The ruff is probably the item of clothing that is associated most with Elizabethan England. It is the white collar that was fashionable with men, women and children in all but the lowest social classes from the late Tudor era to the reigns of the Stuarts (approximately the 1560s to the 1630s).
The ruff is also known as a ‘goffered frill’, which refers to a piece of lace being pressed into pleats by heated irons. The material used was usually cambric or lawn (linen or cotton) and was frequently edged in lace or ‘cutwork’ (a decorative design). Later versions (from around 1570) were made entirely from lace. Whilst coloured starches were available, white was most common, though at times blue dye was used as it helped to emphasise the pale complexion that was fashionable at the time. The shape of the ruff was maintained by small sticks of bone, ivory or wood. From the 1570s, narrow steel ‘poking sticks’ were used.
When first introduced, ruffs had been attached to the shirt (for men) or the smock (for women), but by the 1570s they were separate garments, tied with tassels. They could then be laundered separately.
Initially, ruffs had fairly modest dimensions. However, the introduction of starch to England from the Continent after 1564 facilitated an expansion in the size of ruffs. From 1580 to 1610, the ‘cartwheel’ ruff was popular, comprising up to six yards of material, starched into up to 600 pleats, and extending eight inches from the neck. However, the more traditional, smaller versions continued to be worn (particularly by men), and had experienced a resurgence by 1600.
For women, ruffs tended to be kept open at the front from the 1590s. For ceremonial occasions from the 1570s, unmarried women wore high, elaborate fan-shaped ruffs that were held in place with wires. These were rarely seen after 1615.
The goffered frill was overtaken by the ‘falling ruff’. This had been worn by men since the 1540s, but was only adopted by women from around 1615. It would remain fashionable until the 1630s.
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The main sources for this article are Nancy Bradfield’s ‘Historical Costumes of England 1066-1968’, available from online stores, for example at Amazon and a book I have written about previously, Ian Mortimer’s ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabeth England’. Some definitions are based on those found in online dictionaries. All pictures are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain. The title picture is the Darnley Portrait of Elizabeth I c.1575.
Biographical note: I became interested in historical clothing when I was around 11 years old, when I completed a project on the Victorians at school. It was around this time that I began reading nineteenth-century literature, initially Alcott and Montgomery, and then the Brontes, Austen, Dickens and Hardy. I was inspired to appreciate the changing nature of historical dress when I visited Killerton House in Devon with my family as a teenager. It has an excellent collection of period clothing. It is a topic in which I continue to take an interest.
3 thoughts on “Elizabethan Ruffs”
great, cohesive article, but it does not explain the origin of the ruff-collar? Who and where the ruff collar first worn? who invented the ruff collar?
Hello! Thanks for taking the time to comment. To respond to your queries: I am not aware of a specific source referencing who wore the first ruff collar (and where they were located), or who was responsible for its invention. It was a fashion trend that made its way into England from the European Continent (as did the means with which to allow the growth in size of the ruff – the manufacturing of starch), and its form changed over time. It’s certainly something I intend to find out more about, so hopefully my research will provide more concrete evidence in relation to these issues.