Sunday, June 08, 2008

Questions from Lilly - Women's clothing and appearances

I have a few questions regarding what women wore and fashioned themselves after during this time period - for instance, I've heard the term "sables" used in reference to clothing, but I've no idea what "sables" are. Does anyone know what they are?

Also, French hoods were considered to be on the wanton side, correct? Generally speaking, did women, especially young women, show a preference toward either the English hood or the French hood?

Did women have to wear long sleeves all the time, even in the summer? And if they did, were the sleeves made of a lighter material or were they still heavy? I'd imagine they wouldn't wear short-sleeves.

I know that in the 1700s and Napoleonic period, women desired to look like Greek goddesses from mythology and their clothing was heavily influenced by the aforementioned; was the Tudor style influenced by anything like that?

Also, I've heard that since life expectancies and living conditions were worse back then the average height was smaller than it is today. Is this true, or just a myth?

And one more thing - was there a desired body-weight for women in Tudor England like there sort-of is today? Like, the commercialized stick-thin girl. Was there anything like that going on in Tudor Society?

Thanks, I hope these questions aren't too bizarre!


Anonymous said...

A sable is an animal, a weasel-like creature called a marten. Its fur is very valuable...people still make paintbrushes with their hairs.

I don't think French hoods were "wanton" exactly... Just very stylish and the stern staid sort of women would prefer the gable hood or something (like Katherine of Aragon). Anne Boleyn wore a French hood and during her reign as queen, I think many stylish young women showed a preference for them. But Jane Seymour wore a gable hood, I believe, being more pious and not as trend-setting as Anne (in fact, she was probably purposely being different, so as to set herself apart from Anne, who was currently being rather hated.)

I don't know about any of your other questions, but I'm also really curious about that "people were shorter back then" thing. Wasn't Henry VIII like 6'3"? But maybe that was just super-tall or something...?

Anonymous said...

"Sables" are furs. Sable fur is still used to make fur coats today, and they are among the most expensive of modern furs. But I believe that the word "sable" was used more generically in the Tudor period to mean furs of all kinds and not exclusively sable marten fur.

French hoods, Spanish hoods ... fashions came and went in the Tudor era just as they do today, though far more slowly. And just as today, new fashions were often viewed suspiciously. Brittany is absolutely correct that many younger or more ambitious women emulated Anne's preference (once she became a power at court) for French-style hoods, something she had herself picked up during her younger years living at the French court. I would not, however, equate a particular style of hood with a person's "piety." When reform-minded religious leaders spoke of attire, they seldom mentioned the difference between French and Spanish hoods. Instead, they spoke against the amount of jewels and other costly accessories used to decorate BOTH styles.

Women and men did indeed both generally wear long sleeves at all times of the year. Summer clothes were a little lighter, though the choice of fabrics was limited in the 16th century. Wool, linen, and silk (for the wealthy) were about all there was. Cotton, though available, was costly and not yet in common use. Coolness was achieved in summer by wearing fewer layers rather than by significantly lighter fabrics or shorter sleeves.

Fashions of the 18th and early 19th century were heavily influenced by Europe's increasing direct contact with areas where ancient Greco-Roman culture had predominated. Napoleon, for example, sponsored a number of expeditions into Egypt and the Middle East. The British pillaged the Greek and Balkan peninsula during the 18th century, bringing back thousands of artifacts and works of art that inspired fashion and contemproary British artists. But during the Tudor period, such travel and exploration was far less common. Non-English influences on clothing styles were largely limited to whatever was popular at the dominant continental courts: France and Spain. Fashions changed very, very slowly in the Tudor period as compared to today.

It is true that the average height was slightly shorter in the Tudor period. Some of that may have to do with nutrition, but other factors also enter into the equation (Masai tribesmen of Africa have less than ideal nutrition, living conditions, and life expectancy, yet they are generally very tall even by modern world standards, so those cannot be the sole factors in determining average height). Generally, Europeans and their modern descendants have indeed been getting slightly taller over the centuries, but only by a mere few inches. The average height in the Tudor period was perhaps 2-3 inches less than it is today. Not a huge difference.

I am not aware that there was a "desired body weight" (height-weight proportion or ratio) among women in the Tudor period. I have never seen any reference to a socially or culturally idealized or preferred female body type in that period. It does appear that obesity was far, far less common among women than it is today (the portraits of Lady Dacre stand out as nearly unique Tudor-era depictions of a fat woman). But recall that sugar was still massively expensive and therefore not often used, and nutrition overall was far different from what it is today. The average diet, excluding that of the wealthy, was comprised principally of grain sourced foods, especially bread and ale, together with cheeses. Raw fats such as butter were less common as they tended to go rancid without refrigeration. Meat was also less plentiful among the non-wealthy and thus not consumed on a daily basis or in large quantity. And the rigors of repeated pregnancies and childbearing, when coupled with the prevailing nutrition patterns, probably all but ensured that few women became overweight.

