A Guide to Elizabethan and Shakespearean Costumes
- By Jenna Maxwell
The Elizabethan time period refers to the years 1558 through 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I was reigning queen over England and Ireland. This time period is well known for the development and extreme popularity of English theater, as Elizabeth I's reign was, for the most part, a time of peace. The peace during this time period provided citizens with time and the ability to focus on celebrations and recreation, which is generally regarded as the part of the reason for the great success of the famous playwright William Shakespeare. Shakespeare's plays led to great interest in the world of theater. The fact that the theater played a large part in many Elizabethan people's lives meant that they often dressed up and focused more time on fashion than people had previously. Shakespeare is also well-known for referencing many of the time period's fashions in his writings, which leads a lot of those reading Shakespeare's literature today to look into the costuming of the Elizabethan era to better understand the unique language and vision of the writer.
Elizabethan and Shakespearean Men's Costumes
The clothing of men during the Elizabethan time period mostly consisted of whatever they liked. Men were permitted to wear whichever clothing they wished to wear, as long as their clothing was colored according to their social ranking. For the most part, both very dark and very bright colors were reserved for higher-ranking members of society, as it was much more difficult to produce clothing in these colors. The monarch and their direct family members were permitted to wear any clothing of their choice, although their clothing was usually made of silk and colored purple. Dukes, earls, and marquises were also permitted to wear purple silk clothing as well as sable furs.
Clothing usually consisted of doublets (a long-sleeved, waist-length fitted jacket), jerkins (a short-sleeved jacket that fit tightly over the doublet), trunks (puffy shorts), and hose. Depending on the position of a knight, the clothing that was permitted varied. For instance, Knights of the Garter were able to dress in purple silk much like the dukes and earls. Knights that were placed in ordinary office were permitted to wear velvet, leopard furs, and silk with embroideries and colors of their choosing.
Lower-class men in Elizabethan times had lower-quality clothing available to them, as many of the fabrics and colors of those in other rankings were quite expensive. Lower-class men generally wore clothing that was brown, beige, green, or blue, although these colors would not be the deep, rich tones that those of higher rankings would wear. Commoners would often wear fabrics made of wool, sheepskin, linen, or taffeta. Peasant men wore loose-fitting trousers, trunks, cloaks, and hose much like the noblemen, but their items were very plain in color, cut, and fabric. Young boys would also wear similar fashions to their fathers, which showed the status of their families in society.
Elizabethan and Shakespearean Women's Costumes
As with men's clothing in the Elizabethan era, women's clothing represented their social standing. Expensive materials, such as silk and furs, were reserved for women of the royal family as well as duchesses and countesses. These high-society women often wore purple clothing like the high society men. Wives of knights often wore leopard furs and velvet, while wives of peasants wore clothing of wool, sheepskin, and linen.
The colors for peasant women were also dull colors, such as beige, brown, and green, like their husbands and fathers wore. Women of all society rankings wore gowns, although peasant gowns were very plain in material and design. Higher-ranking women wore more elaborate gowns, along with petticoats (an underskirt that gave dresses and skirts a domed, fluffed-out shape), kirtles (an undergarment with a waist seam, similar to a girdle), sleeves, partlets (a type of modesty panel to be worn over the chest), and cowls or wisks (wired, fan-like elaborate collars). Young girls would wear fashions that were simpler than those of women, but the colors and fabrics would reflect their father's status.
Elizabethan and Shakespearean Accessories
In the Elizabethan and Shakespearean time period, accessories were a large part of high-society attire. Capes, hats, bonnets, hair accessories, and jewelry were the staple accessories of middle- and upper-class citizens. Lower-class citizens were fairly limited to basic hats and capes as accessories, all of which were made of simple fabrics like wool, sheepskin, or linen. Hats, capes, and bonnets for middle- and upper-class members of society were often very elaborate. Men's hats often were made in different shapes, some being narrow and some being rounded. These hats usually were made of more expensive materials and featured trimmings that were made of lace, chains, and silk, and often, they featured feathers. Women's hats were smaller than men's hats and also had interchangeable feathers to alter the look of a hat based on the occasion or outfit. Women during this time period also wore lace bonnets that were extravagant in design and could have contained intricate lace work along with ribbons, bows, and pearls. Capes for both sexes were frequently made of velvet or silk and were a staple accessory that served as both a fashion statement and additional warmth.
High-society women, such as royalty and duchesses, frequented theaters during the Elizabethan/Shakespearean time period as a means of recreation. During theater shows and elaborate balls, it was not uncommon to see high-society women sporting masks that were brightly colored and adorned in jewels. These masks were also worn by entertainers of the time to increase the amount of drama that the audience would feel. Hair accessories were also quite popular in the Elizabethan fashion period; common hair accessories included feathers, strings of pearls, golden rings, and ornaments made of glass.
Jewelry was also popular for middle- and upper-class men and women. Large earrings were fashionable with both and women, although generally, earrings were more popular among high-society males than females. Rings and necklaces made of gold were worn by both middle- and upper-class people, although rings and necklaces for higher-society men and women were much more intricate and featured more expensive material and larger, precious gemstones such as pearls and emeralds. Buttons on clothing at this time were often considered a form of jewelry as well, and for royalty or high-class people, they would be made of pearls or gold. The Elizabethan time period marked a unique time in fashion where new accessories were being created while many old accessories from different cultures were also introduced.
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