When considering women’s clothing during the 1500’s, it’s important to realize that there was great style variation, not only between social classes as would be expected, but also between countries. Henry VIII of England (ruled 1509-1547) and Francis I of France (ruled 1515-1547), each wanted their royal court to be considered the most fashionable, beautiful, glittering in all of Europe. So while there were definite similarities, this competition led to each country developing unique adaptations of undergarments, dresses, and headpieces. Some of these national variations were necessary because of climate difference between countries.
During the 1500’s, women’s undergarments became important for the first time in history. English women wore a “chemise” as the first layer. The chemise had full sleeves, often full bodies also, gathered or pleated at the arms and neck to create a ruffle. The chemise was embroidered which ,in England, led to the development of the beautiful blackwork embroidery.
Elaborate, heavy-duty undergarments were necessary to achieve the desired look. The supporting and all important second layer was a “farthingale” and a corset, called “a pair of bodies”. The English version of the farthingale combined the Spanish version, a triangular whalebone cage underskirt, with the French corset; therefore, the English version resembled two cones set tip to tip. This English undergarment served the dual purpose of shaping the garment and supporting the great weight of the heavy fabrics used to complete the outfits. The cold English climate led to the use of heavy fabrics, such as velvet, with fur sewn into the cuffs and collars during winter months, as opposed to more temperate climates, such as Spain where lighter fabrics were preferred.
Women during the 1500’s wore hats and headgear to complete their entire outfit. English women wore a unique style known as the “gable hood”. The wired headdress was shaped like the gable of a house, the woman’s face framed by long embroidered “lappets”, a decorative flap on the headdress, and a loose veil behind. These gable hoods were quite heavy and were later replaced by a light crescent French headpiece introduced to Henry’s court by Anne Boleyn.
If you would like to learn more about the clothing of this historic time, check out the movies, “A Man For All Seasons” or “Anne of the Thousand Days”. These are both great movies in there own right, as well as, beautifully portraying the fashions of the 1500’s.