Fashion In The 16Th Century


Fashion In The 16Th Century Essay, Research Paper

Costume of men and women in the 16th century is said to have gone through three different phases. The styles differed quite noticeably from one phase to the next. However, the general dates that these phases took place are not the same for men and women.

For men, the earliest phase was a transition from medieval styles to the styles of the Renaissance. Following this period, the German influence was prominently seen in men’s fashion. Spanish influences were strong in the final phase.

Between 1500 and 1515 men’s basic costume consisted of linen shirts, doublets, (padded, close-fitting body garments with or without sleeves worn over the shirt) hose, codpieces, (bag or box of fabric worn to conceal the front opening of breeches) jackets, bases, gowns, cloaks, caps and/or hats.

Shirts were made of white linen and cut full and gathered into a round or square neckline, often decorated with embroidery or cutwork. They had long, raglan sleeves. Doublets and hose were laced together, the doublets being only waist length. Hose were seamed into one garment with a codpiece at the front. In one version the doublet was cut with a deep V at the front, which sometimes had a filler of contrasting color inserted under the V. Laces could be used to hold the open area together, and also to hold the sleeves in place.

Jackets, sometimes worn over doublets, were similar in shaping and made with or without sleeves. It is often difficult to discern from period illustrations whether men are wearing doublets or jackets as their outermost garments, especially after bases grew in popularity. Bases were short skirts worn with a jacket or doublet for civil dress; over armor for military dress. Made from a series of lined and stiffened gores (wedge-shaped pieces of fabric), bases carried on in civilian dress until well into the mid-century, and over armor for even a longer period.

Gowns were long, full garments with huge funnel-shaped of large hanging sleeves that opened down the front. The front facings were made of contrasting fabric or fur and turned back to form wide, decorative revers (similar to lapels). Younger and more fashionable men wore shorter gowns, ending below the hips. Gowns were worn over doublets or jackets. Circular cloaks were worn over doublets and hose outdoors for warmth. The cloaks were open at the front with a slit up the back to make it easier to ride horseback.

During this time, men cut their hair straight across the back in a length anywhere from below the ears to the shoulder and combined this with a fringe of bangs across the forehead. A few popular hat styles were French bonnets, (a pill-box shape with a turned-up brim that might have decorative cut-out sections in the brim) skull caps or hair nets holding the hair close to the head topped by a hat with a basin-shaped crown and wide brim turned up at one point. Many hats were decorated with feathers.

The second phase, 1515 to 1550, emphasized fullness in the construction of the costume with large, bulky, puffed areas. Garments were ornamented with decorative slashings, (slits in a garment to show puffing of contrasting color and material to form a decoration) or panes, (slashings in material allowing colored underling to show- often embroidered) under which contrasting linings were placed.

Shirts, doublets and jackets continued much as before, with the addition of slashings, as mentioned earlier. Instead of having separate bases, some doublets and jackets were cut with gored (flared) skirts. Some had no sleeves; some had wide U- or V-shaped necklines beneath which the wide neck, the doublet, and part of the shirt was often visible. Bases (short skirts) were still worn with armor. Sleeves of the outermost garment were cut very full, often with a puff from armhole to elbow and a closer fit from the elbow to the wrist.

Hose were held up by lacing them to the doublets. Some were divided into two sections, upper stocks (seat part of trunk hose also known as ?overstocks’ and ?breeches’) and nether stocks, which were sewn together. Codpieces, the pouches of fabric for the genitals sewn at the front of the upper stocks, were sometimes padded for emphasis. Although upper stocks and nether stocks continued to be attached, upper stocks eventually took on the appearance of a separate garment, and were cut somewhat fuller than the lower section. Style variations included long breeches, fitting the leg closely and ending at the knee or more rounded breeches ending at the hip. Both of which may have been paned with contrasting fabric placed beneath the panes. Also during the second phase, slight alterations in cut and trimming of gowns were made for increased width. The collars widened and three new sleeve types developed. One new style was sleeveless, but with wide, extremely deep armholes lined in contrasting fabric and turned back upon themselves to show off the lining. Another was to have short, very full, puffed-and-slashed or paned sleeves. And last, long hanging sleeves also became popular.

Beretlike styles with feather plumes and moderately sized, flat crowned hats with small brims and feather plumes were popular in this stage.

Beards became fashionable and haircuts were short.

By the beginning of the third phase, 1550 to 1600, a new combination of garments had evolved, and men no longer appeared in short jackets or longer skirted jackets and hose. Instead, the upper hose and nether hose had evolved into large, padded breeches (called trunk hose), which was joined to nether or lower stocks. Alternatively, separate breeches were worn, with hose kept in place by garters. The codpiece gradually went out of style and gowns were largely replaced by shorter and longer capes. Short capes were cut very full, flaring out sharply from the shoulder.

During the middle of the century, men displayed the small, square collar of the shirt at the neck edge of the doublet. Next, the collar of the shirt became a small ruffle, and in the final stage of evolution the ruff developed as a separate item of costume, separate from the shirt. Very wide, often of lace, and stiffly starched, the ruff became one of the most characteristic features of costume during the second half of the 16th century and continued into the first decades of the 17th century as well.

