Sixteenth-Century Clothing

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Sixteenth-Century Clothing

The sixteenth century was one of the most extravagant and splendid periods in all of costume history and one of the first periods in which modern ideas of fashion influenced what people wore. Some of the larger cultural trends of the time included the rise and spread of books, the expansion of trade and exploration, and the increase in power and wealth of national monarchies, or kingdoms, in France, England, and Spain. Each of these trends influenced what people chose to wear and contributed to the frequent changes in style and the emergence of style trendsetters that are characteristic of modern fashion.

Wealth and the monarchies of Europe

Perhaps the single biggest factor influencing fashion in the sixteenth century was the wealth of European kingdoms and powerful city-states in Italy. Trade and exploration had led to a boom in the economies of Europe, and the textile, or fabric, industries were at the center of that boom. Wool production in England and silk production in Italy were especially important. These industries allowed for the creation of rich fabrics. At the same time tailors guilds, or associations of craftsmen, proved very skilled at turning these fabrics into luxurious clothes. The monarchs and the members of their court were enriched by these trends and could afford the most expensive clothes. But the guild members, traders, and merchants who made up a growing middle class could also afford these clothes.

The powerful kings and queens who led European nations believed that one of the ways that they could display their power was through their clothing. Powerful leaders had always set an example by their clothes, but King Francis I of France (14941547), who ruled from 1515 to 1547, was the first to become a true fashion trendsetter. He deliberately and carefully chose unique and outlandish outfits, and then challenged members of the royal court to adopt his styles as a way of asserting his leadership. Other monarchs followed Francis's lead. French King Henry III, who ruled from 1574 to 1589, set new standards for French luxury and popularized the use of lace for men, though his critics said that he dressed too much like a woman. Perhaps the greatest fashion trendsetter of the century was Elizabeth I of England, who ruled from 1558 to 1603. This powerful female ruler drove fashion to extremes in her pursuit of richness and ornament. Upon her death she was said to have collected three thousand gowns, eighty wigs, and an abundance of jewelry.

Fashion historian Ruth M. Green commented in the introduction to Jack Cassin-Scott's Costume and Fashion in Colour, 15501760, "fashion was initiated in courts and spread from them like ripples in a pond." Merchants and members of the middle class followed the lead of the court, and poorer members of society even tried to find ways to imitate the styles of those above them in the social order. The poorest people could scarcely copy the fashions of the wealthy, but they did change the form of their garments to follow trends and could sometimes gain access to discarded or secondhand garments.

The pressure to keep up

People's attempts to stay in fashion could be very costly. In England and France large owners of land were expected to entertain the monarch and their court when they traveled about the country. They felt pressured to throw large parties and to clothe themselves and their families in the latest and most expensive fashions. When the royal courts traveled, they nearly made the outlying nobles go broke trying to keep up with their standard of display. As Michael and Ariane Batterberry wrote in Fashion: The Mirror of History, "At the great country houses the 'progresses' of the queen and her entourage were as welcome as a visitation from assassins."

Monarchs and nobles weren't the only ones giving fashion guidance during the sixteenth century. People began to use new printed books to get information about clothing and manners. The first book of fashion advice for men was Count Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano (1561), which was translated into several languages, including English as The Book of the Courtier. Along with advice on conversation, horse riding, and other manners, Castiglione urged men to develop their own sense of style. Similar books soon became available for women.

Basic garments of the century

For all the changes that fashion brought to the clothing of the sixteenth century, the basic form of garments remained fairly stable. The standard garments worn by men were hose and breeches for the lower body and a doublet, a padded overshirt, with attached sleeves for the upper body. During the early part of the century men often wore a prominent codpiece over their genitals, but this garment virtually disappeared by the end of the century. Both men and women wore ruffs, wide pleated collars, around their necks. Men wore a shirt beneath their doublets, and they wore a variety of cloaks and mantles, a type of cape, over the doublet. Perhaps the most memorable was the mandilion, a cloak draped over one shoulder almost purely as a fashion statement. The basic garment for women was the gown, but it was far from simple. Actually a combination of several garments, including bodice, sleeves, skirts, and underskirts, sixteenth-century gowns have been considered some of the most beautiful garments of any era in history.

