Recreating the Reality of Elizabethan Clothing 1

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By Dan Rosen

The text for this article was written to be used as part of a course on the realities of Elizabethan clothing, called Am I Hot in This? The Reality of Renaissance Clothing. Clearly Dan is writing about clothing and fabrics around 100 years before the English Civil Wars but much of the information is relevant and therefore the text has been included here by kind permission of Dan.


It is easy to forget that what we actually represent when we are at an event is the real people of a time different to our own. The Elizabethan people breathed, ate, drank, slept, fought, laughed and so on just like us. What they wore, or chose not to wear when the occasion wasn’t suited to particular garments if any, had to function, not necessarily as temporary costumes such as we put on and take off, but as real clothing. Our clothing might be new, but in Elizabethan times there was a large second hand trade and many people gained clothing through inheritance. It is important to remember that as we clothe our characters or portrayals. Simple linen items like shirts might be made in the home or by a seamstress. More complex garments to be worn over underwear would usually be made by a highly trained tailor working in a shop, or by a travelling professional in rural areas.


These tailors had a limited variety of fabrics to work with, but at the same time the materials they used were extraordinarily functional. Modern developments such as heating and air conditioning enable us to use more cost effective natural fibres mixed with what amount to plastic textiles for modern clothing. Because we work out amongst the elements at events, it is a good idea to wear fabrics that are wholly natural, as they did.

English people had access to wool, linen, silk, leather, and cotton to a very limited degree. Blends were both common and popular, and linen, wool, silk, and cotton were frequently intermixed to produce different textures and possibilities. One thing to keep in mind is that in the Elizabethan era, materials were very expensive but labour was cheap. The processes used to make fabric and products were incredibly labour intensive, but labourers themselves could be had in legions.

Avoid acrylics, nylon, polyesters, and other artificial or man-made fibres because, apart from looking wrong, these tend to not breathe at all and most will melt if they come in contact with a flame, which makes them extremely unsafe for working in a historical environment, let alone hot weather. Many silks, wools, and linens contain a significant proportion of that kind of material, so it is important to take care and read labels. There are many easy ways to test fabrics to check out their content. I would also advise against jumping to brocade or upholstery fabric for a few reasons. First, most are made of those artificial fibres. After that, 99% don’t look remotely like they are from close to our time period, and because they’re meant to go on a couch or on drapery and not on people, it is likely that they will still look like they are meant to be on a couch or drapery. If the public happens to have seen that material on their own furniture or in the store, there's a good chance that the illusion of transporting them to a different time or place will be shattered.


Wool was one of England’s main exports and a source of national pride. It was a very common material for people of all kinds, and could vary significantly in its quality, ranging from thick and coarse cloth for the dead of winter to very fine smooth fabric for those with a lot of money. It is in fact an extremely functional fabric that is very comfortable in warmer weather, especially when it is lined with linen. The two work as a team to absorb and wick away moisture. Today, the very finest of business suits are made of a thinner wool called worsted, which is not far off what was rather common amongst many varieties of people historically. Many thinner wools are available for purchase today; you might find worsted, broadcloth, melton, gabardine, tropical-weight, twill, flannel, worsted flannel and so on in stores or online.


Linen was the multipurpose fabric of the day, ranging from fine translucent weaves for premium shirts to canvas, also known as sackcloth, for outerwear to super heavy duty stuff for ship’s sails, storage bags, and so on. It is highly functional and can be made to be very strong, but doesn’t always take dye very well. It is also much more comfortable in hot weather than cotton, which tends to get soaked and swampy-feeling. Rather than getting swampy as cotton does, linen tends to pull away the moisture. Next time you’re in a department store, look at some of the higher end blouses and summer shirts, and you’ll find a lot of linen in the racks. Hemp and even other plants like nettles were used as well for other types of canvas.


Silk was expensive and might take a variety of forms like taffeta, velvet, and satin that we are familiar with today, but might also be changeable, with colours running in different directions to give the material a different sheen depending on how you looked at it. It was also on the higher end of the spectrum, but even small amounts or scraps might be used to line or face visible portions of a garment's interior or lining amongst common people. Avoid dupioni or slubby silk. They might appear attractive to the modern eye, but in 16th century England, silk like that was considered garbage because of the irregularities.