Foose said...

Maria Perry's "Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII" cites a Frenchman of the period who claimed that "men of different nationality had different opinions on what made a woman attractive: 'The Italian desires to have her thick, well set and plump; the German prefers one that is strong; the Spaniard loves a wench that is lean; and the French, one that is soft, delicate and tender.'" England was apparently so negligible a power that he did not bother to investigate English preferences. However, the prevailing Italian opinion might explain the Venetian ambassador's dismissive description of Anne Boleyn: "middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, bosom not much raised ..." (although Henry appreciated her "pretty dukkys"!).

However, modern anorexics would not have been considered attractive or, even more importantly, capable of childbearing. Barring Anne Boleyn, Henry might be said to favor plumpness: Catherine of Aragon tended to plumpness and he was married to her for a long time; Catherine Howard, whom he was said to "caress more than others," was apparently described as small and plump by the reformer Richard Hilles. All three Catherines are described as small; Anne and Jane were of "middling" height.

Regarding the issue of fashion influences, the Continent, as phd historian has noted, was very powerful. Catherine of Aragon is mentioned as wearing "Spanish dress" on special occasions, when she wanted to exalt Spain (and probably annoy the French ambassador) and during the divorce. When the King of France declined to make his Queen (Catherine's niece) meet Anne Boleyn during Henry's visit to Calais, Henry growled he'd sooner meet the devil than a lady in Spanish dress (Eleanor apparently also affected Spanish attire.) Anne seems to have set the fashion for the French hood, possibly as a legacy of her stay at the French court and possibly subsequently as a signal of her French sympathies (and retaliation against Catherine)-- she apparently didn't introduce the hood but was closely associated with it. It revealed the hair, which was considered scandalous by the more conservative set.

Modesty was the most powerful influence. Women did wear dresses that pushed up or displayed their bosoms, but arms and legs were always covered, as was the hair (at least partly), and even the bosom might be covered up by an insert. One of "The Tudors" episodes depicted the famous masque where Anne played Perseverance, and all the ladies participating were sleeveless. I don't think that would ever have happened, even in August, even in a make-believe masque.

Anonymous said...

Just to add to the previous comments, yes "sable" was in general the term used for all types of fur, not just sable. Who could wear what type of fur was quite strictly laid down, as with other types of materials, by the Sumptuary Laws, which had been in force since the fourteenth century but were strengthened during the Tudor age. They restricted the wearing of foreign fabrics and furs, and helped to maintain the distinction between the social classes.

Re: long sleeves - everyone had long sleeves! Basically, everyone wore a linen shift under their clothes, as linen absorbed all the sweat and body fat etc. and was much easier to clean than other fabrics such as wool, silk etc. The linen ranged from very fine - and very expensive! - to the cheapest and coarsest. However, all linen became thinner and lighter coloured with repeated washing. Linen shifts have long sleeves, so you always had long sleeves! However - many outer garments, overdresses, bodices, doublets/jerkins etc had sleeves which tied in, so that they could be removed as required; presumably in the heat, or for washing.

The average height in general was slightly smaller than today, but not by much eg. Francis Drake was about 5'7", considered an average height for a man. Some,like Henry, were much taller, but the same holds true today!

With regard to the female body shape; well, the gentlemen (in general!) were looking for ladies with a narrow waist, and big hips! Large hips were considered to be important for successful child-bearing; this is one of the reasons for the fashion of the farthingales and bum-rolls; nowadays we know it doesn't actually matter that much! Waists were held in by the boned corsets (which also helped to emphasis the hips) which actually had the effect of flattening the bosom rather than the opposite! Try wearing a replica boned tudor corset, and you will see what I mean!

Small snippet on Tudor style - certainly when Elizabeth I was on the throne, she was considered as a role model - sort of the "super-model" of her day, and especially in portraits the Elizabethean ladies wished to look like her - which is why many portraits look very similar!

Hope this helps.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!
All of this has been extremely helpful!

Anonymous said...

What were Dyers In Tudor times

Lara said...

If you're looking for information on the dyeing of cloth in Tudor times, I'd suggest this site:

She even has original recipes for dye!