• Weird History

Why Were Big Collars Such A Fashion Statement In The Elizabethan Era?

The Elizabethan ruff is easily identified - a large, stiff, upright, usually lace collar that, in all honesty, looks uncomfortable and awkward. The Elizabethan collar that dominated fashion during the late 16th and 17th centuries, however, was an indicator of wealth, prestige, and social status.

Ruffs became increasingly large and elaborate as methods to create them advanced. Hours were spent looping, ironing, and starching lace and linen into place. Embroidery, jewels, and precious metals were added to heighten the glamour of the ruff. By the late 16th century, what was once a simple collar had transitioned to become the ultimate display of excess. 

Ruffs in various forms have reappeared through history and continue to be seen on modern runways, now a stylistic embellishment rather than a symbol of Elizabethan society and politics. 

  • Ruffs Were Impractical, But Popular With Nobility Because As The Collars Grew Taller And Stiffer, They Held One's Head High 

    Photo: Michael Conrad Hirt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Although members of the working class wore ruffs, they didn't allow for ease of movement. Certainly, manual labor wasn't possible. Even the wealthiest men and women had difficulty eating while wearing ruffs, often adopting long utensils that extended the length of the neckpiece. 

    Elaborate ruffs were made in part to highlight this impracticality. By wearing large ruffs made out of the finest materials, adorned with lace, and decorated with gold, wearers demonstrated to the world that they didn't have to perform tasks like those undertaken by commoners. Rather, ruff-wearers had servants to do that for them. They also had servants to launder, prepare, and maintain their ruffs, ironing and starching them when needed. 

    The way a ruff affected posture was also part of their significance. While wearing a ruff, men and women had no choice but to keep their heads up, demonstrating confidence and pride.

    Because ruffs had such social prestige, not wearing one was, in a way, taboo. Men and women wore ruffs whenever they went out, even dressing their children in them for a simple trip to market.

  • The Invention Of Starch Led To More Elaborate Ruffs

    Photo: Nicholas Hilliard / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The practice of adding starch to a ruff began in the Low Countries during the mid-1560s. When Mistress Dinghen van der Plasse brought starch to England in 1564, she began training garment makers, English women, and interested parties how to starch their clothes.

    It was quickly discovered that adding a starch paste to a freshly washed ruff caused it to stand tall. After an initial pasting of starch was applied to pleated fabric - many times colored with some sort of vegetable dye - it was left to dry. Then a second coat was added. 

    With the addition of starch, ruffs got bigger and more elaborate. Wires and other supports were still used, even boards that were hidden behind large folds. When goffering irons were introduced soon after starch, the shapes of ruffs were even more structured. By 1580, ruffs were so large they could extend the width of a nobleman or gentleman's shoulders.

  • They Started Out As Shirt Collars

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Goffered frills, or ruffs, began as an extension of a man's shirt. As the frilly add-ons grew larger and extended further, ruffs were transitioned into a separate accessory piece. Crafted using pleats in figure-eight shapes, ruffs were adopted by women by the early 1560s and were often made out of a mixture of linen and lace.

    By the 1570s, ruffs could be nothing but lace, held together with pieces of bone, wood, ivory, or steel. Ruffs were usually pinned to one's clothing to hold them in place. Queen Elizabeth was said to have ordered pins by the thousands to accommodate her wardrobe, ruffs included. 

    The added benefit of starch made ruffs even available as stand-alone fashion pieces. Once a ruff was its own entity, it was tied around one's neck with a drawstring or tassels to keep it in place. As ruffs became bigger and stood out further - as far as 12 inches - they represented wealth, social status, and prestige. 

  • Ruffs Could Be Made With Dozens Of Yards Of Fabric

    Photo: François Clouet / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Ruff collars in Spain were made with numerous of yards of fabric, with one extant collar incorporating 42 yards of linen.

    In England, the amount of fabric that went into a Tudor ruff varied, with the earliest "cartwheel" or "fan-shaped" ruffs using about 6 yards of fabric. When Lady Cobham wrote to Bess of Hardwick in 1564, she remarked on a garment she was making, indicating how fashion had changed and that "10 yards is enough for the ruffs of the neck and hands." 

    As the 16th century progressed, more and more lace and linen was necessary as ruffs became larger. During the 1580s, 18 yards of material were used with supporting wire, decorative edging, and elaborate ornamentation.