The Writer’s Guide to 1550-1600 Women’s Fashion

While the fashion of the first half of the 16th century was dominated by men such as England’s Henry VIII, France’s Francis I and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the styles of the second half of the century were dictated by one woman: England’s Elizabeth I. She set the standard for most of Europe and many women scrambled to follow the fashion trends that she started.

Underwear

Just as in the first half of the century, a linen chemise was the first layer worn by all classes of women. The upper class started having their chemises embroidered in keeping with the over-the-top luxury of the time, usually with blackwork, and added lace at the edges. A high-necked version of the chemise was worn under the new high-necked fashions to protect the outer clothing from dirt, oil, and sweat. The partlet continued to be worn to fill in the necklines of dresses.

It appears the only women to wear drawers were Venetian courtesans. [1] Stockings covered the lower legs and were secured with ribbon or woven garters below or above the knee.

The pair of bodies that was introduced earlier in the century was worn across social classes although the boned kirtle was still popular. Lower class women would usually lightly bone their bodices, which were worn as an outer garment.

The use of the Spanish farthingale became more widespread among the upper classes, allowing for the widening of the skirts as the century progressed. By the end of the century, the fashion had become the wheel farthingale, which produced a drum shape. In France, women used a bum roll, a crescent-shaped pad tied around the waist, instead of the farthingale. In England, women wore both. [2] The bum roll played the important part in supporting the heavy skirts and keeping the weight from resting on the lower back. I will say from personal experience, wearing a bum roll made a big different to the amount of strain I felt.

A 1592 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I wearing a wheel farthingale.
Photo source.

Outerwear

Frocks or gowns of various styles were worn during this period. A decorated underskirt was usually worn over a farthingale and petticoat. The outer skirt would be split to show it off. A bodice, usually tightly fitted, would be worn over the pair of bodies. Decorative sleeves would be laced in at the armhole and could be easily changed. The shoulders were decorated with epaulets, tabs, or shoulder rolls. The upper classes would go in for lavish embellishment. Middle class women would try to emulate the fashion but would go for a narrower farthingale and usually had to sacrifice on fabric and trim.

The lower-class woman would usually wear at least two skirts over her chemise with the best and newest worn on top and tucked into the belt to keep it clean. Over that she would commonly wear an apron. Her bodice would be worn over the chemise and would be lightly boned to provide structure and support. Sleeves could be laced in at the shoulders for added warmth. [3]

Cloaks were worn by all social classes as an outer layer to protect against the weather and the dirt of traveling.

Jewelry was worn in profusion by the elite including jeweled belts, rings, brooches, necklaces, and earrings. The middle and lower classes wore what jewelry they could afford such as pewter pendants.

Elizabeth of Valois, Queen of Spain, wearing the stark austere Spanish style (1565). Photo source.
A 16th century woodcut showing the dress of village women. Photo source.

Ruffs

Probably the most distinctive and wackiest fashion statement of this half century was the ruff. Starting as a modest ruffle at the neckband of a chemise or partlet, the ruff became a separate garment and eventually grew to an enormous circumference that needed wire and starch to keep its shape. Of course, it was just another piece to be bedecked with embellishment such as lace, cutwork, or embroidery. [4]

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England from 1585 showing the opulence of late Renaissance dress including a large ruff. Photo source.

National Dress

Although fashion of this period is dominated by the English and Spanish courts, there were other parts of Europe that stuck with their unique fashion. Germany continued with their colorful styles. Italy never really got on the farthingale train, instead keeping a slimmer silhouette.

Headwear

The most popular hairstyle was curling or teasing the front of the hair and braiding or coiling the back and pining it up. Wigs and hairpieces were used to achieve the fashionable look. Married women would at least partially cover their hair just as in previous centuries. Blonde was still a trendy color but red skyrocketed in popularity with the ascendence of the redheaded Queen Elizabeth.

The French hood was still fashionable as were several styles of riding hats and cauls. [5]

Make-up

The make-up used in the second half of the century was almost identical to that used in the first half. The beauty ideal was pale skin, red lips and cheeks and dark eyelashes and eyebrows, usually achieved with the use of kohl. [6] Fair skin was a status symbol because it showed a woman didn’t have to work out in the sun. For the working-class woman who did have to work in the sun, she still tried with whatever she had on hand.


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] Ashelford, Jane: The Art of Dress: Clothing and Society 1500–1914, Abrams, 1996. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1550%E2%80%931600_in_Western_European_fashion#cite_ref-Art_2-0
 [2] Arnold, Janet: Patterns of Fashion: the cut and construction of clothes for men and women 1560–1620, Macmillan 1985. Revised edition 1986. (ISBN 0-89676-083-9). 
 [3] Winter, Janet & Cayolyn Savoy: Elizabethan Costuming for the Years 1550-1580, Other Times Publications, 1979.
 [4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1550%E2%80%931600_in_Western_European_fashion
 [5] Köhler, History of Costume. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1550%E2%80%931600_in_Western_European_fashion#cite_ref-34
 [6] "Beauty History: The Elizabethan Era". Beautiful With Brains. Archived from the original on 13 February 2015. Retrieved 12 February 2015.

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