The significance of clothing in the Elizabethan era was immense, as this was the period when a person’s status was recognized by the kind of clothes he wore. Moreover, layers and elaborate garments were the norm.
The Elizabethan era refers to the period when England was under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It is also famously known as the Golden Age of English history, as English literature and theater reached its peak during this period. Fashion also saw many changes in the beginning of the Elizabethan era. It was characterized by the class that a person belonged to. This era was highly fashion-conscious with elaborate and stylized clothing.
The outfits worn by both men and women in that era were not made of one single garment. In fact, various pieces together formed the entire outfit. Queen Elizabeth I supposedly owned a wardrobe that housed more than 2000 gowns! She was deeply fond of rich fabrics, including jewelry.
Clothing in the Elizabethan era also saw an influence of geometric shapes. Here, it was not about maintaining or showcasing the natural body structure. In fact, women in that era, often emulated the fashion styles of men. Methods such as padding and quilting were used to stiffen the fabric and emphasize the shoulder and waist. The main motive behind this kind of concept in clothing was to give an impression of a small waist. Again, it was not only women who desired to have small waists, men also made use of certain types of clothing such as girdles, to give a really slimming look to the body.
The Sumptuary Laws
The Elizabethan era saw a proper division of class. Queen Elizabeth supported the Sumptuary Law that dictated the color and kind of clothing a person was allowed to wear. These laws were also known as the Statutes of Apparel. It was basically done to clearly demarcate the social structure existing in the Elizabethan era. Anyone violating these laws faced penalties, which were fines, loss of property, and sometimes even capital punishment!
Fashion in the Elizabethan era saw women wearing a number of different layers. Each piece was carefully designed and styled to cover every part of a woman’s body. The women who belonged to the upper class wore a knee-length or full-length chemise. On top, they donned a kirtle along with a fitted bodice that helped accentuate the small waist. The bodice was stiff and masculine with broad shoulders, shaped like an inverted triangle. Several layers of petticoats or forepart were worn.
With the creation of the dome-shaped skirt, the farthingale came into the picture, which was a hooped skirt made of whalebone or wood, to give it a specific shape. The farthingale was worn under the gown. A ruff was also worn by the people belonging to the upper class.
Shoes were made of fine leather or materials such as silk, velvet, brocade, and decorated with embellishments. Because of the elaborate dressing, the women usually took hours to put together their outfits.
The common women like their male counterpart, put more emphasis on practicality. They wore less restrictive clothes. Looser corsets and lesser layers were preferred. Since they had restrictions with materials and colors, they wore simple clothes that were less cumbersome.
┗ Chemise: The chemise was an undergarment usually made of linen. It was an essential part of the women’s outfit.
┗ Stocking: These were usually knee-length and made of wool, silk or linen, held in place with garters or ribbons.
┗ Petticoat: A petticoat was worn over the farthingale. It was usually pleated to add more volume to the gown.
┗ Kirtle: The kirtle was a skirt, which had a highly decorated front section, and was worn above the petticoat.
┗ Partlet: A partlet was a kind of shirt, very often made of silk to cover the chest and shoulder.
┗ Gown: Gowns were usually made of very expensive materials, that were not affordable by the poor. The gowns had a split in the middle to reveal the kirtle.
┗ Ruff: Ruffs were an important part of the ensemble. They are basically frilled collars that were worn by both men and women. They were made of fine linen and stiffened with starch.
┗ Corset: A corset was a fitted garment, clinched at the waist.
┗ A roll or rowle: A rowle was a kind of padded belt, worn under the kirtle.
┗ Stomacher: The stomacher was the front panel of the bodice. It was shaped like an inverted triangle.
Men who belonged to the upper class wore loose-fitting shirts that were gathered at the cuff. These shirts were made of fine linen or silk, embroidered with buttons, down in the front. They wore puffy pants or breeches that ended at the knee. Men also wore large ruffs at the neck and wrists. Hats were usually worn indoors. Fine materials like silk, wool, and taffeta were used to make the clothes, along with embellishments like brooches and feathers.
A doublet, which was a tight-fitting buttoned jacket, often waist or hip-length, was worn over the shirt. It was made of wool, leather or canvas. Over the doublet, they wore a jerkin, which was a short, sleeveless jacket. Materials like silk, velvet, and taffeta were allowed only on trims for hats, buttons, cloaks, and coats. Cloaks of various lengths were worn over one shoulder.
Another thing to be noted is that the men loved jewels. They believed in ‘the bigger, the better’ philosophy and were usually seen adorning garments encrusted with pearls or gemstones.
Shoes, for indoor wear, were made of velvet and silk. For outdoors, fine quality leather and wood were used. The commoners wore simple shirts made of tougher materials.
Apart from these, the men in the Elizabethan era wore detachable long sleeves, corsets, belts, stockings, shoes, hats, etc.
Materials and Fabric Used in the Elizabethan Era
A wide variety of fabrics like velvet, silk, satin, damask, fur, and taffeta were used extensively in this era. These exotic materials were imported from different areas from all over the world. However, only the Queen and her relatives were allowed to wear clothing that used gold or gold tissue as embellishment. Also, clothes trimmed with ermine were only permitted to royalty. Nobles were allowed to wear clothes trimmed with fox or otter fur.
The people who belonged to the higher strata of society also wore clothing that were heavily ornamented with brocades, velvet, lace, and even gold and silver embroidery. Apart from buttons, cords or ribbons were also used to fasten the clothing. Gold and silver buttons that were set with gemstones were often used .
Robes in bright colors were very much in vogue in the Elizabethan era. Such bright-colored clothes were also expensive to purchase. Some of the earlier portraits of Queen Elizabeth show her dressed in a deep crimson robe. This deep red color was actually obtained from an insect, which was found only in the Mediterranean. Therefore, such dyes were expensive to purchase.
People who belonged to the lower strata of society wore clothing made from materials like wool, sheepskin, and linen. They were not allowed to wear materials in silk or even have velvet trimmings in their clothes. The colors that could be worn by them were brown, beige, yellow, orange, russet, green, gray, and blue (not the deep rich indigo).
Thus, we see how fashion had a major role to play during the Elizabethan era. One’s rank and social status affected the kind of clothing one wore. The higher the rank, the more choices of clothes, materials, and colors were available to a person.