Created in 2016 for participation in Kentwell Hall‘s Great Recreation of Tudor Life, this set of clothes consists of a linen coif, two linen smocks, a brown wool petticoat, a russet kirtle, a pair of brown wool sleeves, a linen apron, and a dark grey wool jacket.
The entire outfit was self drafted from my own measurements, and I’ve found little need to alter it over the years, though I’m considering taking the black binding off the hem of the kirtle and simply hemming it instead. Were I to make it again, I’d use spiral lacing rather than cross lacing, since I now know that cross lacing was not really used in the period. I’d probably also lower the waistline slightly, since my waist is lower than I thought it was when I made it!
With the exception of the jacket (or waistcoat, as it would have been known at the time), which I sewed entirely by hand, I used a sewing machine for all of the seams that wouldn’t be visible once the clothes were worn. As such, hems and eyelets and such like were still sewn by hand, while the side seams of the skirt were made by machine.
The coif was based on the one worn in the sketch of Anne Boleyn in a nightgown by Holbein, though I made the earflaps smaller. The rest was based on instructions in the Tudor Tailor.
To complete the outfit, I bought shoes, stockings, a belt, and a knife suitable for a woman of this status in this time period.
As a set of clothes, they’re entirely comfortable and practical (aside from the jacket, which has always been a little small, but still makes a huge difference when it comes to warmth), and still fit 6 years later. They don’t restrict movement in any way, and the options of different layers mean that an outfit can be adapted for different weathers.
The lacing also means that it’s relatively flexible in terms of fit, and so works well enough on other people provided they’re of similar enough size to me (apologies for the incredibly baggy men’s shirt worn beneath the kirtle in the above image: I didn’t have any spare clean smocks at the time!).
Pearls, spangles, laces, metallic thread, and embroidery, were all expensive in the Early Modern period (and still even today), and so decoration of clothing tended to be the preserve of the rich. While labour during the period was cheap, the materials needed were expensive, especially in the quantity needed to decorate sets of clothes. You can see the quantity of pearls and gold trim in the portrait below, all of which would have been incredibly expensive, and (naturally) beyond the reach of most of the middle classes.
Likewise in the below portrait, while the time and labour involved in the vast quantity of embroidery would have been relatively cheap, the gold and silk threads would have been hugely expensive: unlike the plastic gold threads we have access to today, 16th Century gold thread generally consisted of gold (as in the metal) or silver gilt strips wrapped around a silk core.
However, a breakthrough in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries enabled far more people to decorate their clothes.
The origins of slashing and pinking are unknown, but there are various theories. Soldiers returning from the battlefield with slashed, torn clothes are possibly the origin of the fashion for making pointless cuts and holes in fabric. Other stories involve the Swiss army beating Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgandy, in 1476, stealing the clothes amongst his possessions, and patching the luxurious fabric onto their own in repairs, or (more mundanely) that soldiers cut slashes into their leather tunics to give more ease and manoeuvrability. Whatever the precise origin, it appears to have had military roots.
The thing that helped the trend to spread like wildfire, however, was its simplicity. It didn’t require any extra items to be bought for embellishment: it was embellishment in and of itself. It took nothing but time, and some very simple tools.
Tailors used scissors anyway, and these could be used for large slashes, or to cut the fabric into strips. For smaller cuts, or more subtle designs, a chisel like tool, a hammer, and a block of wood covered in lead were used to make patterns. These slashes and holes in garments could then show another fabric beneath: just the lining, or (if you had more money) another, expensive fabric.
The fact that the chisels could be used over and over, create countless designs, and took only labour without requiring extra materials rendered this ever popular decorative technique available to the middling classes who had a little money to spend on fashion, not just practical clothes.
Above, you can see slashing on the clothes of some English ladies, a boy from Sienna, and a German lady. For the majority of middle class people who wanted to show off their money through their clothes, slashing and pinking were the way to go, along with applied cloth strips to serve as guards on the hems of skirts, since they served the triple purpose of being decorative, replaceable, and prolonging the life of the skirt.
