By Rachel Harper
So ladies, have you got your Christmas outfits all picked out this holiday season? Whether your idea of Christmas fashion is velvet, sparkles, fancy dress or a tacky holiday jumper a la Colin Firth in Bridget Jones, I’m sure you spend some time agonising over it each year. However, whatever time and effort you put into finding the perfect little black dress for your holiday Christmas party, the ladies at the Tudor Court had it a lot harder. The number of layers that they wore, combined with the challenge of sourcing the finest imported and handmade textiles Europe could offer, would have filled up their time for weeks in the lead up to the holiday season. Let’s chart their progress over the centuries.
It’s all about piety. Women were expected to be modest and cover their hair. Too many adornments would have been considered worldly and proud.
After the Renaissance finally spread to England from Italy, Tudor fashions evolved as well, to model Renaissance values of grace, idealized beauty, fine detail, craftsmanship, and unashamed ways of showing off what they could afford. Necklines became squarer, waistlines dropped, sleeves became puffier, and dresses more layered.
The chemise, or long loose dress like a nightgown, was still worn, and most of the time poked out of the neckline, wrists, or through slashes in the sleeves. Sometimes they were embroidered a bit or had an extra ruffle or lace. The lower square-neckline dresses had a lower chemise to match.
The ideal shape of a woman’s figure changed in the Tudor period, and to get this somewhat unnatural shape, stiff clothing also became more popular. Slowly, they added a whole new piece of clothing, the whalebone or reed (for lower classes) lined bodice that shaped the body into a cylinder shape.
During the Elizabethan era, the bust was completely flattened, and the waist dropped into a low V for the “geometrical” shape that was considered elegant. To add even extra stiffness, a large flat piece of wood or whalebone could be slipped down the front center of your bodice and tied in place by a busk-lace. The same piece of wood could even be given as a souvenir to your lover. Very romantic!
There’s no evidence to suggest that women wore drawers under their chemise, but they might have worn a Spanish farthingale, the graduated hoops of a
petticoat. Or for more comfort, a bum-roll, as it was appropriately called. This was a roll of fabric that was tied around the waist to throw out the skirt even more.
Now that wardrobe was under control, next on to hair! Women who were unmarried could wear their hair long and flowingwith some adornments, but married women always put their hair up, either with a jewel in the middle part, or with several types of hats that had stiff architectural styles that never caught on in other European countries.
So those are the basics about how women dressed in England from the Medieval period through Elizabethan times. It’s quite a lot considering that this wasn’t even half or it. It’s no wonder Tudor queens had so many ladies-in-waiting! They needed all the help they could get to dress themselves in a chemise, bodice, corset, waistcoat, petticoat, bottom layer dress, and then the actual dress. Yes, all at the same time. Then there was the hair, linen cap, and hat to contend with. And then finally the jewels. Only then were they finally Christmas party ready!