Saturday, March 19, 2016

16th Century Costume: How to Acheive a More Authentically Styled Ensemble

Picture from The Tudor Group in the UK

Believe me, I get it, no one wants their Renfaire garb to be criticized! And I'm not! Trust me, one of the negative aspects about faire are those individuals who appoint themselves as the costume police or garb gestapo. This is NOT something I do at faire or behind the scenes in my costuming business. I've been the victim of such vitriol by Elizabethan costume enthusiasts; both at faire and in my career as a professional costumer! That's why I have made it a hard rule NEVER to criticize others' work, or debate "inaccuracies" or argue about which historian is better than the other or whose work to follow!  It's rude. It's hurtful, and it's just plain arrogant! So, I'm not here to tell you "you're doing it wrong!" But I do realize that we have all started at the same place, and we don't know what we don't know, until we know it!

So if you're interested in learning the difference between a Renaissance Faire "costume" and authentic 16th Century styled "clothing" that you CAN accomplish with small additions and changes to your current garb, then please read on!

First of all, let me just get this out of the way. It is literally IMPOSSIBLE to accomplish a 100% historically accurate costume for faire. Our 21st Century fabrics are different; our textiles are MADE by machines not hand woven on a loom; our dyes and mordants are different; our thread is blended with polyester; we use sewing machines. Metal stays are completely inaccurate for the 16th Century! They weren't used until the 1800s! Metal grommets aren't accurate either, but we need durability and we need our garb to be economical. Right? So we use what is available. 

The least we can hope for, realistically, is 50% historical accuracy - maybe less. Unless you are going to raise your own sheep, shear their fleece, clean it, card it, spin and weave your own wool or linen, brew your own natural dyes using 16th Century dye stuff and mordants, and use a 16th century bone needle and hand sew your ensemble, you might possibly achieve a more accurate garment. But in the grand scheme of things, does it really matter? Most reenactors don't don linen and wool in 100 degree weather for the money. We do it because it's fun! We do it because of the fantastic, off-beat, artistic, talented people who make up "Rennies." Some of my Renfaire family would fight a buzz saw for me or my kids. That's why we do it! But there are those who seem to take it way to seriously.

It's hard to believe, but there really are individuals in the reenacting and historical costuming community who expend an inordinate amount of energy on debating what they think is and is not historically accurate and they purposely seek out opportunities to point it out, whether or not their opinion was invited. More often it's not invited and the spirit in which it is offered is negative and condescending. In my opinion, a more authentically styled ensemble does not make you a better performer, or a better costumer. It's simply a matter of CHOICE and often times it's a matter of economics. More often than not, at least in the new generation of Rennies, it's a matter of not knowing any different.

At best this critical behavior on the part of the garb gestapo is snobbery; at it's worst it is condescending and petty and I wish those among the costume community would just stop it. I personally don't feel compelled to make another person feel "less than" to elevate my sense of accomplishment. There are too many in the historical costuming and reenactment community who are quick draw critics who abuse the anonymity of the internet, and when they assemble on social media (namely Facebook costuming groups and Pinterest) they can become vicious. It's not necessary to troll Pinterest like a knight on a quest seeking to slay all those who incorrectly label an item "Elizabethan" or accidentally misspell something related to 16th Century clothing. Being "right" doesn't always have to be the goal, rather I would wish instead for respect and positive reinforcement. So, now that I've stepped off my soap box, let's dive right in! 

First of all, I am not going to offer pictures of what isn't accurate in this blog post, but rather I will show you what IS more accurate in terms of styling. The reason being is that I don't want to post pictures here of others' work or costumes worn at faire and offer them as a negative example. I don't want to embarrass or offend anyone. Since Renfaire is not designed to be a "living history" museum, there really is no RIGHT or WRONG. Is there room for improvement? Certainly! In all our work and in all our characters and in all our costumes there is room for improvement.  

So where did it all start? 

Origins of Renaissance Faire: How it got started.
In 1963, Los Angeles schoolteacher Phyllis Patterson held a very small Renaissance fair as a class activity, in the backyard of her Laurel Canyon home in the Hollywood Hills. On May 11 and 12 of that same year, Patterson and her husband, presented the first "Renaissance Pleasure Faire, held as a one-weekend fundraiser for a radio station which drew some 8,000 people. The fair was designed by the Living History Center to resemble an actual spring market fair of the time period. At the time, there weren't any historically based patterns, and there wasn't the same information available now on 16th Century costuming. Not having any authentic historical clothing patterns for Elizabethan fashions (like we do now), they wore the best they could cobble together, using books at the library as a reference.

At the first inception, and more especially in 1967 when the Southern California Renaissance Pleasure Faire opened, it drew a great deal of criticism from the public as it was seen as an extension of a growing counterculture known as the Hippie movement and their explorations into communalism, antimodernism, and craft revival, as well as rock and folk music revival.

Below is a video from the very FIRST pleasure faire held in 1963.

