The Writer’s Guide to 16th Century Fashion

The 16th century was the second half of the Renaissance, a dynamic and changing period of European history. The focus of scholarship and art shifted from the religious to the secular. However, the church still had tremendous influence on people’s lives and some of the most astounding works of religious art were created during this period. An increase in trade made more fabrics available and spread production techniques. Fashions became more regional, making it possible to tell a person’s nationality by their dress.

For this blog I will be covering the basics of 16th century fashion then diving into depth about women’s and men’s styles in upcoming articles. If you want to learn more about the fashions of the first half of the Renaissance, please check out my last post on the 15th century (which you can find here).

Once the world goes back to normal, I highly recommend visiting your local Renaissance faire and asking the participants about their clothing. Most have done an incredible amount of research and many make their garb themselves.

Overview

Fashion in the first half of the 16th century was dominated by several monarchs fighting to outdo each other, including England’s Henry VIII, France’s Francis I, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. The most famous example of this one-upmanship was the 1520 Field of the Cloth of Gold, a sumptuous royal summit that lasted for 17 days. [1] The fashions of second half of the century were led by England’s Elizabeth I.

The styles were typified by opulence. Clothing was constructed of multiple contrasting fabrics and bedecked with embroidery, jewels, slashing, and trim. Silks, brocades, and velvets were worn by those who could afford them. The lower and middle classes wore varying qualities of wool and linen. Cotton was extremely expensive during this time and not widely available.

The Spanish court did provide a bit of a counterpoint to the growing sumptuousness of the fashion trends of the rest of Europe. They favored a rigid severe style that heavily used black. They were basically the goths of the late Renaissance. Black was an expensive color because it was difficult to produce and it faded quickly. [2] It became the standard for formal clothing. Despite the monochromatic color, the clothing was often still ornate, made of rich fabrics and heavily embellished.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, a temporary city set up for a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I. Photo source.
A 1528 portrait of Sir Thomas Moore and his family displaying the styles of the day. Photo source.

Silhouette

The silhouette of female fashion began to widen at the beginning of the century from the slim lines of the Middle Ages. The clothing also became more voluminous to provide more warm layers against the cooling temperatures of the Little Ice Age. The desired silhouette of the second half of the century was a V-shaped torso with width in the shoulders and hips, an optical illusion that made the waist look as small as possible.

The popular silhouette for men started long and lean but over the decades broad square shoulders became popular, achieved by using wide collars, pads, and large sleeves. Shapely calves were also all the rage.

A 1580 example of the wide silhouette for both men and women. Photo source.

Court Dress

Great value was put in displaying wealth through sumptuous clothing. Nobles, especially those who spent most of their time at court, would spend opulent sums of money to keep up appearances and outdo each other, vying to catch the eye of their monarch and earn their favor. Many went into debt to do so and several financially ruined their families.

Middle- and Lower-Class Clothing

The contrast between social classes became more pronounced. The lower and middle classes could not keep up with the nobility but they still tried to follow the fashion trends although with cheaper fabric, less embellishment and by excluding the impractical elements. Their clothing was less elaborate with fewer embellishments and made of cheaper fabric with a focus on durability and practicality.

Working class women would forgo the wide skirt supports because they were impractical but still follow the rest of the silhouette. They would also skip the pair of bodices, instead opting to bone their bodices.

They were also limited by the sumptuary laws, a series of regulations that outlined what a person could or could not wear based on their social standing. These laws could be skirted by paying a fine although they were also widely ignored.

Lower class men and women harvesting hay, 1510. Photo source.

Regional Styles

Regional styles continued and were distinct from each other, although a crossover of fashions happened throughout Europe. For example, Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe included bodices and sleeves in the French, Dutch, Italian, Polish and Spanish styles. [3]


I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] Ashelford, Jane: Visual History of Dress in the Sixteenth Century, introduction
 [2] Mikhaila, Ninya; Malcolm-Davies, Jane (2006). The Tudor tailor: Reconstructing 16th-century dress. London: Batsford. p. 20. ISBN 978-0713489859. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1550%E2%80%931600_in_Western_European_fashion#cite_ref-Tudor20_20-4
 [3] Arnold, Janet: Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, W S Maney and Son Ltd, Leeds 1988. ISBN 0-901286-20-6. 

4 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 16th Century Fashion”

  1. Pingback: The Writer’s Guide to 1500-1550 Women’s Fashion | Rebecca Shedd - Author

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