Doublets had high cut necks with varying shapes and finishes. They were made with a row of small, square flaps called pecadils just below the waist. Sleeves were still padded, but followed the shape of the arm and narrowed as the century progressed. By 1600 sleeves had become unpadded and closely fitted.

Waistlines followed the natural waist at the back, but dipped to a point at the front, where padding emphasized the shape. By 1570, the amount of padding increased and the point at the front of the doublet became so pronounced that it was called a peascod belly as it resembled the puffed-out chest of a peacock. The jacket was similar in shaping and worn over the doublet. But it usually had short puffed sleeves or pecadils at the arm with no sleeve; the sleeve of the doublet beneath became the outermost sleeve.

Trunk hose were made in several different shapes. There was the melon shape, usually paned, heavily padded, and ending at the hip or somewhat below (about the shape of a pumpkin).. Some trunk hose sloped gradually from a narrow waist to fullness around about mid-thigh, where they ended. This type was called gallygaskins or slops. Others had a short section, not much more than a pad around the hips, worn with very tight-fitting hose. This form had limited use outside of very fashionable court circles.

Trunk hose and doublets were heavily padded with bombast (a stuffing made of wool, horsehair, and short linen fibers called tow, or bran). Excessive use of bombast led one observer to suggest that a man was carrying the whole contents of his bed and his table linen as stuffing in his trunk hose. It was also said that the English parliament house had to be enlarged to accommodate the bulky trunks of the members.

Breeches were separate garments worn together with separate stockings. Some were skintight, some were wide at the top, tapering to the knee (called Venetians) and others were wide and full all throughout (called open breeches).

In this time period men allowed their hair to grow longer once again and beards and mustaches remained popular. Hat styles included those with increasingly high crowns, some with soft shapes, others with stiffer outlines. Brims tended to be narrow. The high-crowned, narrow-brimmed hat was a capotain, and this style remained popular until well into the 17th century. Trimmings for hats included feathers, braid and jewels.

For women, the first fashion phase, 1500 to 1530, was a transition from the styles of the Medieval period as it was for men. The chemise (like a long nightgown) continued to be the women’s undergarment. Gowns were fairly plain; drab colors predominated. Women wore long, full cloaks over their dresses when needed for warmth. On ceremonial occasions women wore gowns with the open mantle fastening with a chain or braid at the front.

Women wore either a single dress or two layers consisting of an outer and an underdress. If two dresses were worn, the outer skirt might be looped up in front to display the contrasting skirt of the underdress. Trains on outer gowns often had decorative underlinings. The train was buttoned or pinned to the waist at the back in order to show the lining fabric. Most often dress necklines were square, with the edge of the chemise visible; they might be cut with smaller or larger V-shaped openings at the front or at both front and back. Lacings held the V-shaped opening together. Bodices (the upper part of the dress) were fitted, skirts were long and full, flaring gently from the waistline to the floor in the front and trailing into long trains at the back.

There were several different sleeve styles which included smooth-fitting narrow sleeves with decorative cuffs, wide funnel shapes with contrasting linings, and hanging sleeves. Whenever two layers were worn, the underdress usually had closely fitted sleeves; the outermost sleeve was large, full, funnel-shaped or hanging.

The second phase of costume for women, 1530 to 1575, was marked by Spanish influences whereas men’s styles of this period had been more directly influenced by German styles. Spanish influence was not evident in men’s clothing until the second half of the century. One important aspect of the Spanish influence was a tendency to emphasize dark colors, especially black. The changes in women’s clothing after 1530 represent a gradual change in style, not a radical one. Significant changes took place in the construction of dresses. Instead of an underdress and an outerdress, women wore a petticoat (an underskirt) and on overdress. The overall look was more like an hourglass. Bodices narrowed to a small waistline. Skirts became more rigid and gradually expanded to an inverted cone shape with an inverted V opening at the front. Many dresses were untrained and ended at the floor.

Bodices and skirts of dresses were sewn together. The bodice narrowed and flattened, becoming quite precise. The waist dipped to an elongated V at the front. A rich, jeweled belt outlined the waistline, and from the dip in front its long end fell down the center front of the gown almost to the floor.

At first, necklines were mostly square, but later were made in a variety of more closed styles. Some were high, closed necklines with standing, wing collars. There were neck fillers, part of the chemise, which were closed up to the throat and ended in a small ruffle. Others were ruffs of moderate size at this phase of their development, worn with high, fitted collars.

The first of many changes in sleeve styles came early in the period when German- and Italian-style sleeves were adopted. Some of the following styles developed.

First there was a sleeve narrow at the shoulder, expanding to a huge, wide square cuff that turned back upon itself. This cuff was often made of fur or of heavy brocade to match the petticoat. A detachable, false sleeve decorated with panes and slashes through which the linen of the chemise was visible might be sewn to the underside of the cuff or, if the chemise were richly decorated, the sleeve of the chemise might be seen below the cuff.