It's entertaining to see just how much Renfaire hasn't changed! - And how much we can take from this original faire and use it today! Especially the street vendors. I loved the apple lady in the broadcast, and the woman selling skeleton keys to a chastity belt! So scandalous in 1963! The styles worn by the participants are more "medieval" rather than Elizabethan, but it's a blast to see the mish-mosh of creativityThe nobility and the Queen's costumes at our current faires have come a long way!

 From that humble beginning in 1963 Renaissance faires were born, and with it the ubiquitous "wench" or the standard faire costume followed.

The Standard Renaissance Faire Costume:

Within the Renaissance fair community, there is a difference of opinion as to how authentic a fair ought to be. It can often be as divisive and vitriolic as the two main political parties here in the USA! Some believe fairs should be as authentic an experience as possible, with educational aspects like the European living history museums such as those in the UK. Others believe that entertainment is the primary goal. 

Richard Shapiro, who founded what later became the Bristol Renaissance Faire outside Chicago, Illinois, has said he favored entertainment. Unfortunately, this opinion can garner some rather heated and ugly reactions from those among those who want faire to be like unto living history museum. The bottom line is, you cannot hold an authentic living history display that is erected on a Friday and torn down on Sunday evening. 

At best, I think the most we can achieve is a blend of both. As much as those in favor of living history want to argue against it, the bottom line is that the average patron doesn't come to Renaissance Fair (here in the USA) to be taught history - they pay the gate fee to be entertained. Many people don't even know who the Queen is when they buy their tickets! Do you know how many times people have asked me if the Queen was Victoria? This isn't a failure on the part of the faire producers or the actors. The patrons simply are NOT invested in who the Queen is or what the faire is actually portraying. The reality is that they come for the costumes, for the entertainment, for the food, and for the spectacle. With pirates, vikings, trolls, and fairies, what we really offer is more "fantasy" with a tinge of historical accuracy. That really is the BEST we're going to achieve

Does that mean we can't work on some improvements? Of course it doesn't mean that. But I feel people need to concentrate on making improvements to their own characters rather than pointing fingers at others and picking apart the garb mistakes they might see rather than those they are wearing themselves

Back in California I've seen blaring construction mistakes in garb from those who have appointed themselves as the "go to" people in the world of Elizabethan costuming that made me gasp and say, "Bless her heart!" Did I walk up and point out that her skirt worn over a cartwheel farthingale was six inches shorter in the back than in the front?  NO!!! Did I whisper about it to others, point and laugh and say hateful things like "And she has the audacity to write a blog on 16th Century costume?" NO! Because the only purpose that behavior would serve is to embarrass her and make ME look like a nit-picking snot. Even though this same person has taken it upon herself to openly criticize my garb choices, I did not rise to the occasion. It's just not necessary. It doesn't make you a better costumer to recognize small mistakes or construction mishaps in others' work! It doesn't mean you are more knowledgeable; it just makes you appear mean.

We CAN educate and we can encourage, but there are ways to go about it that don't personalize it and seem like an attack. Which is the purpose of THIS blog entry. 

The classic Renaissance "wench" costume you see worn at faire - bodice, skirt, triangular overskirt, and peasant blouse is a modern day construct indicative to Renaissance Faire, but I'm sorry to say it's not historically accurate. I'm talking about the the standard bodice - many of which have a rounded necklines and adjustable straps. It may lace in front as well as on the sides with metal grommets

Then there is the peasant blouseMany have puffed short sleeves or 3/4 length sleeves made of colored gauze with elastic or draw string around the neckline worn off the shoulders. Most show an over-abundance of cleavage. That is the most common garb you see at faire. But there is another variant: the underbust bodices that are worn over a gauze chemise (under which they are braless) that leaves nothing to the imagination. 

CAST AND CREW OF WMRF/ORF: Per our Entertainment Director, if you participate at any WRAES event, our faires' costuming guidelines have been updated and are moving toward more accurate costumes, more especially for those who portray the working class. Incidentally, they do not allow underbust bodices to be worn by cast and crew!  

However fun and whimsical the classic "wench" costumes may be, these styles are fantasy rather than factual.  

For some reason there is an idea among Renfaire actors that lower class or peasant women's clothing equates to bawdy or scantily clad. I literally have no idea where that trend came from, but the true 16th Century woman, even those among the poor among cheapside, didn't dress that way! Even poorer people were covered and just as concerned with being respectable and emulating those above their station.  You must take into consideration that the Church held very strong sway among the daily life and culture of the 16th Century citizen! Showing an inordinate amount of "skin" (cleavage and bare shoulders) was NOT the style or mode of clothing in that era. Literally no one would dare!

Interestingly enough, the "wench" costumes we see seems to have been heavily influenced by Disney movies: Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, even Cinderella!  


All of them have the typical peasants wearing a close fitted bodice, skirt and apron.  Personally, I don't feel there is anything "wrong" per se with the standard costume you see at faire, but if your goal is for more authenticity then there are some things that warrant being mentioned. 

