The Tudor legacy ,the advent of deadly fashion

40s and elizabethan 032

I love Tudor era clothing ,much of what makes costuming interesting has its origins in the 16thc Tudor court ,the corset , structural under layers, the freeing of women’s hair from under headdresses and veils and the increasing use of make up  .Unfortunately  its also those very same things which signal the beginnings  of women’s clothing as a health risk.I do not think there has been anything more detrimental to the health of women over the following Centuries than the corset .While the advent of wide skirts over hoops then later panniers and bustles meant restrictions on the movements of women and further dangers from fire .

The change from medieval loose fitting gowns .

black damask houppelande

To the late Elizabethan shape


Shows radical changes in fashion which are unprecedented in previous centuries,It also heralds the start of moulding womens bodies into a “fashionable” shape rather than using fashion to highlight certain features.The gown above restricts movement and adds structural layers to almost every part of the body ,the long corset ,the wide panniers ,the sleeves would also almost certainly have boning of some kind .Ruffs even the small neck ones can be restrictive ,while the large standing ruffs really restrict your vision.In England at least the late Tudor early Elizabethan era was when shoes with heels became fashionable,the beginning of a trend that resulted in the modern high heeled shoes the delight of shoe fans who may like myself be less than our ideal height  but the long term effects of which have been likened to Chinese foot binding.(The link below isnt the most academic of posts but has the huge advantage of numerous shots showing celebrity feet which have been deformed

So everything we love and hate about modern fashion begins here .

The corset.

At this point usually known as a pair of bodies or stays ,documents or costume books tend to use the terms interchangeably .Below is an example of very late Elizabethan stays , the “effigy corset”taken from the funeral effigy of Elizabeth 1

effigy-corset on

The corset  is a slow introduction to Tudor clothing ,They don’t feature in wardrobe accounts until very late in the century most early Tudor portraits seem to show either a fairly natural shaped bodice or one which is slightly stiffened and pins across the front over an under gown rather than a corset.

tudor  sperate gowns CleveJoosPortraitAngietevavndenRijne

The  stiffened pair of bodies or stays also seem to have remained court or aristocratic fashion until the very late Elizabethan era when we finally begin to see them enter the wardrobes of middle class women .The original corsets were probably very similar to the Dorethea stays ,with no boning over the bust and with a reasonably  natural waist  level.

dorethea stays

The widespread wearing of corsets was probably due not to women’s vanity but to the necessity of wearing some kind of rigid supporting layer under the developing structural under layers.Its impossible to keep a French Farthingale in position without a stiffened under layer  to hold it in place,its also extremely uncomfortable to wear any structural layer ,hoop skirt or even a bum roll without something to distribute the weight. The adding of layers also requires something to prevent wrinkling of under layers  .Its unlikely that anything as uncomfortable and restrictive as this European metal corset was ever worn regularly  in England and there is some debate as to whether these were ever a “normal” item of clothing. Though so many survive its hard to imagine they were only used medicinally.

Tudor stays didn’t immediately become the restrictive items seen in the effigy corset they gradually evolve .At the beginning of the era the snug fitting  kirtle or under gown along side the  over gown bodice were  probably the layers  which created the flat front typical of Tudor costume. The sketch of Sir Thomas Moore’s family shows the ladies of the house with various style of bodice front.Most of which do not seem to be boned or have significant stiffening .A  double layer of fairly thick  normal fabrics such as calico and damask or calico and wool would give a fairly supportive effect when pulled together.


The open laced open fronted style was probably casual wear for most higher class women and acceptable wear for those who were pregnant as we do hear of queens who wear their bodices this way during the last months of their pregnancies. When we see illustrations of gowns which are open laced its clear there’s no corset


YoungEnglishWomanHolbein white band

The  lack of a stiff hooped petticoat made it unnecessary to wear any extra layers


Its also worth noting that the men’s clothing here is still for the most part loose and comfortable .Later the tight fitting bodices required men to wear corsets and padding

thomas moor

By the 1530s bodices are becoming more unnaturally shaped probably stiffened with a specially stiffened fabric such as buckram .There is still no hooped skirt


This could still be achieved without a fully boned corset .I would wear a tightly fitting bodice such as those  taken  grave from the Eleanor of Toledo which are un boned .Over which I wear a dress with a fairly crisp fabric top later and slightly stiffened but not rigid under layer


As the reign of Henry VIII progresses we see the still fairly natural silhouette  of women’s clothing change to the typical Tudor triangle on top of a triangle shape .

eliz red dress

This look clearly requires some form of  rigid shape changing upper body garment under the gown .The fact that there is still a faint curve at the breasts suggests a corset like the previously mentioned Dorethea corset found in Germany was worn .These have a boned chest and back but the boning does not extend to the bust.They also have panel for a removable busk  of wood or bone which ran down the centre front .I would suggest being removable it may not always have been worn if the woman  was at home.

dorethea stays

Thus  far the stays don’t actually cause much discomfort or limit movement even if your quite curvy ,I  am a 36d and I usually choose this kind of stays for under my 16thc gowns and they are not the objects of torture that late Victorian corsets are .The stays do not drastically affect your lung capacity ,though they however restrict breathing slightly if you need to run or go up a large number of stairs.They make wearing skirts more comfortable as the waistbands rest on the bones of the corset instead of digging  . However they are very hot and they restrict movement to a phenomenal degree compared to lose fronted early Tudor gowns ,its not possible to comfortably bend forward  as a stiff busk is placed down the front ,this is a narrow piece of bone or wood .With a busk its uncomfortable to eat too much food in one sitting ,you have to sit extremely upright and something I had not realised until I wore them ,Corsets with straps restrict arm movements as once you have the close fitting wide necked Tudor gowns over them your range of movement above shoulder height  is very restricted as is your ability to reach back ,something not helped by the wearing of very wide ornate under sleeves

mary gown and silver sleeves

The final stages of the Tudor stays are the long very rigid late Elizabethan style stays which we see an existing example of it the effigy corset taken from the funeral effigy of Elizabeth and  shown in  use the painting below


These I don’t have any personal experience of wearing as I could never afford the major investment of having a pair made but having worn a boned long Elizabethan gown and a  late Victorian long bodied corset I imagine they are extremely uncomfortable and very bad for the health .

