff.
Separate ruffs developed for several reasons. Lace, time-consuming to make and very costly, was a status symbol for the rich. The more lace you could display, the more you proclaimed your status. However, delicate lace on a hard-worn garment such as a chemise would quickly deteriorate. Separately-worn neck and wrist ruffs would also allow delicate lace to be cleaned and maintained, and allow the fashionable to vary his or her look with ruffs of various sizes. Some were so large they made the wearer’s head look like it was on a plate!
These larger ruffs were also the despair of laundresses. According to Carolly Erickson’s “The First Elizabeth,” these were originally held away from the wearer’s face by hundreds of sticks of wood or bone, inserted carefully into place by chamber servants. After one wearing, they had to be washed and ironed and refolded, and the tiny sticks reinserted.
All this changed the wake of a visit by a practical Dutch woman. “In 1564, a year of deliverance for hundreds of overworked laundrymaids and chamber servants, Mistress Dinghen Vanderplasse came to England and taught the English how to make starch,” Erickson says. Treated with starch and care, ruffs could now be worn several times.
True knit stockings also developed in England around this time. In 1560, according to Elizabeth Jenkins’ “Elizabeth the Great,” Mrs. Montagu, the queen’s silk woman, gave Elizabeth her first pair of knitted stockings. “I like silk stockings well. They are pleasant, fine and delicate. Henceforth I will wear no more cloth stockings,” the Queen exclaimed. Those who couldn’t afford the fine silk continued wearing cloth stockings, or as knitting progressed among the lower classes, wool ones.
Elizabeth’s court also imported the wheel, or drum, farthingale from France, around 1590. This impractical, dramatic garment consisted of a wheel-shaped framework at the top of the hips over which the skirt fell. In the famous portrait “Queen Elizabeth at Blackfriars,” by Marcus Gheerarts, painted around 1600, Elizabeth and the women of her court are all wearing wheel farthingales under their gowns. The width of these farthingales could be as much as 48 inches around. Outside of court, the “bum roll,” a sausage-shaped pad whose two ends were tied at the front, was popular, but considered a lower-class garment.
For men, the sober, stiff doublets of the Spanish became increasingly padded. The peasecod silhouette developed (a bulge at the front of the doublet near the waist that made men appear like they had a paunch). Breeches were stuffed to stand out from the hips, with wool or bran. Colors became more vivid, with jewels, trim and slashing abounding. Codpieces continued to be worn and sometimes were of ridiculous sizes. Male courtiers also showed a lot of leg; Elizabeth liked male’s legs, especially while dancing, and a young man could catch the Queen’s attention with a well-turned calf. They too adopted silk stockings. Men grew their beards, braiding and dyeing them, sometimes in outre colors such as purple and green, sometimes orange in honor of their Queen’s red hair. They kept their hair short, wearing tall-crowned hats with sweeping plumes. A handkerchief for the hand (scented against the various odors of a time without regular baths or working bathrooms), soft scented leather gloves dripping with gold fringe, and a sword in a bejweled scabbard were all standard male accoutrements.
Colors tended to be rich and sober. The queen preferred dressing in white, fawn, silver and black, all of which showed off her red hair and white skin. Her gowns were elaborately bejeweled and embroidered. She also preferred ruffs that stood in back of the head starting from a square neckline, leaving the bosom exposed.
Elizabeth’s fashions, at least for women, persisted beyond her death. Her nephew James I, being rather parsimonious, turned over most of her huge and costly wardrobe to his wife Anne upon his succession to the throne. When Elizabeth died, wardrobe inventories said she had 102 French gowns (gowns with a slight train in the back), 100 loose gowns (gowns worn in private chambers without a corset), 67 round gowns (gowns without trains), 99 robes, 127 cloaks, 85 doublets, 125 petticoats, 56 safeguards (outer skirts), 126 kirtles and 136 stomachers.
As James did not give Anne a sufficiently large clothing allowance to restock herself anew with gowns, many of Elizabeth’s gowns were made over for Anne.
For further reading:
Costumes and Fashion: A Concise History by James Laver.
Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d by Janet Arnold. This book is invaluable for understanding the fashions of Elizabeth’s court.
Patterns of Fashion, Vol. III (1560-1620) by Janet Arnold. Filled with patterns drafted from original, fragile items of clothing kept in museums.
Period Patterns No. 51, Early Tudor Women’s Gowns, c.1490-1535 by Medieval Miscellanea, and “Period Patterns No. 53, Early Tudor Men’s Garments, c. 1495-1537,” by Medieval Miscellanea. These clothing patterns come with extensive historical notes and illustrations. Actually making a garment from these patterns is not recommended for the casual sewer, but they do contain useful information for the costume scholar.
The First Elizabeth by Carolly Erickson, 1983. Summit Books, New York.
Elizabeth the Great by Elizabeth Jenkins, 1958. Coward-McCann, Inc. New York.
Elizabeth I by Anne Somerset, 1991. St. Martins-Griffin, New York.
The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age by Christopher Hibbert, 1991. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, New York.
A Pictorial History of Costume, Wolfgang Bruhn and Max Tilke, 1988, Arch Cape Press.