The majority of fashionable trends in the 16th century were localised, and relatively short lived. Pleated clothing, in Germany and the surrounding area, for example, never spread very far, and with the homogenisation of European fashion in the 18th Century, it died away.
Slashing and pinking, however, continued in popularity all the way through the Early Modern period and into the 19th Century, with women complaining in the 18th Century of careless men letting their swords catch on their dresses in the street, resulting in the tearing of their silk gown. It changed very little in essence and technique, though from the 18th Century onwards, circular holes made in fabrics as well as scalloped edges were far more common.
Despite these changes, slashing in its original form made a comeback in the Regency period on some dresses! While the 1790s-1820s are known for their neoclassical fashions, some dresses were also made to emulate the renaissance period, mixing the high Italian waistlines with slashed sleeve puffs and ruffly chemisettes.
In the 16th Century, communication was relatively slow and fashions changed equally slowly. They tended toward very specific regional styles: you can see in the above map that the countries around Germany favour lots of pleats, while the Dutch and Flemish have large, dark hoods, and the English women have fitted gowns that are open down the front. Headwear in particular is different all across the map.
Upper class fashion aimed to imitate the monarch, and monarchs were often the ones who imported new fashions through their marriages, or increased the extremes of fashions through their wealth. Part of the reason for such distinct styles was the fact that the printing press had only relatively recently been invented. Through the 16th Century, a few books appeared detailing patterns for tailors, but these retained the regional styles, and were very much aimed at tailors – not the general public.
Embroidery books did exist from the 1520s onwards, with different patterns for different styles of embroidery and (later) lace. These could be used by ladies undertaking domestic sewing for pleasure as well as professional embroiderers. The fact that the patterns within these books were much plagiarised led to some commonality in the embroidery and laces across Europe, but not clothing as a whole. At this point there was no concept of a fashion magazine.
Books with clothing illustrated in them certainly existed, but they served more as a way of showing differences in regional dress. Lucas van de Heere’s book is an example of this. The one major exception to books illustrating the differences between regional dress is the book of Matthaeus Schwarz of Augsburg, which detailed each and every set of clothes he ever bought (now published as the First Book of Fashion).
While Schwarz’s book was certainly accurate, since its whole purpose was to detail his clothes as he bought them across 40 years, books of costume showing the clothes of different countries relied on letters and accounts of travellers. Such descriptions of clothes were often lacking, and so the books tended to be somewhat less accurate. Compare the painting of an English woman from 1567 with the woodcut of an English lady! The foreign interpretation is radically different to the reality.
The silhouette is relatively accurate, but there have certainly been some creative liberties taken. The headdress is not something I’ve seen anywhere in mid 16th century fashion, and the hoops of the farthingale showing would only be accurate for late 15th century Spain. The partlet and small neck ruff seem reasonably, but the neckline of the gown is bizarre. The wrist ruffs with the cuffs seem an odd combination, and the muff hanging from her girdle is ridiculously small. The slashing on her bodice seems very large, but not impossible: I have seen similar slashing on slightly later bodices. All in all, it’s an image that seems to have been created by someone who didn’t know what they were looking at or (more likely) didn’t have anything to look at!
One notable exception to the lack of fashion magazines was in Italy. Printed images were produced showing hairstyles, and while the intention was to show the hair styles of different places, women would use them as inspiration for dressing their own hair. This is something we know thanks to a few lines in a play by Ben Johnson:
Philautia:…What, have you changed your head-tire?
Phantaste: Yes, faith, the other was near the common, it had no extraordinary grace; besides, I had worn it almost a day, in good troth.
Philautia: I’ll be swon, this is most excellent for the device, and rare; ’tis after the Italian print we looked on t’other night.
Ben Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, first acted in 1600. Philautia addresses her friend Phantaste (Act 2, scene 1)