Fashion, along other sociopolitical signifiers, has often been used as a sign of wealth throughout history, and Tudor times were no exception. Most trends were introduced by the royalty, who popularised them and produced the copycat effect, therefore propagating these tendencies amongst other of their same ranks, if not the whole of society. So today I will be looking at some aspects of Tudor fashion that were at their peak back in the day. However, I will also give you the contrast of what was common fashion among those less fortunate; the poor and working classes of early modern England.
Let’s set the scene first. Just so you get an idea of how important clothes and bling were then, it is believed that Henry VIII spent over £2.4 million of today’s pound a year on his wardrobe…I mean, he was a large man but even so, just like the celebs today, huh? Well, as we are talking about Henry, something that became really fashionable during his reign was the codpiece. As a clothing item, the general rule of thumb was big was good and bigger better. In fact, the codpiece was known to be stuffed with a padding called bombast. Codpieces could be big enough to fit and conceal a weapon! But, the trend died out by the late 16th century, giving way to the perhaps more elegant 3 piece Elizabethan suit (jerkin and hose). Henry’s wives were just as fancy as he was, and they set their own trends too. for example, Anne Boleyn is often attributed the introduction of the French hood in England, which was quickly copied by the ladies of the court. Even Catherine of Aragon had impact in a rather peculiar artefact that accompanied women’s attire: the mini prayer-book. This miniaturised books of worship were fastened around the waists of high-ranking female aristocrats and merchants, perhaps as a sign of piety.
You know how the saying goes: like father like daughter, so it is no surprise that Elizabeth I was herself quite a fashion victim. It is well-known that she owned the signature pale make up of the nobility of her age. This look was achieved by the use of a substance called ceruse. Unfortunately for Elizabeth and the rest of Tudor society, ceruse was composed by lead, therefore causing severe skin damage as well as hair loss, which must have been a horrible combination for the Queen and her unfortunate contraction of smallpox…Who said beauty did not come at a high price? But, moving on, there were other items of fashion that were popular amongst Tudor nobility and were not exclusive of the royal family. Brooches were a popular item of jewellery as an ornament for wealthy women in the 16th century. In addition, certain fabrics such as velvet, silk and satin maintained their status of previous centuries as luxurious textiles, therefore only accessible by those who could afford the coin. Interestingly however, and something that perhaps contrasts highly with out modern attire, is the fact that black clothing were exclusively available to the highest ranking members of society. This is due to the fact that black dye was incredibly expensive to maintain and hard successfully stain textiles with it. So if you were good for money in Tudor times, you wouldn’t have looked terribly off from a Goth – funny…
Nevertheless, this was not all joy and colourful extravaganza, as it is seen by the attires of ordinary people. We know thanks to archaeological discoveries, particularly in London, that knitting seems to have become a popular activity for the everyday woman of the 16th century. The poor would have riled in home knitted wear to keep themselves warm. All types of garments have been found made this way, from mittens to underwear vests. There is a particular type of knitted wear that is known to have been worn by the working men in London: caps. These were made with neck and cheek or ear pieces to keep the face warm, but also way from the dirt. In addition, these caps were fairly waterproof and perfectly capable of coping with the bad weather. Interestingly, we have also found leather pattens that would have been layers on top of normal shoes to keep them clean when people went outside. I guess this is what happens when you can only afford a pair of shoes: you must ensure they are kept in the best condition possible, and covering the shoes with multiple layers, could well have been a cheaper fix than buying a new pair every so often. As a final point, I would like to bring attention to the ordinary clothes any man would have worn on a daily basis in comparison to the pompous codpiece and the 3 piece suit. I am talking about them commoner’s shirt and breeches, also known as slops. These are believed to have been a practical attire particularly used by sailors and other labourers.
So, perhaps next time you go shopping or find yourself browsing through a clothes magazine, you will take a moment to consider how fashionable fashion actually is, or how new such and such trend actually are 😉