At Oxford I’m taking a class on Renaissance History. One of the most recent lectures was about the fashion that dominated the 1500-1600’s. Naturally, my immediate thought was how perfect this would be to share with my readers since one of my topics on Cheers Love happens to be Fashion! Naturally I had to be as British as possible while posting this so I tagged along with two of my friends who were going to a local pub called the Lamb and Flag to do some homework. I ordered a pint of Guinness and here I am now.
Nowadays it’s relatively easy to tell what class a person falls into. How do you do that? Today, just as back then, FASHION and dress were and are the biggest indicators of what class a person falls into. There are obviously other factors that can be taken into consideration such as carried possessions, mannerisms, transportation, and other small clues. However, fashion seems to be the easiest method of recognition. In the 1500’s there were three different “classes” made up Nobility, Gentry, and the Plebian classes.
The noblemen wore naturally carried themselves like noblemen. They walked with their heads held high, they wore expensive and elaborate dress. They were never alone because everyone wanted to be with them or be them. These men would carry large, elaborate swords as a sign of their wealth. Hmmm… Freud would be smile at that one.
The noblewomen in the 1600’s wore very tight corsets. Over the span of a woman’s life her ribcage might actually change shape because of how tight her corset would be tightened. These corsets often had a layer over them which would be made of very fine fabrics such as silks or brocade. They would be bright in color and elaborately stitched. One interesting fact was that the sleeves were not attached to the rest of their dress! The sleeves were actually a separate affair which were then tied onto the dress. The sleeves were often large and just as fancy as the rest of their dress. On their heads women adorned their heads with tight fitting caps which kept their hair neatly tucked away. In the 1600’s fashion slightly changed for women. Instead of the high necklines of the past, necklines that were extremely low cut came into fashion. Their corsets would push their breasts up and a fancy starched collar would rise up around the women’s necks! Personally, I think it made them look like a peacock with a neck brace. That might just be me though. I’m sure I’d try to keep up with the fashion of the day if I lived in that time. I can’t even imagine wearing tight corsets every day. Large skirts became popular in the 1600’s as well. The bigger the better! Women had to have wire structures under their dresses to hold their shape. Getting ready every morning as a noblewoman could take hours!
Gentry Class- Men
The Gentry class was the largest group of people. Men typically wore black, well cut clothing with polished shoes. If they were on the well to do end they might even have real silver buckles. Their beards would be trimmed neatly and they would carry themselves like gentlemen do.
Gentry Class- Women
I’m not going to talk too long about the women of the Gentry class because many of their fashion choices were similar to the Noble class. The colors weren’t quite as bright and the stitching wasn’t quite as elaborate. Besides that, everything was very similar. They would wear belts with two essentials: One was the key to their house and the other was a purse where they would keep their money. These two things were the sign of a successful housewife.
The lowest class was made up of the Plebeians. Surprisingly, they wore the same clothes as the Gentry class. However, their clothes were typically old hand me downs from the Gentry class. They weren’t new so they often had holes, patches, and lots of wear. This group seldom bought their own clothes. They might be donated them from wealthy Gentry men and women- think Salvation Army donations of today. There was always a big market for old, worn out clothes. Just as the upper two classes would carry around large swords, Plebeians would carry around daggers. They were sometimes decorated but obviously on a much smaller scale than the regal swords.
The plebeian women didn’t dress like the above two classes of women. Imagine a plebeian woman trying to milk a cow with wire underskirts or a large starched collar. It just wouldn’t work. Women of this class wore the tightly fitted hats. They wore sleeves which were separate from the rest of their dress. However, their dresses were very plain. They were patched and had little shape. Women of this class didn’t wear corsets because they weren’t practical for the everyday activities of a woman of this class.
This was the fashion of this era! Fashion was a big deal back then. It showed who you were and how important you were. Fashion is one element that carries on through the generations. It evolves over time but it also circulates. Corsets are making a comeback! I would personally never wear one but in today’s celebrity world they are becoming a big deal again. This is why past fashion is just as important to know as current fashion.