The Tudor period commenced with the ascension of Henry VII to the throne in 1485 and ceased with the death of his granddaughter Elizabeth I in 1603, who left no children. During these times the population of Britain nearly doubled, leading to food shortages, unemployment and price rises. For many families life changed dramatically, for better or for worse, within their lifetimes. Portraits of the gentry from Tudor times show the types of outer clothing worn by wealthy Tudors. The basic clothes of the rich and poor however, did not vary greatly.
Men wore a shirt and doublet (a close fitting garment like a jacket) and hose, which were very much like thick tights. The hose were sometimes padded, with horsehair, cotton or wool rags. Some people even padded their hose with bran, which was not a good idea, as it tended to spill out if the hose was torn. All women wore long sleeved dresses with skirts down to the ground. Whilst no noblewoman would ever show her arms or ankles, women with manual jobs such as cooks or gardeners often rolled up their sleeves and/or hitched up their skirts whilst they worked.
It was customary for men and women to wear a small ruff around their neck – although some people also used them to adorn their head too. Men generally wore a hat or cap and women wore a hood or hat. In the winter, men wore a woollen jacket called a jerkin over their doublet to keep warm. If they did not carry out physical work, men such as teachers and doctors wore long coats or gowns trimmed with fur – such garment was an indication of the importance of the wearer. Wealthy gentlemen would often have slashes on the arms of their doublet, through which another material of a different colour would be shown, as per the fashion at that time.
Underwear was not available in Tudor times, and so under their outer garments women and girls wore a chemise, similar to a nightdress. They would wear stockings with garters at the knee and a leather corset laced down the front with two sidepieces that stuck out over the hips. On top of this would be a bodice with separate sleeves that were tied on to the bodice at the waist. Next came the waist petticoats – the top one would show at the front of the gown and a stiffened piece of material, known as a stomacher, was laced securely in front of the bodice.
From portrait evidence, we know that the gown was cut open at the front and reached to the ground. Sometimes gowns were made in two pieces, with the bodice part becoming known as the body and the skirt part as the kirtle. Fashionable ladies took to wearing enormous hoops around their waists towards the end of the sixteenth century. These were known as French farthingales, over which the kirtle was stretched. Women who could not afford farthingales wore a ‘bum roll’, which consisted of a padded tube tied around the waist in order to give the kirtle the desired effect.
The ruff around the neck would be stiffened with wire or starch, which was known as ‘the devil’s liquor’, and must have been extremely uncomfortable to wear. At one point, the fashion for larger and larger ruffs grew quite ridiculous. Poorer women softer corsets and would have has stockings made of a rough, woollen material, with their hair covered with a scarf or a hat. It also became popular at one time for wealthier women to wear wigs. The Tudor era was defined by sumptuary laws, which governed what people were and weren’t allowed to wear, and ensured that people dressed according to their position in society.
Poorer people could wear clothes made of cotton or wool, but were forbidden from wearing rich materials such as velvet or silk, or any material coloured either purple or red. One particular law stated that all males over the age of six, with the exception of the nobility, must wear a woollen cap on Sundays and Holy days, or they would face a fine. People of this era thought nothing strange of the Sumptuary laws, as it was a widely held belief that one’s style of dress should indicate one’s standing in life. Even without such laws, poorer people could not afford to dress any better than they did.
Both men and women’s shoes were made of leather, satin or velvet and had low heels. The fashionable g=had slashes in their shoes in order to show through the coloured lining. Children of very poor people often had to go without expensive items like shoes. Hat styles varied also, although again many were slashed and sometimes tall and rounded with a brim, or alternatively much flatter with a long feather. Wealthy people could afford to have separate nightshirts; whilst the less wealthy slept either in their day clothes or else naked, although most of them will have worn a nightcap.
There is evidence that Anne Boleyn possessed a nightshirt of black satin, which was lined with, taffeta and edged with velvet. At birth, infants were wrapped in swaddling bands, which were believed to assist with the limbs growing straight and the prevention of different parts of the body from drifting apart. Both sexes were dressed in petticoats and frocks, which sometimes make it difficult to establish young children in some portraits as either male or female. However, by the ages of about six or seven boys began to wear breeches, probably when they were reliably toilet trained.
Portraits allow us to trace changes in fashion during the Tudor period, as well as individual preferences. For example, in the portrait of Henry VIII painted by court artist Hans Holbein, the details included provide considerable evidence of Henry’s style. His royal status is evident in the richly embroidered clothes and regalia that adorn him – feathers of the highest quality and furs of all descriptions are used to decorate his coats and hats. His costume also displays his penchant for gold thread and jewels.
There is no doubt of the stark contrast in clothing worn by rich and poor Tudors. Nowadays, it may strike us unusual that there were even laws governing what and when people wore particular items of clothing, as the lines between rich and poorer styles of dress become blurred, and it is not unheard of for the less well off to dress adorned in so called ‘designer labelled’ clothing, originally intended for those more well off in today’s society. The question to be asked however, is whether this is a good thing?