The biggest faux pas I see, aside from the standard styles I mentioned earlier, are bodices made to be worn by "peasants" or the "working class" (namely laced in front) that are fashioned from brocades, damasks, or tapestry. This is where it feels nit-picky, and I wouldn't usually say anything, but this is about 'education' so here I go! 

Tapestry Fabrics - Victorian not Elizabethan

Polyester Brocade Fabric
Tapestry (like the first picture to the right) is actually a Victorian fabric used for upholstery and such. That's 200 years in the future by the 16th century timeline.  

Brocades as well as damasks are fabrics that have a pattern woven in them rather than stamped or printed. They would have been made of silk and as such reserved only for the very wealthy nobility. Having used these rich, expensive fabrics for the bodice, they absolutely would not pair it with a cotton or linen skirt; and would not be worn laced up the front in a peasant style.  

Most women who could afford such fabric would have servants to help them dress and the styles were fashioned to be laced in back. While there are some Italian gowns from that time period that have a type of lacing up the front, for the most part in Elizabethan England if you could afford a silk damask gown you wouldn't use it for a lower class bodice. Sorry. . . not trying to pick nits, just offering some education for those who might not have even thought about that. 

Even if an item of clothing like a brocade or damask bodice was sold to second hand shops this type of cloth would be too expensive for someone in the lower classes to purchase. Even sold second hand they would be too pricey. At best, you might find someone in the gentry or purchasing it, but when a simple linen shirt cost two shillings when purchased new, and one shilling if purchased used, and your wage was only about 5 to 6 shillings a day you can see how a day laborer or those among the working class, such as is represented at faire, would not have the coin to purchase damasks and brocades - not even second hand. 

So if you're wanting to follow the true socioeconomic "rules" of the 16th Century, you would not want to purchase a bodice made of these fabrics mentioned above.

Now, you vendors out there, please don't revolt! I get that many purchase these polyester fabrics because they are economical and colorful. But while these prints are pretty, if someone's goal is for more authenticity they aren't even close to being historically accurate. There is a market for everyone's work. Patrons will always buy them! Even those among the Rennies will buy them because they are cute, sexy, and economical. But those among the actors at faire who do wish for something more indicative to the 16th Century lower classes, a better choice is wool or linen in a solid color. I promised to explain the difference in costume and clothing, and this is one of those sticking points.  

There is a reason I don't sell my designs at faire. That reason being is most people who come to faire as a patron aren't going to invest the money it would take to have a custom-made bodice or ensemble made for them. My designs are individually drafted for each client rather than made from commercial patterns cut from standard dress sizes. But the difference between a "costume" and 16th century "clothing" isn't just in the fabric choices, there is a difference in the cut and construction. I will show you pictures in a moment.  

FOR WMRF/ORF CAST AND CREW:  According to our Entertainment Director, just because an item is "sold" by our vendors DOES NOT mean it will pass the board's costume guidelines.  Check with your leaders before purchasing!

Paisley Patterned Fabric- Not Elizabethan
Another faux pas, now that we're on the subject of fabric, are those with roses and paisleys.  These are Victorian not Elizabethan motifs. The stylized or "cabbage" rose  - a rose that is realistic in appearance and in full bloom - like those in the tapestry pictured previously - was not a motif that was available in the 16th Century; and neither were paisley patterns as seen in the picture to the right. These two type of prints are more often mistakenly used in Renfaire costuming, usually because it's a common pattern used in upholstery and drapery fabrics which are popular with vendors at faire and some reenactors who sew their own garb. Unless you research fabrics and prints from the time period you probably wouldn't know that these aren't appropriate fabric motifs

In terms of prints that were available, fabrics that are printed or stamped are generally not seen in the Renaissance at least not used for attire. There were herringbone weave patterns seen in wool fabrics as far back as the 16th Century, and I have seen some paintings that depict stripes, but they are rare. 

The problem is that there isn't as much written about the lower classes as there are about the upper classes and nobility. Much of what we DO know about the nobility and gentry are taken from the portraits that have been painted from that century; however, the lower classes could not afford to have their individual portraits painted as it was extremely costly. We also gain insight from documents such as Wills, but there again, the lower classes probably didn't have enough property that warranted having a Will drawn up 

There are some excellent examples from 16th century painters who were living and working in England that depict "peasant" scenes, and all of them are depicted as wearing solid colors and no prints

There are definitely some quirky fashion trends indicative to Renaissance Faire that warrant mentioning. One in particular was born out of a bawdy joke and innuendo. Such trend that was popular over a decade ago was the Fox tail. It was a "conversation piece" meant to elicit the comment, "Nice tail," or something along those lines, but you get the gist. In today's society the wearing of fur is a sore subject as more and more people are moving away from fur and have become more conscientious about the cruelty in the fur industry, so this trend (thank god) has died out, for the most part.  Besides the use of real fur, in today's more enlightened society in term of sexual harassments, such statements directed to women are not always well received. Why risk it?

