Renaissance Costumes: Building Blocks
The basic building blocks of the Elizabethan wardrobe were fabrics woven from linen and wool. Other, more expensive fabrics were available to those who could afford them and these included a variety of weaves from such materials as cotton and silk. Leather was also commonly used in creating accessories and garments.
Linen, woven from the fibers of the flax plant, was common. While some was produced domestically, the best was imported. Ideally suited for garments which would need to be cleaned frequently, such as under-garments, linen was highly comfortable, easy to clean, and quick to dry. Linens could cost 1 shilling per ell for coarse fabrics to be used for linings, 5 shillings per ell for holland of cambric to be used for shirts, and the finest linen, lawn, used for neckwear and cuffs cost upwards of 10 shillings per ell.
Cottons were also used, though the raw materials had to be imported from Smyrna or Cypress and thus the cost was higher. Cotton was used for similar purposes as linen.
Sometimes linen and cotton were woven together to create a blend called fustian. Fine fustian was often used in place of silk, as it could be woven to have a similar appearance. The costs of cottons and fustians were similar to that of linen with coarse woven, rougher fabrics costing about 1 shilling per yard and finer, more refined weaves selling for 3 - 5 shillings per yard.
It would be less usual to find outer garments made of linens or cottons, but this happened occasionally and usually for economical reasons. When this occurred the materials used were heavier of a heavier weave, such as a canvas, which would sell for between 1 shilling and 3 shillings per yard.
Without exception, the most common material used in the construction of Elizabethan outer garments was wool. The production of wool and its associated clothes formed one of the primary foundations of the English economy during the age. Woolen clothes are sturdy, versatile, and naturally water resistant. While wool dyes well, however, it does not wash well and therefore was rarely used in garments that would require frequent washing. The period wool fabrics were often so heavily felted that they could be cut without the edges fraying. The lowest quality wools could be as inexpensive as 6 duckets per yard, but most wool fabrics ranged in cost between 2 and 4 shillings per yard.
Most of the finer fabrics of the age were woven from silk, including satins, taffetas and velvets. The most economical of these luxuries was satin, ranging from 3 shillings to 14 shillings per yard. Taffetas might cost as much as 15 shillings per yard, velvets 30 shillings per yard and up, and damasks could cost an astounding ¤4 per yard.
Leather also played an important role in the fashion of the period. Not only was it used in the construction of gloves, hats, belts, and shoes, but it could also be used in the construction of various outer garments including doublets and even breeches. When leather was used in construction of garments, it was often highly tooled for decoration.
Dyes and Decorations
The color palette of Elizabethan England tended to be one of muted colors. The color of fabrics tended to be those that could be created through the use of natural dyes, such as brown, grey, yellow, russet, blue, and green.
Brown and gray fabrics were the least expensive to produce and became associated with the poorest classes. Russet (a red-brown) dye was created from madder (a plant), and was considered an "honest" color.
Blue fabrics were created through the use of the herb woad, and blue was popular amongst servants and apprentices (who likely did not choose their own clothing, but wore the livery of their masters.) Because fabrics dyed with woad tended to fade, it was not atypical to see the bright blue evolve into almost a sky blue over time and wear. Yellows and greens were also created with natural dyes.
Bright colors were expensive and difficult to produce, and tended to fade quickly, often requiring more expense to re-dye. Among these colors were red, made from an imported dye created from pigments found in sea life; purple; and black. These were highly fashionable yet prohibitively expensive and would be reserved only for the wealthiest peers. families.
Linens were most often left un-dyed, though they might be worked with blackwork embroidery. Clothes could also be "guarded" (trimmed with ribbons), bombasted (stuffed with lots of padding to create exaggerated shapes), or studded with gems and pearls (in the most expensive cases).