Farthingales & Vizards – Elizabethan Women & their Dress

This post follows on from The History of the Ruff, and Elizabethan Men & Their Dress.

For women, the equivalent of the doublet was the bodice. It was sometimes known as a ‘pair of bodies’, and had curved seams which flattened the breasts. The bodice also had a wooden or bone insert in the front, which additionally pressed and flattened the breasts and stomach. It is this bodice which gives the torsos of Elizabethan women the unique inverted V shape. New advances meant metal eyelets could be incorporated, which enabled the bodice to be laced up much more tightly than had previously been the case. The bodice often revealed a whiff of cleavage, which could be brazonly sported, or hidden beneath a little smock or ‘partlet’ worn at the neck. As with the some doublets, the bodice had separate sleeves, pinned or fastened on at the shoulder.



Over the bodice women wore a skirt, under which was a farthingale. Early versions were made with hoops of willow or whale bone, sewn into an underskirt. Some women eschewed the farthingale in favour of padding round the hips, like an attachable French bolster. The flounce of a farthingale depended on how it was pinned, and in essence arranging it was like arranging a ruff; it could be altered depending on taste, seasons and fashions. The skirt worn over it could be endlessly adapted; folded and pinned in which ever manner suited the whim of the wearer. Early farthingales were quite simple affairs, but under the reign of Elizabeth the wheel farthingale became increasingly popular. Essentially a wheel shape constructed of wire or whale bone, or an underskirt in the same shape stiffened at regular intervals from waist to ankle, wheel farthingales were weildy and cumbersome. In both cases the skirt projected away from the waist at right angles and could be anything up to 120cm from side to side.



Skirts were made from a variety of fabrics, and were as elaborate as the wearer could afford.  Jewels, embroidery, ribbons, all could be stitched on, and removed to be worn on another outfit.  In chilly weather women would wear cloaks, often fur-lined with hoods. The favoured leg wear of women, as with men, was the stocking. Usually terminating under the knee, the fancier versions incorporated embroidery and were fashioned from silk, tied with garters. Poorer women, like their male counterparts, would have worn stockings of wool.



Some women, like men, did not wear knickers. The more aristocratic ladies may have sported linen drawers beneath their underskirts, but their poorer sisters were forced to endure long pant-free winters.  In bed, women wore nightcaps, and smocks made of linen.

Up until 1575, Elizabeth I had forty pairs of red velvet shoes, then she appears to have adopted shoes made from Spanish leather, presumbably for practical reasons. Most working women would have worn stout, unpretentious leather shoes but ladies at Court, following the Queen’s fashions, wore decorative shoes with heels made of wood. Most women over a certain age would cover their heads with caps and hoods, but young married women and virgins were allowed to gad about bare-headed. Nets of gold thread sprinkled with pearls and worn over the hair were very popular.



Women often wore silk or velvet masks, or vizards, when they were out and about to protect their complexions.


Extant Elizabethan Vizard (via The Portable Antiquities Scheme)


Gloves, scarves and furs were also available to those who could afford them. While a poor woman might have to make do with a plain woollen scarf, a woman of means could travel about swathed in sable or silver bear. Jewellery was fashionable with the wealthy – it was hip for both sexes to sport a single ear ring, and both women and men wore jewels on their fingers and around their necks.



For more on the extant vizard, see here
Sources as for the History of the Ruff & Elizabethan Men’s Clothing

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  • March 25, 2011 - 10:42 am | Permalink

    So glad you enjoyed it. Good luck with your blog. There are some posts on Elizabethan beauty tips – if you click on the Women tag to the right you should find them.

  • March 25, 2011 - 7:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this post! I’m doing a Shakespeare blog about Renaissance production methods for a class and one of my main focuses is Elizabethan costume and makeup. This has been extremely helpful. I’m doing a post on vizards right now but this has inspired me to go more in-depth about all manner of dress. http://billythebard1564.blogspot.com/

  • January 15, 2010 - 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Elizabethan chairs could be quite wide – there is a very good collection at Knole if you’re ever passing http://bit.ly/6YHbEu – so accommodating the dresses wouldn’t have been as problematic as we might imagine. Nevertheless, given the width of the farthingale it does make one wonder how comfortable Elizabethan women would have been.

  • January 15, 2010 - 5:26 pm | Permalink

    How did they sit down for dinner with those skirts ? Did they have benches in Elizabeth’s court ?

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