So you now know that the majority of the costumes both worn and sold at faire are technically inaccurate, and you're probably wondering what IS more accurate? There was a standard style of women's garment that you would find in almost every social class. It was the staple garment worn in the 16th century among women. (I'll cover you gents a bit later in this post!).  That garment was the "kirtle."

The Kirtle:

Picture from The Tudor Group UK
A kirtle IS an authentically styled costume for women. Across the social classes, from the laborers, to the working class, the middle, and lower gentry women wore a Kirtle as a stand-alone garment. The wealthy nobility and royalty also wore kirtles but they were fashioned from finer fabrics and were usually worn under an over-gown. The middle class woman, and among the gentry, would also wear an over-gown called an English Fitted or "Flanders" gown, which I will show you an example in a moment. 

So, what's the difference between a kirtle and a bodice and skirt?  

One feature is the cut or pattern of the bodice. The skirts were knife-pleated rather than draw string gathered as we see at faire. 

There are two basic kirtle styles: Those worn in earlier Tudor (Henry VIII) time period, and those worn in the Elizabethan time period.

Image courtesy of The Tudor Tailor; photography by Henriette Clare”

The early Tudor kirtle was cut straight around the waist with the skirt sewn into the bodice. Sometimes they would have short sleeves as displayed in this picture above. The back is often cut in a "V' shape but the neck is always square. Rounded necklines did not come into fashion until later in the late 1600s after Elizabeth I died. Notice too the cut of her chemise or smock? It is "modest" and covers her shoulders and neckline. 

The Elizabethan style kirtle (seen below) evolved from the early Tudor style into two pieces: a bodice and separate skirt. The bodice was more pointed in front rather than cut straight across at the waist. The straps are sewn into the bodice rather than attached only in back and left floating in front and tied to the bodice like you see done in some corsets in the 17th Century. 

The bodice of the two piece Elizabethan kirtle became the precursor to the "Pair of Bodies" or "corset" worn by the upper class.  Both styles of kirtles were laced either in front, in back. Due to the shape, i.e., the sides don't have a straight side seam but it wraps around to the back, you would not find side lacing in kirtles - at least not according to the graphics or sketches of extant clothing historians have provided us. 

The bodice of  16th Century kirtle was ever only three pieces: two front pieces and a back piece fashioned so that it is flat shaped without darts or curved side panels. This style of bodice compresses the breasts, rather than to have curved gores or side panels inserted in the side front that conforms to the a woman's shape. 

Lacing holes were not accomplished with grommets or metal washers, but rather with an ahl that pierced the fabric and spread the fibers rather than cutting a hole in it and disrupting the integrity of the weave.  Metal grommets were not yet invented; neither were metal washers sewn or couched around the holes. Lacing holes were edged in a button hole stitch, and they didn't use metal stays for lacing bars - And whale bone wasn't used until the later in the 1700s and 1800s.
Ensemble by Designs From Time. Available @ Link below: 

Generally, kirtles for the lower classes were NOT stayed or "boned." Typically, they were fashioned from three layers of fabric for support. Usually those worn under noble gowns were stayed using bundles of thin reeds inserted into each channel, but metal stays (flat or spring steel) were NOT YET invented in the 16th Century. 

Busks (flat pieces of wood, ivory, or horn about 2 to 3 inches wide) were NOT used in lower class clothing/kirtles. They WERE used in stays (pair of bodies) for the upper classes.

Wait, what?  Metal stays are NOT historically accurate for the 16th or 17th Century? Then why do so many people insist on using them for what they claim to be "historically" accurate clothing and corsetry for the 16th century

Many costumers use metal stays as a "selling" feature to insinuate that a garment made with metal stays is superior to one that was made with synthetic or plastic boning; however, metal stays are no more accurate than Cable Ties or synthetic whale bone (baleen)  In terms of superiority, it really depends on the synthetic materials used Many "plastics" or synthetic boning materials have been given a bad rep; and many reenactors have just simply swept all plastic or synthetic products off the shelf branding them as inferior.  

In the picture to the left you see "industrial cable ties" on top, and faux baleen beneath it. You can see how much MORE support cable ties provide.

The true argument boils down to individual opinion on what is or is not higher quality materials - but metal or synthetic baleen, plastic cable ties, etc., are not historically accurate either! I can hear you say, "But metal stays give better support!" In some cases they can, but if your goal is historical accuracy and you use metal stays, technically you've just defeated your purpose. So marketing a garment with metal stays as "historical" is, in itself, an inaccuracy. 

In my experience (20 years as a reenactor) I have found that if made of the appropriate fabrics, a working woman's kirtle does not need to be heavily stayed with metal boning to give "extra support." In the picture to the bottom left you see an extant kirtle made of wool. Notice there are NO boning channels?

As a side note, 16th Century style bodices and "corsets" are not supposed to be 3 or 4 sizes too small. You are not supposed to be cinched into them for waist or size reduction. The clothing from this time period was close fitted but not "tight laced."  Not only is this unnecessarily uncomfortable, but it's inaccurate. Now. . . I do add boning channels in the front of my kirtles and I use cable ties.

