Recently, a volunteer group, Tudors Unleashed, came to Whitehall dressed in traditional Tudor attire, inspiring this blog post on Tudor fashion and what it consisted of. As part of Sutton Cultural Services Sutton STEAMs Ahead award, we have been celebrating Tudor Technologies at Whitehall Historic House, and we currently have our Tudor Technologies trail running throughout March. You can book tickets here.
Tudors Unleashed at Whitehall Historic House.
There are many obvious differences between fashion of the time and fashion nowadays - for instance, women wouldn’t have worn trousers like they do now! However, there were also specific fashion trends that were popular at the time as well as strict rules.
During Henry VIII’s reign, sumptuary laws were in place that determined what people could and couldn’t wear. The aim was to enforce a social hierarchy and to prevent the working classes from dressing in a similar manner to the aristocrats, as well as to support the home market and textile trade. For instance, only the royal family were allowed to wear the colour purple. These sumptuary laws were loosened somewhat during Elizabeth I’s reign due to the growing import market.
Rich men wore fitted doublet jackets and fur coats with wide shoulders. These were often paired with puffed shorts called breeches, and wool or silk tights known as “hose” underneath them. Later on, it became fashionable for them to wear embroidered silk coats, paired with padded breeches and upper and lower hose. On their feet, they wore embroidered shoes. For headwear, they would wear hats with a feather trim on them, similar to the one that Henry VIII was often portrayed in.
All women wore linen shifts. However, the aristocracy also wore farthingdales - padded hoops designed to widen their skirts and give their body a noticeable structure in the process. Catherine of Aragon popularised the Spanish farthingdale and Elizabeth I popularised the even more extravagant French farthingdale, also known as the Drum. The Drum could support up to 3 metres of fabric!
Tudor women often wore linen caps (or ‘garbled hoods’) in order to frame their face. There were two notable types – the English hood, which involved a triangular shape and the French hood, popularised by Anne Boleyn, which involved a rounder shape. The changes in what hood was popular at the time depended on who was queen - people moved away from the English hood to the French hood when Anne ascended to the throne, only to revert to the English hood when Jane Seymour became Queen. It is similar to how many people nowadays are influenced by the styles of famous celebrities.
The body shapes seen as attractive depended on what gender you were at the time. Being overweight was seen as a status symbol among men as it showed they were rich enough to eat enough food. In fact, some men would wear items of clothing designed to make them look plumper than they actually were. However, for women, it was fashionable to have a thin waist so they wore corsets in their dresses - this no doubt caused them problems with breathing at times.
Makeup was a risky business back in the day. To cover up smallpox scars, women would rub candle wax into their skin. Some procedures were more dangerous - toxic chemicals such as lead, mercury and tin would be used to make the skin more pale, something that Elizabeth I popularised. Ironically, though this makeup was supposed to cover up flaws underneath, it actually caused more damage to the skin.
Children were dressed in the same way as their parents. This could be hard on wealthy children - they would wear the same extravagant clothes as their parents and barely had the ability to move around! Meanwhile, though poor children wore simpler clothes, they had more freedom to move about, befitting their parents’ possible work in the fields.
Things that would be seen as a sign of ugliness nowadays were seen as the height of beauty back then. For instance, having rotten teeth was the ultimate show of attractiveness! It meant that you were wealthy enough to eat large amounts of sugar - an expensive luxury back then. It was pretty much the opposite opinion of what we have nowadays!
Whitehall has a selection of Tudor outfits for children to dress up in, which can be found in the Cheam Prospers room. In this room, you can find out more facts about Tudor fashion choices back in the day.
Hawk, Goldie and Gibb, Sarah. Step Inside: Homes Through History. Nosy Crow, 2019.
“Tudor fashion.” Royal Museums Greenwich, https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/tudor-fashion
“Tudor makeup.” DK Find Out!, https://www.dkfindout.com/uk/history/tudors/tudor-make-up/