Theater. Poetry. Music. Fine arts. The Elizabethan era (1558-1603), under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I during the Tudor period, saw a cultural explosion of the arts—with the most notable figure being William Shakespeare who was at his peak during this time, delivering one masterpiece after another (Friday marks the playwright’s birthday). By many historians’ account, the epoch was regarded as the golden age, the kind of renaissance that could only happen during a time of economic prosperity, peace from religious and political battles, and overall contentment. And it’s for these reasons that the Victorian era—and all the centuries thereafter—romanticized it.
Not surprisingly, designers (and costume designers; see: Game of Thrones) have turned to the Elizabethan era and its fashions for inspiration. But what makes these garments significantly more interesting than the stylings of any other time period is that they served a greater purpose than mere articles of clothing worn to cover the body—they represented the wearer’s wealth, status, and reputation.
The Sumptuary Statutes were signed into law in June 1574 and were enforced by Queen Elizabeth I to achieve two things: to reinforce a distinct social structure and to oversee clothing expenses by curbing extravagance. The proclamation mandated which colors and types of clothing that an individual was allowed to own and wear.
For the lower class, it meant the simplest styles crafted out of basic textiles, like cotton, wool, and leather. And because dyes cost money—the richer or brighter the color, the more expensive it was. The working class was relegated to muted shades in yellow, orange, green, pale blue, pink, and rust.
In contrast, the upper class luxuriated in the finest finery, with garments made from velvet, exotic silk, satin, and lace. But even among the distinguished, there were hyper-specific rules to identify each person’s ranking or degree. Robes were exclusive to the royals. Earls were the only ones who could wear gold or purple silk. And those whose ranking was a knight or higher was allowed to own silk stockings and velvet garments (and only a knight’s eldest son could wear velvet doublets, but not his younger brothers).
But it’s the dramatic silhouettes that are remembered today, with the most prominent being ruffs, which were worn by both sexes and seemed to have transcended the social hierarchy. Initially conceived as a frill attached to the edge of a shirt, the ruff evolved into an outsized starched collar that spanned the length of the neck.
For an upper class Elizabethan woman, there were many moving parts to her look: There were the sleeves, the bodice or corset, the petticoat, the ruff, a full floor-length skirt (that was held on a frame called “farthingale”), and the underskirt—all made and assembled piece by piece, and then pinned in place (the thinking behind this was that it could be easily reassembled with other pieces and look like a completely new outfit).
Translated for the 21st century, there aren’t quite as many layers as was seen on the nobility, but the opulence and the extravagance is there. The most obvious marker of Elizabethan inspiration is the ruff.
At the Givenchy Couture Spring/Summer 2008 show, Riccardo Tisci stretched and exaggerated the ruff to the extreme, transforming them into jackets and bodices, so that it became impossible to distinguish when the ruff ended and the garment began.
And when London-based designer Gareth Pugh—who had been struck by the fashion from the Tudor period as a child—made his memorable entrance on the Paris scene with his Spring/Summer 2009 collection, it was evident that Queen Elizabeth I was his muse. He toyed with monochrome ruffs, leaving them perfectly circular atop a frilly petticoat-layered dress or pulling them down the front of a dress, like an accordion—and when dressed in a stark black-and-white color scheme, the historical reference felt supremely futuristic. Three years later, he revisited the era with a graphic collection of armor made out of leather strips.
So it was fitting that for the “In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion” exhibit at Buckingham Palace in 2013, Pugh became the unofficial spokesperson for all things Tudors.
“Their [clothes] are definitely devices of subliminal power,” the designer had said. “I’m very much taken by the idea of the Tudors being the first power dressers—that idea of using clothes for more purpose than just clothing oneself. [It’s interesting] how things were started by the monarch, then copied by the court, then by the merchants and the middle classes. It was that trickle-down effect that people still talk about today with fashion and it’s fascinating that that was happening 400 to 500 years ago as well.”
Others referenced Queen Elizabeth I as well. Dramatic floral ruffs were seen at the Giambattista Valli Couture Fall/Winter 2012 show. At Alexander McQueen, Sarah Burton referenced traditional elements through the lens of over-the-top grandeur for Fall/Winter 2013 with incredibly ornate bodices, embroidered lattice ball skirts, feathery ruffs, chainmail hosiery, studded armor, and bejeweled headwear.
Three years later, Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri also took the literal approach for their Valentino Couture Fall/Winter 2016, which served as a high-fashion tribute to Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. There were mini high-neck ruffs, gowns saturated in a deep crimson (a color that was said to have been reserved for the queen, beautiful brocade fabrics, and austere floor-length robes.
The same season, Christopher Bailey also looked to the Elizabethan era for Burberry, plucking ruffles, puff sleeves, and rich fabrics from the period and integrating them into very wearable garments. The Fall/Winter 2019 season saw an abundance of ruffs and Juliet sleeves. And when Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim, the duo behind Oscar de la Renta, discovered botanical motifs found during the Elizabethan time, they interpreted them in a modern way for Fall/Winter 2018.
“When we were exploring the Elizabethan era, we came across these branch embroideries and botanical drawings and we just went with it,” Garcia said. “It’s approaching evening in a new way.”
“As a woman myself, I feel like there are no rules anymore to be dressed a certain way for certain events,” Kim added. And with that statement, it proves just how far we’ve come, that we’re able to play with the Elizabethan aesthetic, but without all the rules.END
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