Renaissance Costumes: A Basic Guide
By Jeremy David Clos
Historical Director, The North Carolina Renaissance Faire
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Renaissance Costumes for Women
Over her chemise, the typical Elizabethan women would wear one of three basic styles of attire; sometimes they were worn in combination with one another. The first among these was the slightly outdated kirtle, the second was a bodice and one or more petticoats, and the third was a gown.
The kirtle, a long fitted garment that reached all the way to the feet, resembled a long fitted dress without any seams at the waist. It was a very simple cut and style, closely related to the garments of Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII's, court. This style was not generally popular among fashionable women, but might be worn around the house or perhaps beneath another garment such as the popular Spanish Surcoate, a long flowing loose gown.
A women's bodice, or "pair of bodies," was a close-fitting garment for the upper body, normally, for most people, made of wool. It served the double function of keeping the body warm and also that of molding the upper body into the fashionable shape of the period. The look was rather severe and masculine: flat, broad in the shoulders and narrow in the waist. In essence, the bodice served the combined function of bra, girdle, and vest all in one.
The degree of stiffness of a bodice was proportional to the wearer's station in life. While upper class women wore stiffly boned bodices, ordinary women required freedom of movement to perform everyday tasks (imagine churning butter in a stiff corset) and therefore wore less restrictive garments. Stiffening was provided by baleen , bundles of dried reeds, willow wood, or even steel. A less fashionable bodice might be stiffened with only a heavy fabric interlining. For extra stiffening a long, rigid piece of wood, bone, or ivory, properly called a "busk" would be inserted into a pocket in the front of the bodice or corset and held in place with a ribbon at the top.
The bodice waistline was pointed in the front and the neckline reflected the trends of fashion, low towards the beginning and end of Elizabeth's reign and high-necked during the middle years. A low bodice might be worn with a high-necked chemise, but only young unmarried women might sport the décolleté look in fashionable circles. The bodice itself had no collar.
While a sleeveless bodice was a proper outer garment for a working woman, women of higher social status had little cause to ever be seen in their shirtsleeves. A bodice's sleeves would be detachable, a separate garment, lacing in with ribbon ties so that they might be interchanged or replaced. Fancier bodices also had tabs along the waist called "Piccadills" and often featured padded shoulder rolls or stiffened wings of fabric at the armholes.
Since the bodice took a fair amount of strain, buttons would be too weak a fastening. Instead, bodices would be closed by means of hooks and eyes or lacing. Ordinary women's bodices would usually lace up the front; side- and back-lacing bodices were worn by those wealthy enough to afford servants to assist them in dressing. Middle class women were often seen in side-lacing bodices.
While the bodice was meant to flatten and narrow the upper body, Elizabethan fashion dictated a much more voluminous look in the lower body. This was achieved through the use of a farthingale, bum roll, or a combination of both. The farthingale had originated in Spain and was essentially a bell-shaped support for the petticoats or skirts. It was essentially a skirt with a series of four to eight hoops of wire, whalebone, or wooden hoops sewn into it.
Often a padded roll, or bum roll, was worn overtop of the farthingale to help carry the weight of the heavy petticoats or skirts. Often, women of the lower and middle classes might wear the bum roll without the farthingale to imitate the style of the upper classes while still allowing the necessary freedom of movement to go about their daily chores.
Skirts were commonly termed "petticoats" with the shape being dictated by the shape of the undergarments. Petticoats could be worn with the farthingale, bum roll, or a combination of the two. It would not be uncommon for a woman to wear many layers of petticoats, not only to create volume, but also for warmth. The under petticoats would often as not be made of linen, which the outermost skirts of the common classes would likely be made of wool and could be richly embroidered. Upper class women might have petticoats made of finer fabrics.
The final, and most popular style among the fashionable, was the gown, essentially a bodice and skirt sewn, or laced, together. The gown was usually worn over a sleeveless bodice (corset), farthingale and bum roll. This was the richest form of garment available and would be made of velvet, damask, or another silken fabric. The bodice of a gown would frequently be heavily adorned with embroidery (jewels were not uncommon among the wealthiest) and might feature tie-in sleeves and a second set of false hanging sleeves that hung down at the back for decoration. The front of the skirt would often be split to reveal a richly decorated petticoat beneath.