Cotton fabric was very common elsewhere in the world, but in Western Europe, the technology to produce it was yet to be perfected, and much of the imported material was, in turn, on the expensive side. As a warning, cottoning in the Elizabethan period could also refer to a finishing process for wool which results in a soft, fluffy, open weave. Nine times out of ten, cotton in written documents means that variety of wool. There were, however, two very common uses for plant cotton in England. The first was in the raw fibre state as padding or stuffing for clothing and also as part of a blend. Fustian, a blend of linen and cotton, or perhaps wool, was extremely common for men’s and women’s clothing. It could take the form of canvas as well as something closer to the finish of fine smooth wool or even velvet.


Lastly, leather was a common choice for men’s clothing and unisex accessories. Doublets, jerkins, breeches, shoes, and hats are possibilities, as well as pouches, purses, bags, belts, and so on. Unfortunately, apart from shoes and accessories, leather does not seem to have been a part of ladies’ clothing besides a doeskin bodice worn by Queen Elizabeth. Leather in the period was tanned using natural sources, as opposed to some of the methods we use in the present. Modern chrome tanning, for example, penetrates the leather with dye but leaves the finish plastic-like. Look for leather with a plain and natural texture (avoid pebbled or suede, as suede existed in a somewhat different form than it does today), processed with vegetable/veg., brain, or oil tanning. Natural colours such as off-white, buff, yellow, brown, tan, black, etc. are the most common in images.


The Elizabethan people liked colour, and a surprisingly vivid variety is achievable from natural sources alone, and at the same time, colours were meaningful. It was widely believed, for example, that a red woollen petticoat or waistcoat worn near the skin would ward off illness. Another theory is illustrated by the use of yellow as a device in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night on the legs of Malvolio as well as in the song Give Me My Yellow Hose Again; both of these imply a desire to be promiscuous and free. Purples and violets were actually worn by people of all ranks and classes although we are familiar with the theatrical concession that only the Queen and the highest ranking of the nobility were permitted to wear it, and only applied to silk. Black too was worn by people of all stations, but that does not necessarily mean super dark intense black. The most intense fabric dyes tended to be expensive, being made from rarer materials like cochineal or kermes insects for saturated red, and many in turn were quick to fade and so had to be maintained. For many colours, there were less expensive substitutes or sources, so black worn by common people, for example, might actually be closer to very dark green or brown. Think of it like looking at paint swatches in a hardware store. Picture off-white in your head, and imagine all the shades and hues that might fit under that umbrella: eggshell, ivory, beige, and so on. They’re all off-white, but each has a different character and visual quality.

The type of material you’re dyeing matters as well. Leather, for example, changes the game a little, and an effective black dye could be had for it from vinegar and iron or steel. You can make a shoe dye at home by dissolving a chunk of steel wool in cooking vinegar.

Ninya Mikhaila of the Tudor Tailor has discovered in wills that blue garments were more common amongst men, and red amongst women, but either sex might wear either colour. Pink too was worn proudly by both. Amongst men, blue coats and breeches show up a great deal in sources from the period as holdovers from their owners’ time as servants. This was a stage in life most regular people went through in one form or another and was not a mark of shame. However, because, in part, of the role of blue coats in English society and the dyes used to make them (probably woad, think Braveheart), blue doublets were actually very rare in England. They did, however, exist: see John White’s watercolours of Sir Martin Frobisher’s contact with Inuits and Levina Teerlinc’s miniature of a Maundy ceremony for a few examples. The only example I have found in a will is from a mariner in 1555, for a ‘Cloth jacket, and blew worslet doublet.’ Undyed or unbleached wool fabrics were also common amongst the poor and those located out in the country, while the more affluent were more likely to have colour in their outer garments.


