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The Sixteenth Century (1500s) was a time of great change for women's Renaissance fashion. While Renaissance fashion tends varied in different countries (just like today's fashion trends) there are some commonalities between all areas of Western Europe.
Early Sixteenth Century Fashion
Early Sixteenth Century women's fashions were very similar to that of medieval dress. The styling of a typical outfit of an early Renaissance woman consisted of a kirtle and gown with a cone shaped skirt and long train. Bodices had square necklines, decorated with edgings of fine laces and jewels. Sleeves were very wide, often edged in fur. Waistlines dipped slightly, and overskirts were split to show the decorative kirtle underneath. A kirtle is a simple a frock with a tight fitting bodice and sleeves and full skirt, similar to a petticoat. A typical noblewoman's gown was made from finely woven wool or linen. The very wealthy may have some garments made of silk and velvet, though sumptuary laws prohibited lower classes from wearing such fine fabrics.
Beneath her gown, along with a kirtle, a renaissance woman would wear a linen chemise. This may seem like many layers of clothing, but remember, central heating is several centuries away, and even the finest castles and manor houses were drafty. Around 1525, Renaissance women began wearing a
kirtle in its own right. When worn without a gown it would be paired with a decorated girdle. Unlike the latex undergarment of today, a Renaissance girdle was similar to a belt, worn about the waist and adorned with tassels or gold chains and precious stones. A lady could hang a pompadour or her keys from her girdle for safe keeping.
Mid Sixteenth Century Fashion
As the Spanish House of Hapsburg grew in power, Spanish fashions became popular all across Western Europe, beginning in the 1550s. Spanish fashions look cumbersome on women, to say the least. The clothing was mounted on intricate cages of wire, whalebone and cloth, called farthingales, and Renaissance women were trapped inside. At this time, renaissance women discarded their chemises, and the bodice and skirt became separate pieces, rather than one garment. Skirts were often parted or gathered up at the sides to show off elaborately decorated underskirts. Trains became less fashionable and sleeves became tight fitting from the wrist to the elbow, with large poofed shoulders, slashed to show colorful insets. This style is sometimes referred to as Leg of Mutton Sleeve. It was popular in both men and women's fashion.
It took hours, literally, to get dressed, for so elaborate was the clothing. The predominant color of the day was black. This is not to say that clothing of the day was simple. Quite the contrary. Black velvets, brocades and silks made a perfect backdrop for the elaborate jeweled decorations that
bedecked the clothing of the upper class. Women's dresses were encrusted with pearls, rubies, diamonds, and any other precious stones that made their way across the Atlantic to Western Europe, like a beautiful suit of armor.
Headwear was a necessity during the Renaissance. There were laws in place that actually fined persons appearing in public without their heads covered. Hoods were the most common headwear for women in during the early sixteenth century. They usually fell in folds, and the sides were turned back to reveal an under cap. Another popular style was a gabled hood, also known as an English hood. A gabled hood looks a bit like the wearer has donned tent on her head, draping the sides of the face and forming an arch or gable over the forehead. See the portrait of Catherine of Aragon below, for an example of a gabled hood.
Gabled hoods were very popular until about 1540, when the French Hood became all the rage. A French hood was smaller than the English hood, with a horseshoe shaped crown. It was worn far back on the head, allowing a woman's hair to show. Most often made from black velvet, this style of hood remained popular until around 1580. Refer to the picture of Anne Boleyn below, who helped make French Hoods fashionable in Tudor England.
Late Sixteenth Century Fashion
The ruff grew in popularity and size since the mid 1500s.With the discovery of starch by a Dutch woman, ruffs could be made to stand up several inches high. By the late 1500s large standing ruffs, called cartwheel ruffs, became popular and needed to be wired for support. Spanish fashions gave way to French dominance (again). Elizabeth I preferred the French farthingale above the Spanish Farthingale. For an example of a French farthingale, check out the portrait of Elizabeth I below. Note how her skirt looks like it is falling over a wheel. Other trademarks of late sixteenth century fashions were plunging necklines, and deep, v-shaped waists, sometimes called wasp waists. Hems no longer brushed the floor, but hovered at the ankle, showing off pretty slippers and shoes bedecked with jewels and embroidery.
Another type of hood was the Mary Stuart hood, after Mary, Queen of Scots. It was a smaller hood, wired into a heart shape and decorated with lace.
Beneath a hood, a woman usually parted her hair in the center and wore it in a chignon, or bun, on the back of her head. Many women also opted to wear a caul- a decorative hairnet made of gold thread or silk.
Hats of the Renaissance
A biggin was a tight fitting cap worn by infants and younger children. A beaver was a hat, made of beaver fur. A bonnet was a soft hat worn by men and women. Tall hats, similar to top hats, were popular for hunting, for both men and women. Linen caps, edged in lace and wire, to curve over the wearer's hair, were popular toward the end of the Renaissance.
Sixteenth Century Hairstyles
Hairstyles did not become visible until the very last part of the Renaissance. Up until that point, most Renaissance women wore their hair covered by hoods or coifs, although some women puffed the sides of their hair out, to peek out from their hoods. Like everything else in Sixteenth Century Renaissance fashion, hairstyles were dressed in ornate styles, dripping with jewels, pins, wires and ribbons.
Big hair is not just a trademark of the 1980's. It was also extremely popular at the court of Elizabeth I. Woman frizzed their hair to make it fuller and stand taller. To add more height and fullness many women used wigs and false hairpieces. A broad forehead was considered very beautiful in Renaissance times, and consequently hair was
plucked from the hairline to give a woman a smooth, fair brow.
Sixteenth Century Cosmetics
Among the very wealthy, cosmetics were popular, especially in age when small pox would badly scar a woman's complexion. After her own bout with the deadly disease, Elizabeth I wore ceruse, a smooth white powder made from lead. Vermillion was used as rouge and on cheeks and lips, and elderberries and marigolds were used to color hair. At the court of Elizabeth I, it became fashionable to dye ones hair auburn, after the queen's own tresses.
~Text from Suite101, by Lorri Mealey