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Brief Costume History

Dress in 16th Century Europe

Early 16th Century Europe (1500 to 1535ce)

Dress in this period covers the transition from the relatively softly constructed linear fashions of the Late Gothic (Northern Europe) and Early Italian Renaissance styles, into the far more rigidly constructed, padded and rather more blocky looking Tudor or Northern European Renaissance style.

Because this is one of the major "transition periods" (like the French Revolution or W.W.I eras) where style took a major shift in a short period of time, there are an unusual number of fashion anomalies as people were rapidly rooting about for the new style. Fashion change in this period becomes so rapid that a pejorative expression forms to describe those dressed in outdated fashions:  "they look like like figures in Arras".  Arras refers to the figured woven tapestries that reached their zenith in this era. A typical tapestry of this type took seven years from design to completion, and so the dress of human figures in a tapestry was seven years out of date even when the tapestry was brand new.

Holbein: Henry VIII, Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, and Jane Seymour From Stibbert Holbein: Henry VIII, Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, and Jane Seymour From Stibbert

Above one can see an example of the rapid alteration of dress that occurred in this era.  This image is a copy of a Holbein painting originally at Windsor Castle that showed Henry VIII and his third wife along with portraits of Henry's deceased parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, based on earlier portraits. Left to right it shows Henry VIII in dress of 1530's-40's, his father Henry VII and mother Elizabeth of York in dress of about 1500-1520, and his third wife, Jane Seymour in dress of the 1530's.  The Father and son's dress could hardly be more different from one another, and the women's dress although similar in overall line, is clearly of much more stiff construction in the later dress.

This rapid fashion change is typical in any society that is undergoing rapid social, economic, political or religious change.  This era occurs at the point in history when the world was discovered to be round, not flat, when America was "discovered" by Europeans, when guns went into general use in warfare, when Protestantism ripped apart the previously solid Catholic church in Western Europe, when the printing press very suddenly made ideas spread, when plague level syphilis first ran unchecked through Europe's population, and when a mini ice age weather pattern assailed Europe.

When people are undergoing these kinds of changes they tend to rapidly adopt and discard fashions.  However when change becomes so rapid that it seems highly threatening, the tendency is to choose more and more conservative fashions:  fashions that emphasize class differences, fashions that are physically restrictive, fashions that make the wearer look more formidable than relaxed, fashions that contain and control the appearance of natural female sexuality.  16th Century fashions over the whole of the Century do this to greater and greater degrees, the sharpest shift occurs in the "transition period" of the first third of the Century.

Typical features of this transition period are continued linearity in women's dress while stiffening the internal structure, development of the stiffened gabled headdress in England, and the French hood which containerize women's hair, slashing and puffing increasingly popular as decoration, especially in Germany, continuation of parti-colored dress in the beginning of this era, and expansion of the codpiece with extreme padding.

Mid 16th Century Europe (1535 to 1570ce)
Landesknecht (German mercenary soldier) with puffed and slashed clothing in Stibbert Landesknecht (German mercenary soldier) with puffed and slashed clothing in Stibbert.

Puffing and slashing was the perfect visual metaphor for the 16th Century, because it suggests a society that is literally bursting at the seams with new ideas and problems.  By mid Century, clothing is so stiffened and tight with the desire to constrict change that some surviving examples appear as though they could stand up on their own.

Spanish Doublet, 1570 (Kohler) Spanish Doublet, 1570 (Kohler)

Throughout this era clothing gets both tighter and stiffer, while being more and more puffed out with padding and slashings, giving it a dual visual message.  Women's dress in this era follows the men's dress into broadness created with stuffing and hoops, so that the wealthy in this era look a bit like walking overstuffed furniture. 

Mary I in a "Spanish Farthingale" (Norris V.3 pt .2) Mary I in a "Spanish Farthingale" (Norris V.3 pt .2)

Women mainly wore the "Spanish Farthingale", which was a cone shaped hoop skirt, in this era.  It is also in this period that waist cinching undergarments (which in theory existed from around 1450, although no earlier examples survive) became boned or otherwise stiffened to the point that they rightly deserve the name "stays" or corsets.  Stays in this period cinch the waist, and flatten the breasts into a perfect cone shape, a trend continued into the following century.

 Late 16th Century Europe (1570 to 1600ce)

The late 16th Century is commonly and rightly associated with Queen Elizabeth I of England, and so is often referred to as the Elizabethan era.  Elizabeth herself was highly aware of how dress could be made to manipulate a public political image, and spent her public life as queen in a series of progressively larger, more decorated and more uncomfortable gowns, until she resembled an auto icon of Late Renaissance design and power.

Queen Elizabeth I 1559 (Norris V.3 pt .2)  Queen Elizabeth I 1559  (Norris V.3 pt .2) 

This too is the era of the ruff, an impressive combination of two under exploited costume inventions of the previous Century: starch and lace.  Ruffs had begun very modestly in mid Century on the wealthy, primarily in France and Spain, but spread rapidly, and grew in size to the end of the Century, and into the beginning of the next.

Queen Elizabeth I (Norris V.3 pt .2) Queen Elizabeth I (Norris V.3 pt .2)

Ruffs were made so wide that they often caused eating difficulties for the wearers, so much so that women had the happy thought of splitting the ruff in the front to make meals easier, and frame the cleavage.

Queen Elizabeth I, 1590 (Norris V.3 pt .2) Queen Elizabeth I, 1590 (Norris V.3 pt .2)

The cone shaped "Spanish Farthingale" of mid Century came to be replaced by the "French Farthingale" which began as a bell shape, and ended up changing into something resembling a mobile tea table.

By the end of the 16th Century, upper class European clothing bore not the slightest resemblance to dress of the beginning of the Century, and it stylistically was very far removed from the dress of other cultures.  This rapid change, and cultural differentiation through dress happened just as Europe was making it's big push to explore, exploit and colonize the rest of the world.  People became so aware of fashion change over time, and national differences in dress that they became very curious about dress in other countries and eras.  This therefore is known as the first great era of costume books, when people began to illustrate picture books on dress in other cultures and times. 

Click here to read about men's & women's fashions from 1500-1603
Click here to read about men's & women's fashions from 1604-1659
Click here to read about men's & women's fashions from 1660-1720
Click here to read about men's & women's fashions from 1721-1799
Click here to read about men's & women's fashions from 1800-1849
Click here to read about men's & women's fashions from 1850-1919

Click here to read about men's & women's fashions during the 1920's, 1930's & 1940's

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