Stubbes on Ruffs

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Stubbes on Ruffs

Excerpt from "Stubbes on Ruffs"

    By Philip Stubbes

    Originally published in The Anatomie of Abuses, 1583

    Available online at

The Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history, was a time of rapid social change. Population growth and economic prosperity spurred both domestic industry and foreign trade. While in earlier times businessmen had possessed relatively low social status, their increased incomes now enabled them afford to live like aristocrats. This development made many people uneasy, for it confused their clear ideas about social class. Society had been built on the idea that rank and privilege were based on birth. Now, economic wealth was allowing people to challenge this assumption.

"Sometimes they [ruffs] are suffered to hang over their shoulders, like windmill sayles fluttering in the winde…."

One of the most visible signs of wealth was an infatuation with extravagant clothing. In earlier times, most English people wore simple garments made of wool. But as incomes increased and rich imported goods, such as velvets, silks, and lace, become more available and affordable, clothes made from these fabrics became extremely popular. The English adopted a more ornate style of dress, with the wealthiest adorning their garments with furs, rich embroideries, and jewels. While most people enjoyed dressing this way, the new demand for luxurious fashions caused some concern. Puritans, a group of Protestants who followed strict religious standards, for example, condemned excess in clothing because they believed it encouraged vanity.

Philip Stubbes (c. 1555–c. 1610) articulated this moralistic view in Anatomie of Abuses, an attack on Elizabethan manners, entertainments, and fashions. Published in 1583, the book was so widely read that it was reprinted four times in the next ten years. In the excerpt "Stubbes on Ruffs," Stubbes criticizes one of the most popular Elizabethan fashions—the ruff, a large, circular collar worn by both men and women. Starch was used to make the ruff stiff. The wealthiest people wore the largest ruffs. To Stubbes, ruffs were a ridiculous display of vanity.

For others, anxiety about luxurious clothing was directed mostly toward people with low incomes. London in the 1580s was crowded with newcomers; indeed, by 1587 its population had swelled so rapidly that Elizabeth I (1533–1603) attempted to ban new construction in the city. Most of the newcomers were young men who sought work as servants or apprentices, young men who work for an expert craftsman in order to learn a trade. Because it was impossible to know their backgrounds and because they were not necessarily employed, their growing numbers in the city caused some alarm. They were often seen as a threat to the social order because they could not easily be categorized or put in their place, especially when they wore fancy clothing that was considered to be above their rank.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Stubbes on Ruffs":

  • Clothing in Elizabethan times served to identify individuals according to their rank in society.
  • Puritans believed that the luxurious dress that had become popular among upper and lower classes alike only encouraged the vice of vanity.
  • One of the most popular fashions during the Elizabethan Era was the ruff, a large, circular collar. The larger and more ornate the ruff, the wealthier the person.

Stubbes on Ruffs

They have great and monsterous ruffes, made either of Camericke, Holland, Lawne, or els [else] of some other the finest cloth that can be got for money, whereof some be a quarter of a yard deep, yea, some more, very few lesse; So that they stand a full quarter of a yarde (and more) from their necks, hanging over their shoulder points, instead of a vaile. But if Aeollus with his blasts, or Neptune with his stormes chaunce to hit upon the crafie bark of their brused ruffes, then they goe flip flap in the winde, like rags flying abroad, and lye upon their shoulders like the dishcloute [dishcloth] of a slut. But wot [know] you what? The devil, as he in the fulnes of his malice, first invented these great ruffes, so hath hee now found out also two great stayes [underpinnings] to beare up and maintaine that his kingdome of great ruffs: the one arch or piller wherby his kingdome of great ruffes is under propped, is a certaine kinde of liquide matter which they call Starch, wherin the devil hath willed them to wash and dive his ruffes wel, which when they be dry, wil then stand stiffe and inflexible about their necks. The other piller is a certain device made of wyers, crested for the purpose, whipped over either with gold, thred, silver or silk, and this hee calleth a supportasse, or underpropper. This is to be applyed round about their necks under the ruffe, upon the out side of the band, to beare up the whole frame and body of the ruffe from falling and hanging down….

So few have them, almost none is without them; for every one, how meane or simple soever they bee otherwise, will have of them three or foure appece…. And as though Cambrick, Holland, Lawne, and the finest cloth that maye bee got any where for money, were not good inough [enough], they have them wrought all over with silke woorke, and peradventure [possibly] laced with golde, and silver, or other costly lace of no small price. And whether they have Argente [money] to mayntaine this geare withal, or not, it forceth not much, for they will have it by one meane or another, or else they will eyther sell or mortgage their Landes (as they have good store) … with losse of their lives at Tiburne in a rope. & in sure token thereof, they have now newly found out a more monstrous kind of ruffe of xii, (12), uea, xvi (16) lengthes a peece, set 3 or 4 times double, & is of some, fitlie called: "Three steppes and a halfe to the Gallowes".

