The ruff, so synonymous with Elizabethan England, has always exerted a certain fascination over me, and here I embark on a quick foxtrot through its history.
The earliest ruffs were shirt frills which overlapped the collar of the doublet, and thus stood to attention. However by 1570, as the doublet collar grew higher up the neck, the ruff developed into something larger, more complicated and eventually detachable. Ruffs came in many shapes and sizes but the one which often comes to mind is the cartwheel ruff.
Ruffs had hundreds of pleats, and were anything from 5 to 22cm wide, comprising of up to five and a half metres of fabric. Given that anyone wearing five metres of pleated fabric around their neck is going to feel somewhat uncomfortable, ruffs were often constructed from very fine soft materials such as lawn or cambric. The higher up the social ladder a person was, the more elaborate and flashy their ruff would be. Some Elizabethan fashion victims even wore two or three at the same, tiered, ‘three falling one upon another, for that’s the new edition now.’
But ruffs were not restricted to the aristocracy. They were worn by almost everyone. The working classes, restricted by cost, had to put up with inferior, and one assumes more uncomfortable ruffs, since, although smaller, they were made of a coarser fabric.
Setting a ruff involved sending it off to be ‘set’ by a professional laundress. Following specific instructions, she could ‘set’ the ruff with big wide curves, or smaller curves, depending on the mood of the owner. In addition to all the frills, one’s ruff could also be decorated with lace, jewels, or embroidery if one had the means.
A description by the witty pamphleteer Philip Stubbs of Elizabeth I’s ruff on one state occasion, lends some eye-popping detail to the extent to which the ruff might be ornamented: ‘It was profusely laced, plaited, and apparently divergent from a centre on the back of her neck; it was very broad, extending on each side of her face, with the extremities reposing on her bosom, from which rose two wings of lawn, edged with jewels, stiffened with wire, and reaching to the top of her hair, which was moulded into the shape of a cushion, and richly covered with gems.’
Stubbs helpfully describes the additional support of an underpropper called a suppertasse [a wire support attached to the clothes which the ruff could be pinned to], and comments that the ruff’s plaits were adjusted by ‘poking-sticks made of iron, steel, or silver, that, when used, were heated in the fire’. These poking sticks were used to pleat the ruff and came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Originally made of wood or bone, by 1573, as Stubbs points out, the ruff makers had realised that heated sticks worked much more efficiently.
To keep ruffs upright, starch was often used. The ruff was washed and allowed to dry then liberally plastered with starch before being set by the laundress: ‘One arch or piller, wherewith the devil’s kingdome of great ruffes is underpropped, is a certain kind of liquid matter which they call starch, wherein the devill hath learned them to wash and die their ruffes, which, being drie, will stand stiff and inflexible about their neckes. And this starch they make of divers substances — of all collours and hues, as white, redde, blewe, purple, and the like.’
Although we always imagine the ruff to have been white, as Stubbs asserts, they did in fact come in a wide variety of colours.
Perhaps fortunately for history, the ruff fell out favour during the reign of James I, and was replaced instead by the more conventional lacy collar.
Sources: Susan Vincent, Liza Picard, Nathan Drake, Philip Stubbs, NPG
© 2009-2013 All Rights Reserved