I see "goddess" sized women at faire cinching themselves into a bodice so tight they can hardly breathe! How could a woman from the lower or working class possibly work on the farm, cook, clean, garden, bend or stoop with a bodice that was too small, too tight, or rigidly boned with metal rods? They couldn'tThere were options available to wrangle the "girls." In medieval times they DID wear what is the equivalent of a modern brassiere!

An incredible medieval clothing find was unearthed at Lengberg Castle in Austria, with clothing dating to the 14th-15th centuries. It has been determined to be 600 years old and a huge surprise to fashion historians! No one thought any woman had worn a supportive garment with separate pouches for each breast before the 20th Century.  (see below)

While it is true that England tended to be the last to adopt some styles, whose to say women didn't wear these brassieres in 16th Century England?  How would we really know? 

As I mentioned in another post in my blog,  second hand clothing was a booming business in the 16th Century. But I am left to wonder whether or not such items would have  been sold as second hand clothing - being that they were such intimate items of clothing. I wonder if more than likely they didn't ended up as rags, or upholstery stuffing, or making linen paper owing to the fact that any fabrics worn in direct contact with the skin would wear faster. It gives me cause for pause. Is this why in 600 years we've only found ONE of these under garments? How do we know there weren't widely used but just have not been unearthed...yet?

Left: Reproduction. Right: Original garment.
Many women insist that they need the extra support of metal stays. If you absolutely insist on using them and you feel more comfortable doing so, by all means use them! I'm not here to argue against them, only to offer a different perspective and suggest that the claims that using them makes your clothing more historically accurate is simply not true. I will add that clothing made with metal stays are VERY uncomfortable and they tend to dig into your waist. I have found it is not necessary to use the extra rigid metal stays, and I no longer have a will'o'the whisp figure like I did in my 20s. But all this noise and debate all distills down to your personal preference. I would personally like to see people free to use what works for them and not feel they have to justify it in a shamefaced manner because someone, somewhere, made claims that only metal stays are superior for 16th Century corsetry and kirtles.

If you do use metal stays, I can offer this unsolicited advice: you don't need to add so many stays that your kirtle resembles a corset (or a suit of armor). Just three or four (depending on the width of the bodice) on either side in the front is all that's necessary, but you can achieve good support by using three layers with a stiff canvas for your interfacing layer and linen or wool as your outer layers. It is also not necessary to place boning channels in the sides or the BACK of the kirtle or bodice - unless it laces in back, then you might add one for each of the lacing bars.

Some have called me a rebel for speaking out, but I prefer pragmatist. Since metal stays aren't historically accurate, I feel no compulsion in using industrial cable ties. I have found it more comfortable than the rigid steel. I personally have not had issues with my method bending or warping like other plastic boning can do. Yes, the plastic boning purchased at JoAnn's fabrics - the kind that comes precovered - does warp and I don't recommend Ridgeline. 

I used to portray the Head of Household in the Queen's guild at the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire (WMRF), and currently lead a fiber arts group, so I am constantly bending, stooping, reaching, kneeling, and sweating in the heat at faire and I do not have issues with my stays warping out of shape when using my method (cable ties). But this is just my personal preference. I am not making any claims to superiority, only that there are options to make your clothing more comfortable while providing great support. A properly fitted bodice should not pinch, squeeze, or constrict you to the point of cracking or bruising a rib! You do not need to suffer for your art.


While red was a very expensive dye, red kirtles were the most popular color. Typically, you would probably not see a day laborer or someone among the working class wearing a red kirtle - at least not those dyed with Kermes or Cochineal - unless it was a part of their livery provided by their employer. These dye materials (Kermes and Cochineal) was imported from the New World in North America by the Spanish and was ridiculously expensive. They were made from the crushed bodies of tiny little beetles, and it took thousands to make a proper dye bath.

In terms of colors, this has been the grist for a great deal of debate. Basically, there were three colors that were mentioned in the Sumptuary Laws: Blue - dyed with Woad or Indigo, Red - dyed with Kermes or Cochineal, and Purple (which by the way, was not achieved with sea snails during the Tudor dynasty, but that's another topic!). 

Owing to the popularity of these two colors (red and woad blue) in the 16th century among the serving class, if you were the servant of a very wealthy household - upper gentry, nobility, or royalty, chances are you may have been dressed in a red or woad blue dyed livery (house uniform). 

During the 16th century the color blue became synonymous with servitude or those who worked as servants. Woad blue dye was so expensive it is said that one barrel (enough to dye three lengths of cloth off the loom) cost as much as the purchase of a small house. There were other blue dye materials, such as Logwood that was available, but it was banned by Queen Elizabeth because it wasn't a color-fast dye (in other words Logwood would fade) unlike WoadLogwood was also imported by the Spaniards and was interfering with the woad trade; which was one of England's most lucrative exports.  