The fact that certain garments were worn consistently throughout the century does not mean those garments stayed the same. The cut, color, and finish of garments changed considerably in response to fashion. People used embroidery, jewels, lace, ribbons, and many other forms of decoration to continually seek ways to express their own sense of style.


Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.

Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 15501760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

LaMar, Virginia A. English Dress in the Age of Shakespeare. Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1958.

Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

"Overview of an Elizabethan Outfit." The Elizabethan Costuming Page. (accessed on August 6, 2003).

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Aprons and Safeguards
Hose and Breeches
Medici Collar
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Sixteenth-Century Headwear

As in the preceding several centuries, the hairstyles worn during the sixteenth century were driven by the tastes of kings, queens, and their courts. During the early part of the century, for example, French king Francis I (14941547) wore his hair in a long bob and many in France followed his example. In 1521 an accident led to a portion of Francis's hair catching fire, and the king was forced to cut his hair short. Again, his court and many other Frenchmen followed suit. Henry VIII (14911547), the king of England, liked the new French style and cut his hair short. In fact, he liked his short hair so much that in 1535 he commanded everyone in his court to cut their hair as short as his. The trend toward short hair for men, usually worn no longer than the bottom of the ears, continued for the better part of the century. It was only very late in the century that men began to grow their hair long, and they would keep it long for nearly two centuries.

The same kings who liked short hair also preferred beards, and there were a great variety of beard styles worn throughout the century. Only older men and poor men wore long, poorly trimmed beards. Upper-class men and those who wanted to be fashionable trimmed their beards and mustaches neatly. Some of the most popular styles were the pique devant, a narrow beard that came to a point, and the spade, which was shaped like a slightly rounded shovel. Some men cut their beard off square and others were even known to wear a forked beard.

Men also wore a variety of hats. Early in the century simple bonnets or caps, low, soft hats with narrow brims, were most popular. After about the 1570s, however, larger hats became more popular. Hats could be made of felt, leather, or even fur. The copotain, a tall, round-crowned hat with a medium brim, was one of the most popular hats. Hats could be worn very simply, or they might be adorned with feathers, jewels, or decorative headbands.

Women continued to wear the large hats and headdresses of the previous century, but only in the earliest part of the sixteenth century. The custom that kept mature or married women from showing any of their hair in public was fading, and hat styles began to allow more of the hair to show. By midcentury hats and veiled headdresses, called lappets, and French hoods stood away from the forehead and temples to reveal rows of artfully curved hair. Very late in the century, and especially among royal women such as Queen Elizabeth (15331603) of England, small coronets (crowns) or jeweled hairpieces replaced the hat and allowed a nearly complete display of the hair. Elizabeth had dramatic red hair, but she was known to possess eighty wigs of varying color and style.

Women continued to wear their hair as they had during the fifteenth century: long and straight and styled with a variety of braids, curls, rolls, and other forms of wrapping. Metal hairpins were first used to keep hair in place in 1545, and by the end of the century women were using wire hair frames called palisades to give structure to their elaborately braided and styled hair. It was very common for women to add strings of jewels or flowers to their hair, or to string ribbons through their braids. Wigs or sections of false hair were also used when the woman's own hair was too thin or not long enough for the desired style. Also, many women used dyes or other methods to color their hair, with blond and red being favorite colors.


Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London, England: Peter Owen, 2001.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Trasko, Mary. Daring Do's: A History of Extraordinary Hair. New York: Flammarion, 1994.

Hair Coloring
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Sixteenth-Century Body Decorations

The personal grooming habits of people in the sixteenth century seem strange to us today. On the one hand, wealthy people took great care with their hairstyles and, in the case of women, with their makeup. On the other hand, the practice of bathing was infrequent among even the wealthiest people and quite rare among the poorer classes. Europeans in the sixteenth century simply misunderstood the nature of disease and believed that they could get sick if they used water to clean themselves. Other than this odd belief, Europeans from this period took great care with their appearance and with the accessories that they chose.