The women there [in Ailgna; England] use geat ruffes, & neckerchers of holland, lawne, camerick, and such cloth, as the greatest thred shall not be so bigge as the least haire that is: then, least they should fall down, they are smeared and starched in the devils liquore, I meane Starch: after that, dryed with great diligence, streaked, patted and rubbed very nicely, and so applied to their goodly necks, and, withal, underpropped with supportasses (as I tolde you before) the stately arches of pride: beyond all this they have a further fetch, nothing inferiour to the rest; as, namely, three or foure degrees of minor ruffes, placed gradatim, step by step, one beneath the other, and all under the Maister devil ruffe. The skirts, then, of these great ruffes are long and wide every way, pleted and crested ful curiously, God wot. Then, last of all, they are either clogged with golde, silver, or silk lace of stately price, wrought all over with needle work, speckled and sparkled heer and there with the sonne, the moone, the stares, and many other antiquities straunge to beholde. Some are wrought with open work down to the midst of the ruffe and further, some with purled lace so cloyd, and other gewgaws so pestered, as the ruffe is the least parte of it self. Sometimes they are pinned up to their eares, sometimes they are suffered to hang over their shoulders, like windmill sayles fluttering in the winde; and thus every one pleaseth her self with her foolish devices, for suus cuiusque crepitus sibi bene olet, as the proverb saith: "every one thinketh his own wayes best".

What happened next …

The government became so concerned about excesses in fashion that it proclaimed new sumptuary laws, which aimed to regulate personal spending. These laws were necessary, the queen argued, to protect poor people from the pressure to spend more than they could afford on luxurious clothes. The government also wished to discourage growing demand for imported fabrics, which lessened demand for English wool. The government hoped that sumptuary laws would reduce spending on foreign goods and lead to greater spending on domestic industries. At the same time, the sumptuary laws revealed a desire to limit or regulate upward mobility.

Sumptuary laws were nothing new. Since the 1200s many European kingdoms had enacted regulations about apparel. Sumptuary laws were also common in other cultures. Elizabeth reinstituted many regulations that had been passed during the reign of her father, Henry VIII (1491–1547), but she also proclaimed several new and more detailed laws, many of which aimed to protect English textile industries.

Sumptuary laws were virtually unenforceable. Though fines were collected against offenders in some cases, for the most part the laws were ignored. Economic growth continued to spur upward social mobility as new occupations opened up in trade, government service, and other professions. Since these new positions were associated with gentleman status, they contributed to the blurring of previously sharp distinctions between social classes. It became less and less possible to judge individuals by their clothes.

Elizabeth's successor, James I (1566–1625), feared that regulations governing apparel caused public resentment. To avoid alienating his subjects, he repealed these laws. Even so, Puritan factions insisted on regulations about dress. The Puritan colonists in North America, for example, enacted strict laws there requiring modest attire suitable to the harsh conditions of colonial life.

Did you know …

  • By the 1540s, one out of every five workers in London was engaged in the manufacture of clothing for the aristocracy and prosperous classes.
  • Queen Elizabeth loved fancy garments. In the last year of her life her wardrobe included more than three thousand dresses.
  • Men spent lavishly on fashion in Elizabethan times. It was not unusual for aristocrats to spend half of their annual income on clothing.
  • Books about fashion began to appear in the 1500s, advising aristocrats to wear their fancy clothing in a nonchalant way. This would distinguish them from newly rich people, who were likely to appear ill at ease in their expensive new clothes.
  • Elizabeth decreed more clothing regulations than any other English ruler.

Consider the following …

  • In Elizabethan times people aimed to imitate the dress of wealthier classes. Does clothing still play a role in identifying social status? Consider the importance of particular garments (such as jeans or sneakers), accessories (such as handbags or jewelry), and brand names. In what ways to people use these or other items to make a statement about their social identity?
  • Does your school have a dress code or require students to wear a uniform? If so, do you think this is a fair policy? Why or why not?

For More Information


Dersin, Denise, ed. What Life Was Like in the Realm of Elizabeth. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1998.

Morrill, John, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor & Stuart Britain. Oxford, England and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.


Bailey, Amanda. "'Monstrous Manner' Style and The Early Modern Theater." Criticism, Summer, 2001.


"The History of Footwear: Sumptuary Laws." Department of Podiatry, Curtin University of Technology. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Queen Elizabeth's Influence on Elizabethan Fashion." Elizabethan Costume Page. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Regulating the Body: A Brief History of Sumptuary Law." Jolique: Exploring Dress and Culture. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

"Stubbes on Ruffs." Elizabethan Costume Page. (accessed on July 24, 2006).

Camericke, Holland, Lawne: Types of fine linen or cotton.

Aeollus; Aeolus: Greek god of the wind.

Neptune: Roman god of the sea.

Crafie bark: Small boat.

Tiburne; Tyburn: Site of London's gallows, where public executions took place.

Gradatim: Latin for gradually.