Indigo dye from India was also banned by Elizabeth and only the very wealthy would have had access to it.  So deep, navy blues, royal blues, and woad blues (as seen in the picture below) would more than likely not been worn unless you were a servant provided with a livery from a wealthy employer. 

Woad Dyed Yard - Light to Dark
Apart from neon colors, deep purple, wine color, bright blues and bright reds, you have a plethora of colors to choose from - including black. While black was a color restricted to certain professions in Henry VIII's time, this does not appear to be the case during Elizabeth's time period. Her only restriction was black velvet, and black woolen felted hats that had become popular and were being imported into England. Ever mindful of the English economy, when these black felted hats became popular, Elizabeth banned them so that the English people would buy goods from English sellers. 

Interestingly, in the 1530s when examining the Wills of more than a dozen Yeomen and Husbandmen (a.k.a upper middle class and middle class) there was the mention of Violet colored clothing being bequeathed to family members. So it is possible that Violet was among the colors permitted by those among this particular social class in Elizabeth's time as well, since she only mentions restrictions on "purple silk," rather than purple dyes. To create purple you needed a good blue and red dye, which were expensive! It is possible that violet and purples may have been in use in the middle classes. But as a general rule, there is a "no purple" policy at faire for the lower classes.

The premium dyes were Red, Blue, and purple (red and blue combined). Other than that, there is a rainbow of possibilities. If you want more information on colors or these premium dyes check out my other entries in this blog or visit my website

Incidentally, because the purchase of second hand clothing was so prevalent, and matching colored bodices and skirts (or trousers and doublets/waistcoats) were rarely found in a second hand clothing shop, it WOULD be accurate to have a skirt and/or bodice of different colors for the lower classes especially. But for a livery, it would be one color carried through on top and bottom as seen in the pictures below.

Sleeves, Smocks, Cauls, Coif, Partlets, and Aprons: 

As a stand-alone garment, or without an over-gown, you see kirtles worn with long sleeve linen shirts or smocks with a collar and a small ruffle, detachable or pinner sleeves, a caul or coif of linen, and an over partlet of black worsted (velveteen) or a white linen over partlet, and an apron.

In the portrait to the right you see a woman working in the kitchen. She has her smock sleeves rolled up while she works, but often times they would wear sleeve guards. Sleeve guards were a tubular piece of fabric that gathered at both ends at the wrist and below the elbow, worn over the forearm to keep your shirt sleeves or over sleeves clean while you worked.

Women, whether or not they were unmarried, wore their hair up, like you see in the portrait below to the right. In that portrait, you can see her hat sitting on the table. It appears as if she is getting dressed.

Many rumors abound at faire about how if you were unmarried, or you were a young child, you did not have to wear your hair up or covered. This is false. Even young children would wear their hair done up and they wore a linen covering called a coif. Snoods (crochet hair nets popular in the 1940s and Civil War era) are not historically accurate for our time period. I've yet to see them represented in any paintings or prints from that time period. However, in Italy, hair "nets" created with ribbon were worn, but they were not crocheted, as it was not yet popular. Linen coifs and cauls would be more appropriate.

The exceptions for this would be a bride. On her wedding day women could wear their hair down. Even the Queen wore her hair up and covered, with the exception of very special occasions - such as her coronation. On grand such occasions she might wear it down, but more often than not she wore her hair up and covered with a hat or headdress often made by her ladies in waiting.

Below is a picture of two women milking a cow. You will notice that they are dressed similarly as the these women in the portraits above. You can also see the woman standing (Ruth Goodman, Author and Historian in the UK pictured standing) is wearing sleeve guards.  

If you stepped out of a time machine and found yourself in a typical rural English village, THIS is what the women would be wearing. So if you're willing to forego the sexy wench for more authenticity, then this style - or something similar - would be your ultimate goal. The kirtle is an authentic style for "peasants" to wear at faire. They are easy to fashion, and comfortable when made properly.

Middle Class and Lower Gentry: 

The English Fitted Gown or "Flanders" gown was an extremely popular fashion item for the middle class and lower gentry alike.  Worn over a kirtle, it would also be accessorized with a collared chemise with the small ruffle, detachable under sleeves or pinner sleeves, an apron, and a caul, like the one seen in the picture below:

Picture Courtesy of:

The Fitted English Gown  could be dressed up or down, worn plain as in the gown above, or embellished and worn with a kirtle of finer fabrics by the upper middle and lower upper classes. Keep in mind that the gowns you see in portraits worn by the nobility and higher gentry were their absolute "best." When they sat for a portrait they would don their best gown and jewelry, but for every day wear they would not tromp about in their best silks. In the gown in this picture below you see a fitted gown lined in fur with fine trims. More than likely this would have been the "staple" for every day wear of the upper classes.

Adding Pieces to Update Your Garb: 

COLLARED CHEMISE/SHIRT:  The first thing you can do is change to a long sleeve, collared chemise fashioned out of handkerchief weight linen, or a square necked chemise. In England, even the lower classes wore shirts with gathered ruffles on the collar. Keep in mind - One of the reasons there were sumptuary laws was because the lower classes were dressing, or attempting to dress, like the upper classes. The ruffled collar was worn by both upper and lower classes. Bleached linen shirts were worn by everyone - men and women and children.

