History of the Costume of Henry Tudor

(Author Unknown)

From the

Although our habit of dividing Time into centuries and thinking of them as separate periods is historically unjustified, yet we can with some reason choose the year 1500 as that in which the influence of the Renaissance begins to be plainly visible in England. England was, at that period, a somewhat distant and backward country. America had only just been discovered and the Mediterranean was still the centre of the civilized world. Italy in particular had shown signs of the new spirit for more tha n a century before, and her influence gradually penetrated first to neighboring lands and then to those more remote. We may take 1485, the date of the Battle of Bosworth, as the end of the Middle Ages in England and the beginning of something new. T he Wars of the Roses were over, the foundations of the centralized monarchy of the Tudors were being laid. Armour was still in use on the field of battle at the beginning of this period. It had notably decreased fifty years later. But the greatest cha nge was in civilian costume, and it is this we will chiefly consider.

Since the collapse of the Roman Empire there had been no general costume for Europe, even for Western Europe. The Italian, the Spaniard, the Frenchman, the German and the Englishman all wore clothes which were recognizably those of their own country. Now owing to increased ease of travel, clothes for both men and women tended to be much less a matter of place and much more a matter of time. In other words, regional costume (which now only persists among peasants) was giving place to fashionable costume, that is costume which is almost the same at any given moment for the greater part of Europe but which changes, and is expected to change, with the passage of time. The process of internationalism had not yet, however gone very far. At the be ginning of the fifty years we are considering there still remained in England, especially among the lower classes, the vestiges of medieval costume slightly modified by Italian influence. These were gradually displaced by German influences, until, to wards the middle of the century, the growing prestige of Spain imposed her fashions all over Europe.

There is a good deal of evidence for the clothes worn in England at the beginning of the sixteenth century and much of this is found in what are called "brasses", that is, memorials consisting of a thin sheet of brass cut out in the shape of the human figure and with lines cut into it to show the details of the dress. These sheets of metal were laid on to stone slabs on the floor or walls of a church and in spite of much destruction at the Reformation and during the Civil War still exist in great n umbers. They show that the men's costumes worn were in general quite plain, with a long furred gown, sometimes sleeveless, covering the tunic and tights. Older men wore the tunic rather long. The shirt was worn low on the neck and just visible abov e the "stomacher" (a term applied at this period to both male and female dress) which was sometimes patterned stuff. The hair was long, and over it was worn a small cap with a turned-up brim or else a kind of coif on the top of which was a large hat a dorned with plumes. Older men sometimes wore a soft square cap which is the ancestor of our modern academic "morter-board".

Women wore an ample gown with a square-cut bodice and tight-fitting sleeves so long as almost to conceal the hands. They had, for the most part abandoned the "butterfly" head-dress and wore a kind of hood slit at the sides and with the front stiffened by a kind of frame in the shape of a Tudor arch.

Henry VII was a man of austere and economical tastes, but his successor Henry VIII was very different. In the Westminster Tournament Roll dating from the very beginning of his reign, he is shown wearing clothes very like those of his father but of ric her materials. Soon there was a complete transformation. Sleeves became notably wider, indeed everything was done to make the general effect of the costume as wide as possible. The sleeves were detachable and could be worn with different tunics. Th ey were nearly always pufefed or slashed, and this soon became true of the rest of the costume, even of the hose.

This strange fashion is thought to have originated in Switzerland after the defeat of Charles the Bold of Burgundy at Grandson. It spread from the Swiss "Landsknechts" to the German mercenaries, thence to the French Court and, ultimately, in a modifie d form, to England. The marriage of Henry VIII's sister Mary to Louis XII of France in 1514 may be taken as a convenient date, although slashing, or scissoring, had been known in England for some years. Dr. Willett Cunnington, in his invaluable Handb ook of English Costume in the Sixteenth Century feels compelled to devote a whole chapter to "Decoration". He defines slashing as "slits of varying length cut in any part of the garment and symetrically arranged. The gaps revealed the white shirt, o r coloured undergarment, or, after 1515, a bright lining of a contrasting colour". The fashion was at its height between 1520 and 1535, especially as regards sleeves and hose. When the slashes were long and parallel they were known as "panes". When t he under material was pulled out through the gap made by slashing it was called a puff. There was much use of embroidery in coloured silks or gold or silver thread and also of what was known as "black-work", which consisted of a scroll pattern of bla ck silk generally applied to the linen of the shirt. There was also much use of quilting. Indeed we may say that no garments ever worn by man were more completely stitched over than Henry VIII. And few men in other epochs have worn so many garments.

Over the shirt was worn a kind of waistcoat, over that the doublet, over that the jerkin or jacket, and over that the gown. The outfit was completed by hose which after 1515 became divided into upper stocks (what we would call breeches) and nether sto cks (which we would call stockings). It was usual to wear a dagger and a pouch suspended from the belt, and sometimes a sword as well. Gold chains (similar to those now worn by Mayors) were worn by all prosperous citizens. The shoes were often embr oidered or slashed, and became so broad that Henry VIII issued an order that they were not to be made more than six inches wide.

The hats worn during this reign are very characteristic. They were worn indoors as well as out. They were of various kinds; the small round cap with a flexible brim at back and sides which could be turned down over the ears; the Milan bonnet, with a full soft crown and a broad brim slit on either side and turned up and fastened with a metal tag or aiglet; the bonnet with a slashed brim turned up and adorned with a medallion; the flat cap (like a modern cap but with the brim all the way around); an d the bonnet with halo brim bordered with feathers. The last is the one worn by Henry VIII in nearly all the portraits that have come down to us. It was rather small and worn on one side of the head. The hair, after about 1530, was short and it was the fashion to wear a full beard.

The usual attire of women throughout the sixteenth century consisted of gown and kirtle. The kirtle, which was a bodice and skirt sewn together, was worn over the chemise, and under the gown which was tight fitting to the waist and fell in ample folds below, trailing on the ground. Trains became shorter after 1530 and disappeared almost entirely about 1540. The neck of the gown was low and square revealing the neck of the kirtle and, below that the top of the chemise. The sleeves of the kirtle w ere at first tight-fitting and visible at the wrists beneath the slightly wider sleeve of the gown. Gradually both expanded, until the over-sleeve became very large and occasionally furnished with a deep turn-back of fur. Towards the end of this peri od, there was a fashion of a curious kind of bell-shaped over-sleeve, narrow at the shoulder and opening out to an enormous cuff of fur. This sleeve is shown very plainly in Holbein's portraits of Mary and Elizabeth as princesses and also in his portr ait of the last wife of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr.

The Holbein portraits also allow us to trace the gradual modification of the Tudor Head-dress. The "English Hood" or Gable Head-dress (which we have compared to the Tudor arch) was fashionable from the beginning of the century to about 1540. In its e arly form the material hung in folds to the shoulders and the pointed arch which framed the face and was supported by wires hung straight down almost to the chest. In its later form, fashionable from 1525 to 1540, the frame was more rigid in form but smaller, and the front lappets of the hood were turned up and attached to the crown. The French hood was smaller still and worn further back on the head exposing the front of the hair. Mary, Queen of Scots wore a modified version of this, as did als o Mary Tudor.

Henry VIII died in 1547 but for the last few years of his reign he had been old and tired and had little impulse to inaugurate new fashions. The clothes of Edward VI's reign are marked by quiet simplicity, very different from the gorgeous and elaborat e fashions of the early years of Henry VIII. Certainly by this time all the German influences which had led to the orgy of puffing and slashing had almost ceased except in Germany itself; and the clothes in the second half of the sixteenth century dif fer notably from those in the first.