With just a brief respite during the Regency era women will spend the next five centuries wearing some form of corset.Most of these are at the very least hot ,uncomfortable and restrictive .These are an extant pair from The V and A and date to the  17th

pink stays

Within a century we see women buried in graves with drastically altered rib cages from wearing heavy boned restrictive corsets ,Womens health suffers in varying degrees ,until we gradually have the killer that was the Victorian corset


The second  detrimental development  in fashion in the Tudor era was the introduction of structural undergarments ,hooped skirts, and wide bum rolls while these didn’t have  major health repercussions and do in fact make wearing heavy full skirted gowns more comfortable they are extremely restrictive and space consuming. Wide skirts are a major fire hazard as they increase the speed at which fire can take hold of a costume .Women will also now need separate styles clothing for any strenuous activity .

The Farthingales

spanmish farthingale

image copyright Tudor Tailor

The Spanish farthingale seen above was originally brought to England by Catherine of Aragon ,though she quickly abandoned the fashion for the more natural line of English ladies gowns. It slowly begins to creep into Henrician fashion in the 1540s and is more or less an essential item by the  1550s


The Farthingale is supplemented later by an every widening bum roll to give the bell shape.



There is some debate as to whether early bum rolls went under or over the hooped skirts ,I personally found a very narrow bum roll worn under a hooped skirt made the hoop till back slightly and made trained gowns hang better.


but anything beyond the narrowest roll if worn under a hoop made it tilt oddly and bulge and certainly for later bell shaped styles it needs a wide roll worn over the hooped skirt .

This is probably the most annoying style of Tudor skirt as there’s  two things to keep in place to make the gown sit nicely ,I only managed this successfully by pinning the roll to my corset ,I felt the style very unflattering and awkward to sit in.If your sat for any length of time it makes your back ache in most chairs

40s and elizabethan 032

As Catherine of Aragon dumped the restrictive farthingale and it doesn’t become fashionable again until after the reign of Jane Seymour or later  I cant help but feel part of the reason for the change in women’s fashion in the later half of the reign of Henry VIII is due to the waning power and  influence of his queens .Though she abandoned her hooped skirt both  Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn had influenced fashion in other ways as had Mary Tudor Henrys sister ,once the Queen is seen as a disposable item it seems less  likely she will influence fashion,theres no noticeable affect on fashion caused by Henrys  marriage to Anne of Cleeves and this despite her radically different shape of gown and head dress.


Instead Anne adopted English clothing

The final development was the French Farthingale



I have never actually  worn one of these so I cant comment on how comfortable or uncomfortable they are ,I suspect they are are easier to wear than the combination of bumroll and hoop but must be a real pain to sit and move around in .I also suspect that it takes a lot of care to stop the gown bunching up or forming uneven folds.

Supportase , the last of the structural layers and one which has not really had any lasting influence on fashion but often neglected so worth a mention ,this was a steel framed support for the very elaborate ruffs and was worn under them probably laced onto gowns or corsets to make them stand up


These and ruffs  are without doubt the most annoying item of costume I have every worn as they limit your vision and in my case kept snagging on my hair  earings and jewels.The one below is a linen covered extant item from the v and A

suportasse v and a


Above is a replica version created by the Very Merry Seamstress

They limit your vision so you have to constantly move your whole body around to see behind you and do an asortment of twisting and turning to see your waist or even in the wide closed ruffs ,your toes

gold damask elizabeth outfit

Metal version was worn under very fine collars,This is the kind of supportase I wear which I think is likely to be the more comfortable as its lighter less hot and less restrictive ,I also used to just pin mine on at the back and sides with loops and brooches so I usually removed it to travel and after the talks


Mary Queen sct WI

The final layer I suspect not often worn by most women even upper class women was the stiffened long veil which is a pain to pin on and keep on .

The second o these posts will cover the positive aspects of Tudor fashion ,the gradual uncovering of women’s hair allowing them  freedom from hot and restrictive  headdresses and the vast increase in fabrics and designs .

The third post will cover the development of makeup

About hathawaysofhaworth

I am a Historian and author living in the north
This entry was posted in 16thc/17thc and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Tudor legacy ,the advent of deadly fashion

  1. Pingback: Bibliography – thebacchaeblog

  2. Retro Claude says:

    I am sorry to leave a public comment but I cannot find a private contact. I am very disappointed to find that you have used my photograph of the french farthingales without permission. This photograph was originally part of a blog that documented my university costume work, and is also privately shared on my facebook page. I have since decided to take down the blog, as I do not wish to have my costume work shared in this way. I ask you also to please remove it. Sincerely, Claude.

  3. Hi I am sorry your unhappy I normally credit work or use commons images ,is it the drum farthing gale on the white dummy ? I will sort it when I am on my laptop I am on the tablet at the moment, but I didn’t take it either from your blog and certainly not from Facebook, I would have posted a link to it if I had. I have been trying to trace it for you ,itss probably ftom Pinterest so it will be on other blogs too

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