Renaissance Costumes:
A Basic Guide
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    Renaissance Costumes: A Basic Guide

    By Jeremy David Clos
         Historical Director, The North Carolina Renaissance Faire

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    Renaissance Costumes: Introduction

    Renaissance costumes, or clothing, are easily the most recognizable feature of the many facets of the renaissance culture in England. The Elizabethan age was acutely conscious of fashion and used fashion as a reflection of the wearer's social status. Conspicuous consumption was as popular then as it is in today's modern era. Popular high fashion styles featured a look which was extremely artificial, highly stylized, elaborate, overdone, and very striking.

    The costumes which we, as modern observers, immediately associate with renaissance England are primarily those which were worn by the upper classes during the Elizabethan Age. This is natural, as most of the examples we have of renaissance costumes are drawn from formal portraits ordered by the wealthy to immortalize their images for posterity. Written descriptions of costumes also survive, such as the great wardrobe inventory taken at the death of Queen Elizabeth I, recording all of the garments which were in the Queen's closet (over 3000 individual entries). It takes much more than a passing glance to uncover the clothing which was worn by the common man as period chroniclers and portrait artists were paid to record the images, possessions, and activities of the wealthy and very few bothered to chronicle the details of the life of the poor.

    Both men and women in the renaissance wore costumes, or clothing, to court and other formal occasions because, to them, style was paramount. To us, renaissance costume appears to be highly constrictive and extremely uncomfortable. We associate tight doublets, hosen, corsets, ruffs, and garments with extreme tailoring with the clothes of the period because this is what we see in our research in the extant portraits and descriptions which survive from the period.

    Therefore since we, as modern observers, immediately associate the formal costumes of the renaissance aristocracy with the general fashion of the period, our perception is severely flawed. Formal attire is typically constrictive, and uncomfortable, even today. Associating this formal dress with the everyday fashion of the renaissance is akin to an observer 400 years from today expecting that we wear evening gowns and tuxedos on a daily basis. As a prime example, look to the modern formal occasions of a high school prom or a even a wedding. If, in the distant future, a researcher were to find a wedding or a prom portrait taken in our time, might he or she not think we wore such finery all the time?

    However, the renaissance was an extremely fashion conscious society and people were highly concerned that they keep up with the latest fashion. The costumes worn by the rich heavily influenced the clothing which was worn by ordinary people. When the courtiers appeared in new and dazzling style of costumes at Queen Elizabeth's court it would quickly be copied down the social ladder in as much detail and as could be afforded by the wealthier classes of merchants and landowners.

    The costumes of this rising renaissance middle class became so elaborate and troublesome to the nobility that statutes were enacted called "sumptuary" laws which dictated certain colors and fabrics should be reserved for those of the varied noble classes. These laws were, however, enforced by fines and those who could afford to break them often did.

    In fact, the everyday wear of the upper classes, and those of the common people allowed for much more mobility and comfort and would be perhaps even be considered comfortable by today's standards. Imagine trying to do the simplest of chores while wearing such restrictive clothing and it becomes obvious that other, less restrictive fashions were not only available, but were widely worn.

     

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