14 January 2011

The Elizabethan ruff

One of my Christmas gifts this year was the book shown above, about the Shakespeare-Oxford connection. I'll review it later this winter, but by coincidence I encountered a nice post this week at A Polar Bear's Tale which featured five paintings of seventeenth-century ladies wearing similar collars, including this "Portrait of a Woman" (1628) by Michiel Jansz van Miereveldt:
Was there any practical purpose for such an elaborate collar?  Inquiring minds want to know.  First stop: Wikipedia -
The ruff which was worn by men, women and children, evolved from the small fabric ruffle at the drawstring neck of the shirt or chemise. They served as changeable pieces of cloth that could themselves be laundered while keeping the wearer's doublet from becoming soiled at the neckline.

The discovery of starch allowed ruffs to be made wider without losing their shape. Later ruffs were separate garments that could be washed, starched, and set into elaborate figure-of-eight folds by the use of heated cone-shaped goffering irons. Ruffs were often coloured during starching, vegetable dyes were used to give the ruff a yellow, pink or mauve tint. A pale blue colour could also be obtained via the use of smalt, though for an unknown reason Elizabeth I took against this colour and issued a Royal Prerogative "Her Majesty's pleasure is that no blue starch shall be used or worn by any of her Majesty's subjects."

At their most extreme, ruffs were a foot or more wide; these cartwheel ruffs... required a wire frame called a supportasse or underpropper to hold them at the fashionable angle...
I suppose in an era when washing-up was not very meticulous, the removable collar did protect other clothing from stains.  For "goffering irons" I had to retreat to the OED: to flute or crimp, from the French gaufrer "to stamp figures on cloth."  And "smalt" is also of French derivation (ultimately related to the smelting of ores), and refers to a deep blue glass colored by cobalt oxides.

For those interested, the starching process is explained in detail, with pix, at Elizabethan Costume.  Detailed instructions on how to actually make the ruff are explained here.

"The ruffs, or collars, framed the face and dictated the hairstyles of the age which were generally short for men and swept up look was required for women."


  1. I'd think that, after a while, the practical use would become superseded by the signaling of class and wealth.

    I mean, those ruffs must have taken a lot of time to keep up to snuff--and the ability to control one's self so as not to soil one's ruff could also be a class-marker.

  2. There was a British Show called "Worst Jobs" where Tony Robinson performed the worst jobs in historical periods. They did one on the Elizabethan era, and one of the jobs was a dyer. If I remember right, that blue was banned because it stank horribly. (And if you think about the aromas wafting in Elizabethan times, that would be pretty darn bad.)

  3. I have to admit there are some fashion statements that seem to be cumbersome and akward, the extremities in the ruffs, some being over a footwide, seem to be more of a statement of wealth and class, just as Glynis said.

    Speaking of the Shakespeare and Oxford connection, Roland Emerich (the guy behind 2012 and Independance Day) is working on a movie investigating that.

  4. Then these ruffs are the antecedents of the celluloid, linen and paper collars of the 19th century.

    However when I see these paintings I wonder how a real person could wear such a collar and have it look as shown. Draw through the shoulders and neck and you'll find a neck long enough to make even Botticelli shake his head.

  5. I looked through some of my costume books to see if I could find a more indepth explanation. The comment that Glynis provided seems to match what info was given in my book. I did find an amusing blurb in my book about the Puritan view of ruffs...*spoiler alert* it's a tool of the Devil. I found the quote online-

  6. As others have suggested, my understanding is that the ruff was a sign of wealth. Lace-making is a skilled, time consuming, and labor intensive process, and before lace-making machines were invented lace was very expensive.

  7. Well, ya lost me as soon as you cited wikipedia.

  8. In my experience, the ruff is used to keep the dress or doublet/jerkin from jumping up and eating the wearer's face.*

    *comment made in jest. I have indeed worn a dress with a ruff.

  9. The ruffs for the working class were smaller, and the peasants didn't get ruffs because everything they wore was soiled anyway. (just to clarify that yes, the elaborate versions were a show of wealth, but they were common in varying degrees of fanciness throughout the classes)

  10. I have never heard the terms "supportasse or underpropper," and believe that the metal spiked ruff-holder was known as a piccadill. It was the presence of shops selling these items which gave London's Piccadilly (and thence Piccadilly Circus) its name.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...