Saturday, September 3, 2011

Ruffing It

I find researching Renaissance clothing fascinating.  Costume pages abound: from pages that will sell you the proper shoe, to a wiki on the costumes of the tv show The Tudors*.

Here is a compilation of what I found on the web about the history of just one Renaissance accessory, the ruff.

Definition of ruff:  a stiffly starched frilled or pleated circular collar of lace, muslin, or other fine fabric, worn by men and women in the 16th and 17th century. (from

Apparently the ruff evolved from an extension of the fabric of the undergarment showing at the neckline. The flash of clean cloth showed you could afford to have your undergarments laundered frequently. At first ruffs were apparently worn attached to a neckpiece or partelet (Think dickey), then someone realized that you could make a ruffs a separate piece entirely. (Think detachable collar).

Ruffs began to be made out of fine fabric edged with lace, which was very expensive at that time because it was all hand-made. Ruffs got wider and wider.  Wearing a lot of lace meant you had a lot of money. The nobility competed to have the most elaborate clothing, but a new middle class was also wearing these styles.   It wouldn't do to have commoners dressing like the members of the court so sumptuary laws were passed to limit certain fabrics and styles to the upper class, for example, to specify that ony certain social classes could wear double ruffs.

Still ruffs grew -- so large that people wearing them had to use long spoons to eat. Some ruffs were made were decorated with silver wire and metallic thread, pearls and jewels. Some got so large and heavy they required supporting structures like portafraes, suportasses, pickadils or rebatos.

The design of the ruff was not the same across Europe.  Different styles were popular in different places and at different times..

At some point the large ruffs became unfashionable and were replaced by flat lace collars. I guess comfort finally outweighed fashion.

More Resources:

Shakespeare's England: A brief history of the ruff
The Renaissance Tailor: The partlet
Wikipedia: The ruff
Yellow Starch and Lace
How to Make a Ruff
Elizabethan Ruffs

*Apparently The Tudors is full of inaccuracies, so do not depend on it as an easy way to study history. For example, the producers decided not to show actors wearing codpieces, which were quite common during that period.

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