But you might say, "Long sleeves are too hot!!" Not true!

There is a fear among reenactors who live in warmer climates (or those of us in cooler climates suffering through an El Nino year) that the less you wear the cooler you will be. This is INCORRECT. Long sleeves keep you from overheating because it provides insulation, as the outside atmospheric temperature is much higher than your internal body temperature.

I grew up in the Central Valley in California where the temperatures get up to 110 to 120 on a regular basis for weeks and even months on end without any break. My family used to farm, and I used to stomp cotton during the summer as a kid during picking season. The first thing you will notice about the farm workers who are laboring in triple digits all day long (as well as those in construction and landscape) is that they are not working in short sleeves and tank-tops. They wear long sleeve shirts with hats, long pants, gloves, and work boots. The more exposed skin, the more chance for heatstroke and sunburn. Covering up will keep you cooler and keep you healthier, so long as you keep hydrated.

A good quality 100% handkerchief weight linen will absorb the sweat and offers better protection and ventilation than cotton or gauze. Talk to the actors who portray the nobility. Those who wear linen swear by it over the use of cotton! The main benefit of wearing linen in hot weather is the coolness it provides due to its absorbency. Linen absorbs sweat much better than cotton. The weave of linen allows more airflow and it's structure means it stays away from your skin allowing better airflow over your body, but just as important - at least in terms of economics - linen lasts longer!  Cotton fibers are shorter and more easy to rip. Linen fibers are longer and stronger. Higher quality linen such as "Belfast" and 'Ulster" are smoother than cotton and have a beautiful "sheen" to the surface.

Many people think that linen is more expensive than cotton. But a really good quality 100% cotton runs $5.99 to $7.99 a yard. Anything cheaper than that is either a poly blend. I  have to grades of linen that I use. Belfast and Ulster are expensive at $20 a yard, but I have a lower grade seen in the picture to the right that sells for $9.71 a yard and it is 58 inches wide, so you can purchase less. While the weave is not as fine and tight as Belfast and Ulster and doesn't have the nice sheen my clients like, it is still very attractive and very comfortable.

Most cottons are only 45 inches wide and you have to purchase more. Three yards of 58 inch wide linen is enough to make most shirts. In terms of durability and comfort it is worth the extra expense. Linen wears better, it breathes better, and if you launder it correctly - don't machine wash, never use bleach, and never put it in an electric/or gas heated drier - it will last a lot longer than cotton. If you can sew this is a more economical choice over cotton. Opt for white or bleached rather than colored linens for shirts and smocks.

So add a long sleeved collared linen chemise or a long sleeved square necked chemise like the one pictured above without blackwork as such embellishment was expensive. This square neckline is more accurate than the draw string version you see at faire. The draw string smock became fashionable in the LATE 1600s and into the 1700s. By the way, the pattern for this smock shown is by Margo Anderson. If you don't sew, and a historically accurate pattern intimidates you, you can purchase a plain white linen smock or men's collard shirt in my Etsy store:


While I'm on the subject of linen undershirts, there is a prevading rumor that has circulated for years at faire that the lower classes did not where white or bleached linen. Whoever started the rumor at faire simply had not done their homework. :(  *sad face*

Let me pause right here and give you a little background on this subject:  Linen is a greyish-cream color when it is first woven, and only becomes whiter through repeated bleaching with human urine and lye and sunshine. 

In the 16th Century, if you could afford the extra expense, you could purchase linen that was “ready-bleached;” otherwise, the Tudor Housewife or professional Laundress would bleach it themselves. Buying “ready-bleached” linen showed your wealth; therefore, wearing bleached linen smocks and shirts was greatly desired by ALL classes.

Working Class and Laborers were not the "poor" or "beggars" in society. There is a misunderstanding about the class system in 16th Century England. Even the most modest household among the working class would have more than one change of underclothes. Anyone who could possibly manage it would change into a clean smock or shirt a couple of times a week, or at least once a week. Both women and men alike among the wealthier classes, more specifically nobility, would often change their shirts or smocks several times a day and the washing was done once a week.

"Long before 20th and 21st century advertising for Clorox people who lived in 16th Century England were encouraged to get their wash “...whiter than white.”  (The Tudor Housewife by Allison Sim page 50 – 53).  

In the 16th Century tubs used for bleaching were made of wood - as they had been in medieval times. It was only when metal vats became common in the 17th Century that bleaching began to involve boiling up the linens. Bleach itself could be an unpleasant task as in the 16th Century it involved the use of fermented human urine - just as it had for centuries. It was cheap and a readily available resource for ammonia. Privies sometimes contained separate tubs set aside to collect it. 