Finally we move onto the clothes. First and foremost, just like today, fashions changed frequently, and not all fashions existed at the same time. At events, you might hear that a particular historical group represents a chapter within the period rather than a page, but you must be highly conscious of fashion and not forget that both the chapter and the page are in the Elizabethan period, and not those that preceded or followed it, or one of fantasy periods. If we think about a similar 60 or so year-span of time as the Elizabethan period and compare it to the present, someone would not have worn in the 1940s the sort of clothes that pass as street wear today. The aesthetic, styles, and acceptable levels of dress are very different. Another way to think about it is that styles and objects don’t always co-exist. One cannot play an Xbox 360 game on an Atari or early Nintendo system because they didn’t happen at the same time, so for someone, say, to wear the fashions of the 1590’s in the 1550’s doesn’t make sense, unless someone representing a later date has reasons to backdate clothing. You may have heard of Sumptuary Laws, which governed what you could and couldn’t legally wear, but these applied largely to things like very specific applications of precious metals on accessories, the allowable length of a sword, and particular colours of pure silk velvets, amongst other things that don’t readily apply to common people.


With clothing of any kind, underwear is usually a good choice. In our period, the main form of underwear was the shirt. Even regular people might own several, and it’s a fantastic idea for you to do the same so you don’t have to wear the same shirt day after day. Body linens were cleaned as often as possible, while laundering outer garments was a more complicated process and was done less frequently. Think of those outer garments as being like blue jeans: you might wear them a number of times between washing, but you (hopefully) change your underwear more frequently. It bears repeating that your shirt is your underwear, and while during the period men and women might be seen in their shirtsleeves while working, farming, cooking, fighting, and so on, it was considered indecent to go about in your underwear in most normal situations and while walking down the street or amongst polite company.

Lower underwear (called drawers) does not seem to have been common in England and it seems that the usual thing was to go commando, but if you choose to do this tuck your long shirt tails strategically to cover your bases. When worn, drawers would be linen and might take the form of something similar to boxers or briefs, so take your pick, though your normal modern stuff will do fine. In any case, I would not recommend you undress at an event. Amongst women, there is even less information, though it is likely that Italian women amongst others were wearing under-things with some frequency. Bloomers were not yet worn.


You may have heard of the chemise, a French word for shirt, but it was not used in the period by the English. Shirts for men were called shirts, and those for women were known as smocks. Linen was the primary choice, and would vary in texture, quality, and shade depending on your role in society. The rich might have something very fine and bleached white, while those on the lower end of things might have something made of a material closer to canvas and unbleached and left the natural shade of linen. Coloured shirts were very, very, very rare: in fact the range between white and the light grey-brown of natural fibre was about it. Both shirts and smocks were cut using a rectangular pattern: there was almost no shaping or complex shaping, so things like a yoke or chest piece into which the torso is gathered weren’t around. As I mentioned before, materials were very expensive, and the practice of making a shirt from rectangular patterns was very economical and did not waste fabric and therefore money. Small collars and narrow cuffs were very common, but some women’s varieties had a square neck. As far as fastening, ties of simple cord set into pairs of eyelets were the usual, but very small fabric or thread buttons or thread toggles and hooks and eyes were also used. Shirts did not lace up like you lace your shoes: this was a romantic Victorian invention.


You might have a relatively small ruffle built into the collar and cuffs, or possibly a falling band similar to modern dress shirt collars (falling bands generally seem to have been only found on men), but the usual was a plain collar, into which a separate ruff or piece of neckwear made of finer material than your shirt might be temporarily sewn or pinned. This made washing and care easier. The quality of material also means that these would be as bleached white as possible. Later, extremely fine, almost translucent falling bands seem to have been incredibly fashionable, especially when worn over a warm red collar-lining. One thing that I want to mention about ruffs, both separate and attached, is that box pleating like we often see today was not used on them: they were instead made with very tiny cartridge pleats of gathers, and were often starched as we do our dress shirts and suits, to maintain their shape and crisp appearance. By the 1570s, ruffs were a huge deal across Europe. Falling bands in England start popping up around the 1580’s, but similar neckwear was around as early as the 1540s or so in Italy. Both shirts and neck and cuff-wear might have thread embroidery in black, brown, red, or blue, though not mixed and matched, often of stylized versions of things from the natural world like plants and insects.


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