The Writer’s Guide to 1500-1550 Women’s Fashion

Today I will be take a closer look at the styles women were wearing in Europe during the first half of the 16th century. Most of the trendsetters were men such as England’s Henry VIII, France’s Francis I, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

If you want the basics of 16th century fashion please check out my previous post, The Writer’s Guide to 16th Century Fashion.


The base layer for all social classes was still the linen chemise with full long sleeves. The style of the upper class was to gather the volume into a neckband, often with a ruffle. Over this was worn the kirtle but it was changed from the previous century with the addition of boning in the torso that provided support and a smooth silhouette for the gown to go over. It also had the addition of a waist seam, allowing for a fuller skirt. Stockings were worn, kept up by a ribbon or woven garter tied below the knee, and shoes were flat.

Starting in the 1530’s, the pair of bodies was introduced. It was a garment usually boned with reed, the ancestor of the 18th century stays and 19th century corset. It laced in the front and back, which is why it’s called a pair since there were two pieces.

A pair of bodies worn by Queen Elizabeth I of England. Photo source.

National Dress

German fashions were colorful with large amounts of embellishment. The dresses were low cut and open fronted, lacing over the kirtle. The skirts were later decorated with bands of contrasting fabric, which was often embellished or slashed.

The style of Holland, Belgium, Flanders, and Italy retained the high waisted silhouette of the previous century.

The Spanish style was austere and heavily used black and was also increasingly using the Spanish farthingale, a boned skirt that was the ancestor of the hoop skirt. This style displayed the front of the kirtle, which was heavily decorated. Later, an under skirt would replace the kirtle as the pair of bodies came into use. The portion that would be seen in the front was embellished heavily while the rest of the skirt hidden under the outer skirt was left plain as a cost-saving measure.

The English and French fashions began following the Spanish lead, adopting the farthingale. These gowns often had a low square neckline, usually filled in with the chemise or a partlet, a small garment that covered only the chest and shoulders. The English favored wide turned-back sleeves, a fashion that is heavily linked with Anne Boleyn. [1]

A dress in the front-laced German style. Photo source.
Catherine Parr, sixth queen of Henry VIII, wearing the English fashion (1545). She is wearing a French hood. Photo source.
An Italian lady (1530-35) wearing a high-necked chemise or partlet that fills in the low neckline of her gown. Photo source.

Headwear and Hair Styles

French hoods, a stiff arched hat that sat back on the head with a veil draping from it, were the most popular headdresses among the upper class although the gable hood was worn frequently in England. However, there were a variety of other styles such as the German barett and cauls, made of a netted cord over a silk lining gathering into a headband. In warmer climates, such as Italy and Spain, hair was worn uncovered and often twisted or braided up in elaborate styles.

To achieve the fashionable light hair, women would apply a mixture of lemon juice, alum, and white wine to their hair and sit in the sun. They would curl it by saturating it with gum Arabic or beer and wrapping it around clay curlers. [2]

A portrait of Mary Wotton, Lady Guildenford, by Hans Holbein (1527), in which she wears a gable hood. Photo source.
A woman wearing a barett from Albrecht Dürer’s Young Woman (1507). Photo source.

Make-Up and Jewelry

Cosmetics were used by upper class women to achieve the beauty ideal of pale unblemished skin, red lips, and light-colored hair. Some of the substances used to whiten the skin were toxic such as mercury, alum, and ceruse (derived from lead) but nontoxic alternatives did exist with ingredients such as olive oil, lemon juice, eggs, and rosewater. Red pigment for the lips and cheeks was achieved by vermilion, a mixture of ceruse and henna and cochineal (a powder of insect shells).

Jewelry for the upper class was sumptuous and elaborate and included necklaces, rings, pins, brooches, earrings, and bracelets.

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.

 [2] Ribeiro, Aileen (2011). Facing Beauty: Painted Women & Cosmetic Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. pp. 60–124. 

10 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 1500-1550 Women’s Fashion”

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