District 186 || District School Sites || Teacher Resources

Elizabethan England
Women's Fashions

of the Elizabethan Period

by Stefanie L. Bridges and Shandy S. Granger

In the Elizabethan day the goal of women's fashion was to show the woman's status in society and make her as attractive as possible. Women wanted as small and petite waist as possible, so they did anything to make their waists small or appear smaller than the actual size. Women in the Elizabethan days wore ruffles to show status in society. Sleeves of women's gowns had a certain appearance of being puffy.

It was not only in the colors, or the lack of them, that the new fashions differed from those of the preceding generation. Bombast was the stuffing used in doublets and hose in order to swell them out, eliminating all folds and creases. It consisted of rags, flock, horsehair, cotton, or even bran, although bran sometimes led to disaster, since all the bran ran out if the clothes got torn. The bombasting of the doublet over the chest and the stuffing out of breeches naturally made the waist seem smaller, and the effect was increased by the use of tight-lacing. The short, bombasted breeches, especially in the form of trunk hose, exposed a considerable amount of leg, and the introduction of knitting made it possible for leg coverings to fit the limbs more neatly than they had done before.

There was a growth in the ruffle in the 1500's. A simple string was drawn through the upper edge of the shirt to form a ruffle. The ruffle was an example of the "hierarchical" element in dress. When women wore them, they always had another element to be noted. This was the "Seduction Principle," as it has been called, an attempt to exploit the wearer's charms as a woman. For example, women wore a ruffle in order to show their status in society. The Elizabethan compromise was to open the ruffle in front to expose the bosom, and to allow the ruffle to rise in gauze wings at the back of the head.This fashion can be seen quite clearly in portraits of Queen Elizabeth.



In Elizabethan times, women's fashion had a new style for sleeves in gowns. The sleeves became a complicated collection of small pieces held together with jeweled fasteners. The under-sleeve was made in vast quantities of fabric, which projected a puffy style.

Women in the Elizabethan time had many different ways of showing their fashion styles. Elements such as puffy sleeves, tight-fitting bodices of dresses, and ruffles showed status in society. The women of Elizabethan times used different types of clothing to make themselves appear more petite than they actually were.


Works Consulted

Brooke, Iris. European Costume 13th to 17th Century. Studio City, CA: Player Press Inc., 1993.

This book offers a very informative section titled "Sixteenth Century European Costumes."

Dorner, Jane.Fashion. New York: Octopus Book Limited, 1974.

This book gives a great overview about the life in Elizabethan days. This book has very good information and pictures in it. The first chapter, called "Fashion Before 1700," is very informative.

Kelly, Francis. A Short History of Costumes and Armour 1066-1800. New York, New York: Arco Publishing Compar, 1973.

This book has a great section on civilian costume for the Elizabethan times. This book also provides information on all types of dress, including head-dress.

*Laver, James.Costume and Fashion : A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson Inc., 1985.

This book discusses various fashions of women in the Elizabethan days. It discusses what new trends appeared in this time. The section called "The Renaissance and the Sixteenth Century" is very informative.

*Scott, Jack Cassin.Costume and Fashion 1550-1920. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., 1986.

This book has various pictures of the Elizabethan fashion. This book shows all kind of fashions, including those for men, women and children in this time period. This is a very good book for pictures of ladies' fashions in the Elizabethan time period.

*Source for visual.


by Heather Hines and Lisa Fischer


The Elizabethan women were distinguished not only for their beauty, but also for their special taste in fashion. At the opening of the sixteenth century, the wealthy were spending vast sums on clothes. Their pride in their clothing meant a great deal to them at this time. Women sought to find a personality in their dress and greatly desired to emulate the fashions of the wealthy. In fact, the costume worn in these years was the richest ever seen in the history of fashion.

In the Elizabethan period most fashions originated in the upper classes and trickled down to the lower ones. Ordinary people sometimes hoped to raise their social position by following the fashions of privileged people.

