Shakespearean Fashion

In theory what one may wear is governed by “Acts of Apparel” , detailed regulations with the force of law. Thus only Knights of the garter and persons of the rank of Earl and above, for example, are supposed to wear cloth of gold or silver or purple silk.

There are exemptions for gentlemen actually in attendance on the Queen or serving on a foreign embassy or having a disposable income of at least 200 pounds a year. In practice, outside a royal court, these rules are widely ignored.



Men’s doublets are stuffed and padded so that one can scarsely move in one, though having detachable sleeves makes this easier. Over this comes a jerkin, often lined but neither padded or stiffened. On the top of this is worn a gown, knee-length for a young men, ankle-length for an older ones. Alternatively a cloak may be worn outdoors.

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Although often highly decorative, the chort cloak is not a particulary practical garment and needs constant readjustment. Hooded cloaks are excellent for winter and bad weather. Men with good legs wear tight hose, though these ere very difficult to keep spotless on London muddy streets. Those less favoured wear baggy breeches. Boys start wearing these when they are about seven but until then are dressed like girls. Thigh-length boots are another option for disguising slender calves.

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Female Fashions

Women wear a flat-fronted bodice, stiffened by a busk of wood or whalebone. Over the skirt an apron will normally be worn. In the absence of pockets the girdle is used to attach one’s scissors, penknife, seal, bodkin, ear-picker and pomander. Under the outer garments a linen smock is worn next to the skin but nothing else. The finest shoes are made of soft leather imported from Spain.

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The Queen Elizabeth’s fantastically elaborate costumes require that she be pinned into them with hundreds of pins, as must all who dress in such high style. Gloves are a fashion essential and an English speciality, richly embroidered, perfumed and even jewelled. The Queen herself possesses hundred of pairs and regards them as a most acceptable gift, ideal for showing off her long, slender fingers. they are frequently carried, rather than worn. Fans, made of feathers or leather, are another accesory that can be used to draw the eye to an elegant hand.

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The ruff is a large, round, pleated, detachable collar, worn by both men and women, especially on formal occasions. They can look very good on some people in a portrait but they are uncomfortable to wear, expensive to buy and maintain and rarely flatter the wearer who has a short or fat neck. Yet practically every man and woman who can afford to wears one.


Over the last 40 years they have got bigger and bigger, with some reaching 6 yards in length, 9 inches in depth and having 600 pleats. Starching and “setting” a ruff can take hours, only for the result to be ruined in minutes by wind or rain. When going out on special occasion it is therefore quite common for a person to have their ruff carried in a box by a servant and put on only upon arrival. Starching is best left to specialists, most of whom are Dutch women.


Soft vegetable dyes are often used to colour the ruff ivory, pink, yellow or mauve, which looks better against the skin than stark, dead white. The Queen has, for some reasons, taken against blue, which she has banned.

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