Another sleeve style was made with a puff at the shoulder and a close-fitting, long extension of the sleeve to the wrist. Though worn elsewhere, this style was especially popular in France.

A sleeve full from shoulder to wrist where it was caught into a cuff was also popular.

Lastly, sleeves that were wider at the top and narrower at the bottom became fashionable. Some remarkably complex sleeve styles developed, especially those worn at the Spanish court, utilizing combinations of fitted, full, and hanging sleeves.

Sleeve decorations included cutting and paning with decorative fabrics and fastening the panes with aiguillettes (small, jeweled metal points). Padded rolls of fabric were sometimes located at the joining of the bodice and sleeve. These were supposed to hide the laces fastening separate sleeves to bodices.

Petticoats were worn to accent one’s ensemble. They were mostly invisible except for a small V at the front of the skirt which showed their presence. Petticoats were cut from rich, decorative fabric such as velvet or brocade. Because the back of the petticoat was covered completely by the skirt of the dress, it was usually made with a less expensive, lighter weight fabric.

The flared, cone-shaped fashion skirts required support to achieve its desired rigid shape. This means of support was provided by a Spanish device known as a Spanish farthingale. It was a construction of whalebone, cane, or steel hoops increasing in size from the waist to the floor and sewn into a petticoat or underskirt.

Originally a Spanish style, the ropa was an outer gown or surcote (an over garment of rich material, often with fur-linging) made either sleeveless, with a short puffed sleeve, or with a long sleeve, puffed at the top and fitted for the rest of the arm’s length. It fell from the shoulders unbelted in an A-line to the floor. Some versions closed in the front, but most were open to display the dress beneath.

In the last quarter of the century, 1575 to 1600, the first changes were seen in the shape of skirt, which grew wider at the top. Instead of the cone-shaped Spanish farthingale, a padded roll was placed around the waist. The English called these pads bum rolls, “bum” being English slang for buttocks. The farthingale was modified to obtain greater width and for better support of the dress than was provided by these rolls. In the new modified version, circles of whalebone, cane, or steel were the same diameter from top to bottom instead of increasing in size from the waist to the floor. Steel or can spokes fastened the upper hoop to a waistband. It was called the wheel, drum, of French farthingale.

This style was not used in Italy or Spain at this period where the older, hourglass shape of the Spanish farthingale with a slightly padded roll at the waist was preferred. Although it was essentially a northern European style, many women in northern Europe continued to wear Spanish farthingales, or dresses widened slightly at the waist with bum rolls or small, wheeled farthingales.

Dresses worn over wheel farthingales had enormous skirts that were either cut and sewn into one continuous piece all around, or open at the front of sides over a matching underskirt. A ruffle the width of the flat shelflike section of the farthingale was sometimes attached to the skirt. To avoid having the body appear disproportionately short in contrast with the width of the skirt, sleeves were made fuller and with very high sleeve caps. The front of the bodice was elongated, ending in a deep V at the waist. Additional height came from high standing collars and dressing the hair high on the head.

In the late 1500’s ruffs grew to enormous widths. Made of sheer linen or of lace they had to be supported by a frame called the supportasse or by starching. The following are a few different styles of ruffs.

One consisted of gathering one edge of a band of fabric to the size of the neck to form a frill of deep folds. Some were round, flat lace pieces without depth of folds like a wide collar. Others had several layers of lace rounds placed over each other, covering the lower part of the neck. Then there were open ruffs, almost a cross between a collar and a ruff, which stood high behind the head and fastened in front into a wide, square neckline.

A conch or a conque as known in French, was a sheer, gauzelike veil so fine that in some portraits it can just barely be seen. It was cut the full length of the body from shoulder to floor and worn like a cape over the shoulders. At the back of the neck it was attached to a winglike construction that stood up like a high collar behind the head. Some references consider the conch to have had some significance as a widow’s costume, and this may be true in France; however, in England it seems to have been more widely worn for a purely decorative element of dress by women, such as Queen Elizabeth, who were never widowed.

The custom of having married and adult women cover their hair with a coif (under cap often embroidered and curved over the ears) continued. In the last two-thirds of the century, more hair was visible. The hair was combed back from the forehead, puffed up slightly around the face, then pulled into a coil at the back of the head. To balance the width of the wheeled farthingale, extra height was gained by dressing the hair high and decorating it with jeweled ornaments. Hats popular toward the end of the century were generally small, with high crowns and narrow brims and trimmed with feathers. Jeweled nets and caps were also worn.

Boucher, Francois. 20,000 Years Of Fashion. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1987.

Davies, Stephanie Curtis. Costume Language A Dictionary Of Dress Terms. Malvern: Cressrelles Publishing Company Limited, 1994.

“Fashion.” The World Book Encyclopedia, 1987, Micropaedia, vol. 7, p. 52.

Tara, Maginnis. “15th century fashion.” Internet,, April 4, 2000.

Tedrow, Steven M., M.ed, Social Science Dept. Head, Curlew High School, personal interview.

Tortora, Phyllis and Keith Eubank. Survey of Historic Costume Third Edition. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1998.

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