Women's dress in this time was actually very simple, although today seems highly complicated. The first layer was the shift, which was similar in cut to the man's shirt. Next, the woman put on one or two petticoats. The outer one was often pleated and was a contrasting color to the gown.

Then the gown itself was put on, with full trailing skirts. Sometimes the train was lifted and fastened to the girdle at the back to show the lining and also to make walking a little easier. Many women used a hip pad to give their skirts shape. The gown was either fastened in front or laced at the back. The neck of the dress was square and low in the front. It was usually V or U shaped at the back. Over the neck of the dress were ruffs, which were supported by a wire frame which usually had gold, silver, or silk thread fixed at the back of the neck.

The sleeves were usually very full and bell-shaped. The lower edge of the sleeves turned back several inches to form immense cuffs which revealed the lining and displayed the sleeves underneath, which were attached to the elbow or shoulder. Plain, full sleeves were also very popular at this time. People also displayed numerous examples of tied and slashed sleeves. About 1518 the "split" sleeve came into style for women. The sides of the sleeves remained in style throughout the rest of the century. A few people wore an entirely separate sleeve tied at four or five points at the shoulder.

Belts and girdles were also a necessary part of the woman's dress. The girdle was made of cord or chain. From it hung a miscellaneous collection of household items such as keys or even a book. Hose made from the most fashionable silk were dyed as many different colors as the shoes.

Shoes developed into the well-known square-toed shape. Many times these were greatly exaggerated up to 8 or 9 inches in width at the toe. They also had tufts of colored lining pulled out through the slashes. They were tied at the ankle with a thin leather lace that came from behind the heel of the shoe.

Clothes were heavily embroidered and furred during this period. Practically every square inch of their garments were ornamented, slashed, and embroidered. Many had wide bands of velvet, usually black, or embroidery sewn on as a form of decoration. Precious stones, gold, and silver chains and clasps were also used.

Many women at this time wore beautifully embroidered and scented gloves made of cheverill, silk, or velvet. Others wore gloves that were cut at the knuckles to show rings beneath.

When walking long distances, women carried black velvet masks to shield their complexions from the sun, and also to disguise them from undesirable acquaintances. Fans with silver handles were also very popular at this time. Practically every woman carried a small hand mirror, either attached to her girdle or hanging on a cord around her neck.

The Elizabethan women's distinct taste in fashion greatly distinguished them from other time periods. Their pride in physical beauty, accentuated by clothing, gave them a distinct personality like no other. The women of the sixteenth century clearly cherished their love for clothing. Today we admire this period as one of the most brilliant and exciting in fashion history.

See also: "Fashion: Women and Men"

Works Consulted

Ashelford, Jane. A Visual History of Costume: The Sixteenth Century. New York: Drama Book Publishers, 1983.

This book is a wonderful collection of illustrations including oil paintings, line drawings, and engravings of dress during this period. These works clearly show what was worn and how. This great detail cannot be shown as clearly in modern drawings.

Boucher, Francois. 20,000 Years of Fashion. New York: Harry and Abrams Publishers, 1967.

This book is a good reference when studying the history of costume and personal adornment. The chapter on the sixteenth century provides a fascinating summary of Elizabethan fashion.

*Brooke, Iris. English Costume in the Age of Elizabeth. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1933.

The detailed descriptions of dress in this book give a clear view of what fashion was like in the sixteenth century. From head to toe, every article of clothing worn is described in great detail. This book is very informative in describing the trends during this period.

Nunn, Joan. Fashion in Costume 1200-1980. New York: Schocken Books, 1984.

The book gives a detailed survey of western world costumes over the past eight centuries. Descriptions of the underwear, outer garments, hats, footwear, fabrics and colors worn by men, women, and children are included.

Yarwood, Doreen. European Costume: 4,000 years of Fashion. New York: Larousse and Company, 1975.

The value of this book is in the meticulously drawn illustrations accompanied by an authoritative text. The author describes how Europeans dressed and decorated themselves.

*Source for visual.

Historical Figures and Events /Everyday Life /Arts and Architecture /
Shakespeare and His Theatre/About this Site / Links