Sleeve Puffs, Lace Ruffs, and The Queen's Wardrobe
by Sandra Byrd
"Queen Elizabeth was so fond of her clothes that she would never part with any of them, and it is said that at her death there were three thousand dresses and 'head attires' in her wardrobe." So claims Herbert Norris in his tome, Tudor Costume and Fashion. Elizabeth actually was known to give away some of her clothing—to her ladies, to maids of honor, and to other less well-off nobles. But there is no doubt that the woman, like her mother and father before her, was a clothes horse.
Earlier this month, January 15th, saw the 455th anniversary of Elizabeth's coronation. The entire coronation celebration would have been about $5.5 million in today's money, or £3.7 million. Her coronation robes, according to Norris, "consisted of a dress with a long train of gold tissue lined with white sarcenet and bordered with ermine, and worn over the Spanish farthingale." Of interest is the fact that, of course, ermine, the winter white fur of the English stoat, is common among the robes of state, sometimes being powdered (as was the queen's visage) to make it even whiter. Although both Queen Anne Boleyn and her daughter were particular to French fashion, the queen retained a fondness for the Spanish hoop and underskirt fashion nearly all of her reign. But how did the queen, and others of the age, know what was fashionable in France, or anywhere else?
Portraits of ladies and nobles in other lands were available through diplomatic channels, and they provided insight into continental fashion. Queen Elizabeth tried, in vain, to bring over a French seamstress at least once during her reign. More interesting, though, were the fashion dolls that were sent from land to land. Helena von Snakenborg, Marchioness of Northampton, sent such a doll to her Swedish sister, Karin Bonde, in 1604. Helena's letter to her sister says, "As regards the doll, which, dearest sister, you have mention in your letter, we have sent our servant up to London, to have it dressed in the best and latest fashion of the season. When it is ready it shall be sent to you as you desire." According to Janet Arnold's Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, there is just such a little doll preserved at a museum in Stockholm, dating from the late 16th century. Click here to see the doll.
There are two fashion accessories for both men and women that are particularly noted to the Elizabethan era: the ruff and gloves. Norris teaches that the ruff started out as "a cutwork or lace edging on the neckbands of gentlemen's shirts" before the reign of Elizabeth's brother, Edward VI. But they continued to grow until, as John Davis writes in Life in Elizabethan Days, "ruffs a foot deep are very usual and a gallant's head sticking out of them looks (as a courtier remarked) 'like John the Baptist's head upon a platter.'" The ruffs were often lace or linen, and were formed and curled on hot irons. Norris states that, "Starch, called by the Puritans as 'the Devil's liquor'" was brought over from the Netherlands, and that a Dutch woman whose husband was Elizabeth's coachman "monopolized in England the knowledge of clear starching."
The queen was famously vain of her long white fingers, and rightly so. To protect them, and to show them to their best advantage, she often wore gloves. Gloves were most often made of soft kid, and were embroidered and embossed, or had delicate ruffs of their own sewn on. Norris says that perfumed gloves were not common until later in Elizabeth's reign, when they became very popular indeed. The queen received a dozen pair of them as gifts for the New Year, 1599. The queen was famous, like her father, for an abhorrence to "evil smells." This made perfumed gloves very popular, but also an easy vehicle for those who would like to poison her through inhalants. In 2012, the London department store Selfridges sponsored an exhibition of gloves to mark the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. The centerpiece of the exhibit? The gloves worn by Queen Elizabeth I at her 1559 coronation. You can view the entire collection here: Selfridge's Diamond Jubilee Glove Exhibit.
According to Lace: A History, by Santina Levey, in today's money, Queen Elizabeth I averaged £9535 4 wardrobe each of the last four years of her reign; James I (That's King James of the King James Bible) averaged £36,377 per year during the first five years of his. In today's money, that's roughly £1,191,875 ($1,883,163) per year for Elizabeth or £4,547,125 ($7,184,458) for James. So perhaps the Stuarts were the biggest clothes horses of all!
Please visit Sandra Byrd's website, here, to learn more about the Tudor Ladies in Waiting series, and her blog, here, for Elizabethan themed giveaways! Sandra has written many Tudor-themed pieces in the book, Castles, Customs and Kings, edited by Debra Brown. The book can be purchased here.