The use of makeup was widespread among wealthier women in the kingdoms of Europe. The most common form of makeup was white pancake makeup applied to the face, with bright red rouge used to color the lips and the cheeks. As fashion historian Ruth M. Green noted in the introduction to Costume and Fashion in Colour, 15501760, by Jack Cassin-Scott, the contrast of these colors would have made women look doll-like in bright light, but probably appeared more subtle in the candlelit castles of the time. The cosmetics used during this period were based on poisonous preparations of lead and quite unhealthy.

Both men and women wore a number of accessories as part of their typical outfit. For men, the most common accessories were a belt, a sword, and a pair of gloves. Men wore a simple leather belt from which they hung their sword, an item that no gentleman would do without. The sword might be highly ornamented, with its sheath and handle bearing jewels or other decoration. Men also tucked their leather gloves into their belt. Women carried a range of accessories, including fans, soft Cordoba leather gloves, and handkerchiefs. One of the most unique fashion accessories was the pomander, a metal or gold ball that contained perfume and was attached to the belt with a cord or tie. Many women of the time are pictured holding the pomander near their nose, perhaps to ward off the smells of body odor that must have filled the air. Because of this lack of sanitation, men and women alike also draped flea furs about their necks to attract the fleas that infested their clothes away from other parts of their body.

"As for jewellery (sic)," writes Ruth M. Green, "there could hardly be too much of it" for both men and women. Men wore rings, long dangling neck chains, pendants, and even jeweled earrings. Women also wore rings on every finger and even the thumb, as well as bracelets and necklaces. Goldworking skills were highly refined during the era, and widespread exploration and trade made a variety of jewels available to the wealthiest people. Perhaps the most striking use of jewels during this period was as ornamentation for garments. Nearly every garment worn could be enhanced by jewels sewn onto the surface or worn on belts or garters around the sleeves, legs, or waist. Women often laced strings of pearls into their hair, and ruffs, wide pleated collars, and high collars were also studded with small pearls and jewels.

The jewelry, accessories, and makeup discussed were used only by the wealthy people who attended the courts of the kings and queens of Europe and perhaps by the wealthiest merchants of European cities. Most ordinary people in the sixteenth century could not afford and would have had little use for these impractical elements of costume.


Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 15501760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.

Chamberlin, E. R. Everyday Life in Renaissance Times. London, England: B. T. Batsford, 1967.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Taylor, Laurence. Everyday Life: The Sixteenth Century. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1983.

Cordoba Leather Gloves
Flea Fur
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Sixteenth-Century Footwear

By the sixteenth century footwear construction methods had grown quite advanced. The shoes of common people were generally made of leather, and while they were fairly simple in construction they were also very durable. Soles were made of wood, cork, or extra layers of leather, and uppers, or the tops of shoes, were either tied or buckled in place. Shoemakers, called cobblers, also developed the ability to make very tall boots for riding or fieldwork. These boots came up to the thigh and had a floppy leather cuff that could be rolled down. In the next century these boots would become fancier in their design and were commonly worn by men of the upper class. In the sixteenth century, however, they were still used primarily for outdoor work or by members of mounted military units.

The footwear of the upper classes was usually far from practical. In keeping with the century's trend toward rich fabrics and elaborate ornament, both men and women wore shoes that emphasized fashion over comfort or ease of use. Men in the early part of the century were fond of very wide-toed shoes. Leather slipons, called duck's bill shoes, flared out at the toe. In their most extreme form they could be as wide as twelve inches at the toe and forced men to walk like a duck. This fashion faded by midcentury, and most wealthy men wore slippers made of soft leather, silk, or velvet, often in patterns matched to their outfit. Women also adopted an extremely impractical form of shoe called the chopine. These slippers sat atop a platform that ran the length of the shoe and could be as high as twenty-four inches. Chopines were very difficult to walk in. People of both sexes also began to wear shoes with thicker heels, including the first wedge heels. Both men and women used ribbons, bows, and jewels to decorate their shoes. Such shoes were not intended for outdoor wear, of course, and both sexes wore overshoes called pattens and pantofles to protect their dainty shoes if they did go outside in them.


Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 15501760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.

Lawlor, Laurie. Where Will This Shoe Take You?: A Walk Through the History of Footwear. New York: Walker and Co., 1996.

Pattens and Pantofles