In all the paintings by famous artists who painted scenes that had to do with the lower classes, they are ALL wearing white linens. Clean, white linens were considered to be the sign of a respectable person; even a poor housewife made an effort to keep both her linens and her home clean. The idea of the dirty peasant of the 16th century is a simply a myth.
In “Heptameron of Civil Discourses,” by Richard Jones, which was 16th Century guide to a successful marriage, it states:  “A woman wearing dirty linen ‘shall neither be prazed of strangers nor delight her husband.”

You do NOT have to wear unbleached muslin! The best and most authentic fabric is linen - White or bleached.

LATE ELIZABETHAN WAISTCOAT: The next addition you can add is a late Elizabethan (early 1600s) Waistcoat.  Wear it over your existing bodice and skirt. In warmer weather this might not be comfortable, but for fall fairs or cooler spring fairs adding a waistcoat in addition to a long sleeved collared chemise will elevate the authenticity of your garb. You can make the sleeves detachable like the one in the picture below. The pattern is available through The Tudor Tailor. Ivory waistcoats like the one pitured, and doublets for men, were very common! You might be surprised by that! Again, if you don't sew you can purchase one custom made here: 

Courtesy of

PINNER SLEEVES:  A minimal, easy to accomplish addition is a set of green "pinner" sleeves like those seen in this picture below. They are cut at an angle so that they are pointed at the top. You can either attach them by a strip sewn under your shoulder strap with either a button hole stitch or a grommet.  Make a small button hole on the sleeve point at the shoulder or install a small grommet hole and tie them onto your bodice.

Embroidered Pinner Sleeves by Designs From Time.  Available at the following Link

OVER-PARTLET:  The next thing you can add is an over-partlet either in white linen or black cotton velveteen like the one seen in the above picture or in the link below.  This small addition, along with the proper smock and pinner sleeves will make a huge difference!

The picture below shows a white linen over partlet.

COIF, CAUL, OR BIGGINS:  If you are wearing your hair loose, add a coif (pictured below) a caul or a biggins or bag cap. You'll stay cooler with your hair off your neck, and you'll look more the part of the 16th Century woman. Even men wore coifs. Add a flat cap on top of it and that will really stand out.

The style below is called a Biggins Cap: Embroidery would only be worn by the upper classes.  Hair is supposed to be tucked INSIDE but my mannequin's head was too big so I just photographed it like this.

A caul is a lot like a biggins cap only it's not as full or baggy in the back.

There is also this style of Coif seen below. Wear it plain without the embroidery and add a flat cap:

Incidentally, with this type of coif pictured above, women wore Oorijzers or "ear irons." They would pin the flaps of their coif to the ear irons. In the picture below you can see how they were worn on the head. They didn't have bobby pins to tack their coif down. So this was their clever fix. Oorijzers were worn well into the 17th century.

APRON:  The aprons in the 16th century were elongated pieces of linen with a narrow tie. Often the corners at the top were left to fold forward. Many were worn underneath the bodice.  The full ensemble - kirtle, pinner sleeves, over partlet, and apron - can be purchased here in many color choices:

EMBELLISHMENTS:  You can add embellishment to the bodice and skirt with grosgrain ribbon to elevate your look.  This is my new kirtle or livery which I made. All of the household in the Queen's guild at the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Faire will now be wearing a black and red livery. 

Back View - Kirtle
If you don't have time, or can't afford a new kirtle that is cut and patterned more authentically, then just make a few additions in embellishment to your existing garb. Add a triangular neckerchief and tuck it inside your bodice in front. Add an apron, and a proper coif, caul, or biggins cap. Start adding pieces each year - such as  new bodice made of a solid color in wool, linen, or cotton canvas - and keep adding pieces until you get a more authentic style. Properly clothed 16th century women were covered." If you are willing to forego down playing the "sexy" and playing up the historical aspects, you'll be on the right track.


I haven't left out some recommendations for you menfolk. The following pictures are excellent reproductions of men's fashions from the 16th Century - all easily accomplished. If you can't sew talk to me. I have a Lay Away program!

In this photograph, this living history actor from the UK is wearing a wool doublet with slashed embellishments, slops, hose, and garters. He's wearing a long sleeve collared linen shirt underneath. In this picture, the actor has had the sleeves sewn into the doublet, but they can be left detachable for those living in warmer climate. 

Pictured: The Tudor Group UK

This gentleman again is wearing a doublet at slops, hose and garters. By the way, cream or natural colored wool doublets or jerkins were extremely common. You'd think people would be fearful of getting them soiled, but that wasn't even taken into account.

The entire ensemble can be purchased here:

Pictured: The Tudor Group UK

These gentleman are actors in the UK portraying servants wearing the livery of a wealthy nobleman.

Pictured: The Tudor Group UK

This picture is a great example of a middle class gent in the 16th Century

Pictured: The Tudor Tailor Group UK

Adding a waistcoat or doublet, a collared white linen shirt, and flat cap or hat, leggings and garters are additions that you can make a little at a time. 


The Tudor Tailor: 

Women's Waistcoat:

Men's Doublet: 

Flanders Gown: 

Tudor Kirtle:

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