Elizabethan Clothing

Jenny Tiramani, Associate Designer for Shakespeare's Globe in London , gave a fascinating introduction at the Globe to the clothing worn by actors of the 16th and 17th centuries. Nancy Lyons reports that clothing worn on stage represented what was commonly worn by people of the Renaissance period.

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Ms Tiramani attaches the ruffled collar to a man's shirt dress

At the Globe and Fortune Theatre, a core group of actors owned the theatre and used the Box Office draw to purchase clothes. Good quality clothes were very expensive - a cloak made of black velvet cost about 20,000. Smaller touring theatre companies hired actors with their clothes. Actors had been known to go to prison for not paying clothing debts.

As the film Shakespeare in Love shows, only men performed on stage, with the younger men playing women, dressed in feminine clothing. Early women actors on stage were often given clothes by their admirers and patrons, which was worn in their performances. Elizabethan supporting actors performed in dress of the period, with only "leading" actors in historical costume. Clothes were important for indicating what was happening in the script (i.e. a night gown shows its evening).

As commoners didn't own many clothes, they were prized possessions and often servants often paid debts with them. Clothing were considered assets to buy and sell, to adapt and share and to will to others. Until as recently as WWII actors performed in their own clothes.

Italian Renaissance style led the way with soft, flowing body enhancing clothing. Wealthier people had better quality and a wider range of clothing, thanks to the "Sumptuary Laws" - dress regulations which existed up through 1600 in England. An aristocrat might wear a doublet (tight-fitting jacket) of black silk velvet, heavily overstitched with gold thread, together with tights and boots to the knee. Underneath would be a long, loose white shirt with a detachable stand up collar in one long piece and starched and folded in a specific way. Linen underwear served as a barrier, keeping clothes clean. Buttons were for decoration and were pinned and tied to stay on, rather than being sewn on, so they could be more easily cleaned. A long outer cloak called a "houppelande" was sometimes worn.

Women wore heavy, low cut gowns with large jewellery. They were made out of richly decorated silks (from Italy - the silk weaving capital of the time), damasks and brocades, accented with real gold or silver thread. "Slashing" - cutting fabric to allow the lining to show through - became a very fashionable embellishment. Underwear was apparently only worn by Venetian prostitutes. Headdresses had been worn in and out of doors, however, during the later part of Queen Elizabeth's reign, it became accepted for women to leave their hair uncovered, only plaited and adorned with ornaments. Dark coloured hats were gaining in popularity

In England, typical fabrics were: leather and wool (outerwear), linen (underwear), silk (for landed gentry only) and velvet (most desired of all). Actors, were able to purchase these fabrics for the stage, if they could pay for it themselves.

Rules even governed wearing certain colours. In England, only Barons, the Queen and King could wear the colour purple. Black and white showed loyalty to the Queen. Universally, black was considered the colour of dignity and mourning. A strong, deep black fabric was costly, and the colour was produced by carefully using natural dyes from plants and roots. In Venice, after the age of 25, all men had to wear black. In Germany, red was the preferred colour for the upper classes.