Fashion in the period 1550–1600 reflected the hierarchical structure of society at the time. In the Elizabethan era, a person's rank, status, or social position dictated his or her living arrangements, diet, and dress. Western European clothing was characterized by increased opulence, the rise of the ruff, the expansion of the farthingale.
…An interpretation such as this goes some ways towards an explanation of those images of women, encrusted and embellished with the symbols of vanity, that form the staple evidence for a chronology of Elizabethan fashion. They both fulfill and suggest the noblewoman's role as a hollow cipher within Elizabethan society, emblematic vessel lacking any sense of individuality other than the details of dress. Presentation of women in this way, whilst illustrating an awareness of fashion's potential civilising mask, naturally left them open to familiar misogynistic accusation, as Honig states, 'Woman is the artificer, the trickster, the dealer in that which is superficial yet attractive.'
A headdress known as a "snood" was a type of hairnet that became highly popular during the Elizabethan era. Similar headdresses appeared, such as a bag-coif which featured a gathered bag at the back covering the wearer's head. The fabric of the bag could match the dress, or could be made of a plain black silk, covered with gold netting. In Italy, a fashionable early 16th century headdress known as the "balzo" was similar to a snood. It was a large gathered bag, often made of woven strips of fabric, fancy gold material and lace, or other materials, worn over the hair. From the front, it looked more like a roll worn over the hair, as the greater portion of its bulk was above the head.
The ruff, one of the more eccentric garments of the Elizabethan era, was a fashion statement to rival those of the 1970s. Starting life as a simple collar, the ruff grew more elaborate through the course of Elizabeth I’s rule to become symbolic of the era. It was a circular collar made from a pleated frill worn by both men and women. On women it covered the neck, chin, shoulders, and breast
Women wore caps of various kinds. The "Mary Stuart" style, with a heart-shaped outline around the face, is still worn. Wearing the hair brushed up over pads to make a kind of beehive is a trendy aristocratic style -- a more modest version of the same is also worn. Close curls are still worn also, with the long hair gathered into a bun in the back that was usually covered with a small cap or net of some kind. Women also wear men’s style hats over their caps -- a scandalous fashion development according to some. A woman rarely has her hair completely uncovered, and an older or widowed woman would be likely to be even more covered. A working woman would probably have a kerchief or headcloth. A common style is to braid the hair and wrap it circularly around the back, then cover the braids with a small cap or cloth that might be woven into the braids.
The limitations of what colors and what fabrics people of the Elizabethan era could wear, led to the development of a new fashion trend called slashing. Both men and women began slashing the outer surfaces of their clothing such as doublets, sleeves and gowns, so that the contrasting colors of the linings beneath were exposed. They would even pull the linings through the slashes and puff it out for greater emphasis on the contrasting color, fabric or material.
The most interesting fact about Elizabethan clothing is that the Parliament of England passed separate laws called sumptuary laws to govern the ways of dressing! It was in 1574 that these laws were enforced by Queen Elizabeth and were termed as 'Statutes of Apparel'. It decided the types of outfits an individual should wear. The ways of clothing of a person reflected his social status, or sometimes even the colour of his cloth. Clothes with gold were reserved for the Queen and her relations. The royal class alone could wear clothes trimmed with ermine. Nobles wore clothes trimmed with fox and otter. The upper class wore velvet, satin and silk outfits. [...] The peasants and the common man wore dresses made of cotton, leather and wool.
The styles of the gowns worn by women in Elizabethan England changed from year to year, but the basic styles remained the same. Women wore gowns comprised of a tight-fitting bodice and a fuller skirt that would hang down to the ankles. Dresses cut to expose much of the neckline were acceptable and fashionable. Clothing of the Upper Classes was heavy and cumbersome, and restricted movement for the wearer. Women of the Lower Classes wore much less restrictive styles, both for freedom of movement, and because they did not have servants to help them dress.
Clothing during the reign of Elizabeth always reflected the social status of the wearer. There would be no doubt in ones mind about picking out the nobility in any given crowd. Clothing was a direct indication of wealth, much in the manner of imported suits in the present. The cost of clothing was related to the type of fabric and (in the days before synthetic dyes) the color. Purple dye was extracted by crushing thousands of tiny sea snails; similarly, crimson dye was obtained by crushing a certain type of beetle. Processed fabrics such as velvet or corduroy were costly, as were satins and other fine weaves. Cotton, although common in this day and age, was expensive and uncommon before the rise of the cotton gin. [...] Flax and wool were the more common fibres.
[Elizabeth I] was very fond of clothing, so much so that when she died she had over 3,000 gowns and headpieces in her wardrobe. Although she was never considered a great beauty, her style was widely admired and mimicked. She was a tiny woman–small-breasted and small-waisted. consequently, fashions accented a silhouette of a long, flat, narrow torso. Even men wore corsets to try to make their bodies fit this mode. Her pale complexion and high forehead caused women to wear even more white powder/paste on their faces than before and pluck their foreheads and eyebrows (Elizabeth actually died from lead poisoning from the lead that was in the white makeup she used to cover her smallpox scars).
Women's fashions ruled the day during the last Tudor's reign. With a female monarch on the throne, it wasn't surprising that the emphasis was on the female form. The shape of a woman took a radical turn in 1590 when the drum farthingale became the standard of fashion. This shape was produced by strapping a large platter-like contraption around the waist, and then allowing the material of the gown to flow over the drum.