The fashions were designed to give the impression of a small waist - especially desired by the women but also emulated by men who wore tight waisted, stiffened doublets. Men would sometimes wear girdles, the equivalent of the female corset, to obtain the wasp waisted look.
Elizabethan Clothing - The Upper Classes
The Elizabethan era was a society divided by class. The divisions were manifested in the clothes that people wore which were decreed by the Law. These were called the Sumptuary Laws which provided strict clothing guidelines in order to limit the expenditure by people on clothes - and of course to maintain the social structure of the Elizabethan Class system. The penalties for violating Sumptuary Laws could be harsh - fines, the loss of property, title and even life. Clothes provided information about the status of the person wearing them. This was not just dictated by the wealth of the person, it also reflected their social standing. Only Royalty were permitted to wear clothes trimmed with ermine. Lesser Nobles were allowed to wear clothing trimmed with fox and otter.
Upper Class Fashion restrictions.
There are many examples of upper class fashion restrictions. Cloth of gold or gold tissue could be worn by the Queen, Queen's mother, children, sisters and aunts together with Duchesses, Marquises, and Countesses but was not allowed to be worn by Viscountesses, baronesses, and other personages of like degrees. The upper class women of the Elizabethan era were therefore extremely ambitious and pushed their husbands to gain titles and high ranks!
The Elizabethan Fashion of Slashing Materials
The limitations of Elizabethan dress and clothing led to a new fashion being created. Both men and women began to slash their clothes. The slash or cut in the outer surfaces of garments (doublets, sleeves and gowns) exposed the contrasting color of the linings beneath. The linings would be pulled through the slash and puffed out to further emphasize the contrast of colors, fabrics and materials.
The Peacock Age - Elizabethan Upper Class Fashion
Upper class fashion was highly elaborate - and necessary to achieve attention and success at court. It was referred to as the Peacock age as the Upper class Elizabethan men were often more elaborately dressed than the women.
Materials and Fabrics used in Elizabethan Upper Class Fashion
Elizabethan Nobles and Upper classes wore a variety of expensive clothing made of velvets, satin, furs, silks, lace, cottons and taffeta. Many of these sumptuous materials were imported from the continent. These exotic materials were introduced in earlier centuries by Knights returning from the crusades. Silks and cottons were imported from the Middle East and velvet was imported from Italy. The Dye required to achieve the fashionable bright and rich colors were also imported from abroad at great expense. Full details of the colors and fabrics used during the Elizabethan era can be accessed via the Sitemap at the top of the page.
Changes in Upper Class Fashion during the Elizabethan Era
Queen Elizabeth led the way for many of the new styles and fashions changed significantly during her reign. At the start of her reign fashion for women was modest and the body of a woman was covered from head to foot. Women's fashion emulated that of a man. Frilled collars became more and more elaborate developing into the famous Elizabethan ruff, which was worn by both men and women. Ruffs, or ruffles, started as a high frilled collar. Fashion then dictated a more feminine and seductive image for women which was achieved by opening the ruffle in front to expose the neck and the top of the bosom. The ruff was then constructed on gauze wings which were raised at the back of the head. The ruffs, or collars, framed the face and dictated the hairstyles of the age which were generally short for men and swept up look was required for women. A frizzy hairstyle was also required.
The 'Ideal' Elizabethan Woman
Although the fashion for women changed to a more seductive look it was important for Queen Elizabeth to maintain her image and the beauty of a 'Virgin Queen'. The Elizabethan view of pure beauty was a woman with light hair and a snow white complexion complimented with red cheeks and red lips. Queen Elizabeth achieved this picture of ideal beauty by using white make-up. This explains the odd white face make-up seen in many of her portraits. This image of the Virgin Queen was further enhanced by the work of Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) in his epic poem 'The Fairie Queene' which was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. An Upper Class Elizabethan woman followed this fashion further and might even dye her hair yellow with a mixture of saffron, cumin seed, celandine and oil. Wigs were also commonly used - Queen Elizabeth had a wide variety of wigs and hair pieces.
Elaborate Upper Class Fashions
Elizabethan fashion was highly elaborate. Clothes were decorated with heavy embroidery and decorated with jewels, spangles, pearls. Clothes were designed with a layered approach requiring assistance in dressing from servants. Upper class fashions were tight, hot and uncomfortable. More comfortable loose garments, similar to housecoats, were worn when the nobility were not on show. Padding had a practical use as it was used to great effect on the top of sleeves. Sleeves were made separately from the bodice of gowns and tied or pinned together, The padding hid the pins. Pins were an essential part of Elizabethan fashion and used in great quantities on ruffs - this lead to a lucrative pin making industry.