The coif is, quite simply, a close-fitting cap made of a light fabric, usually white or naturally-coloured linen (or silk, for the nobility). It was worn for reasons headwear has been worn for centuries--warmth, protection from the elements, and to keep hair out of the face--but it's most important functions during Elizabethan times were conferring respectability upon a woman, and, for more skilled and affluent people, for decoration.
The coif, in one permutation or another, was one of the most common pieces of headwear worn by women (and sometimes by men, as well) throughout the 16th century; it appears in many paintings of both nobility and the common folk. Actual examples of Tudor coifs, however, are hard to find. It is likely that a coif or close-fitting cap of some sort was worn underneath the heavy and concealing veils and english gable hoods of the 1520s and 30s and the lighter french hoods that followed them, but all that would show of a coif worn underneath a hood or veil would be the front edge. It is very difficult and sometimes impossible to tell whether or not the ruffled border of a gable or french hood is attached to the hood or is the edging of a coif worn underneath. As almost all female portraits of the time show the woman wearing a hood of some kind, there is far less iconographical evidence to go on then exists during the latter half of the century.
The only clear depictions of a Tudor coif appear in some sketches by Hans Holbein drawn in the 1530s, one of Anne Boleyn herself. (see picture to the right.) The front edge is far back on the crown, with tabs on either side coming forward past the jawline. The front edge is also wired with a heavy wire, presumably to keep its shape and to help keep it on the head.
The line of the coif follows quite closely the line of the gable and transitional hoods worn at the time, a good indication that this coif was worn underneath a hood as well as by itself.
The coif seems to conform quite smoothly to the head, with no bump at the crown to signify a bun; Anne's hair was either braided and crossed over her head somehow, or was fastened at the base of her neck. There are no gathers at the crown like those which appear in coifs of the late 1590s and early 1600s. This coif appears to have been shaped with a vertical seam running down the back center, rather than by gathers at the nape of the neck.
A strip is wrapped around the coif and knotted at the base of the neck. Its purpose is unknown; it could be helping to keep the coif more securely on the head, or help support whatever hood was worn over the coif so that it didn't slip back. Perhaps it was worn for warmth, or was simply a fashionable decoration.
There is also another head covering worn under the coif, visible along the front ed, which looks to be a band of fabric holding back hair. In addition, two (metal?) clips are seen on either side of the coif. It looks like the edge of the band wrapped around the coif has been slipped underneath one these clips, perhaps to hold it in place. Aside from this, their purpose is a mystery. One possible use for the clips could be to aid in keeping an English hood on the head; straps sewn onto the underside of the cheekpieces of the hood, when slipped underneath these clips, would keep the hood on quite firmly (and invisibly.)
Another of Holbein's sketches portrays a woman wearing a more
loosely-fitting and enveloping coif. It has an wired front identical in
shape to Anne Boleyn's, but comes down farther along the brow and covers
more of the cheek.
As headwear became more revealing, coifs became more and more visible--and more and more popular as a fashionable item of headwear, especially among the middle classes and working women for whom the tall hats, decorated caps and wired, transparent veils worn by the gentry were not practical. Unfortunately, few pictures were drawn or painted of the English bourgeoisie or servants, and so it is not until 1570 that we find a portrait which shows a coif of this time in detail.
A sketch of London Gentlewomen, drawn in 1570 by Flemish artist Lucas de Heere, is one of the best examples we have of coifs worn during this decade. This picture also illustrates the variety in coif styles and headcoverings to be found in one place and one moment in time.
Although forty years later than the coifs sketched by Holbein, these do have some similarities to the coif worn by Boleyn. The front top rests far back on the crown, while the sides curve far forward along the jawbone. The fronts are obviously wired, which must help them to stay on a lady's head. The profile is much rounder than the square shape of the Tudor coifs shown above, however; and there is another coif or headpiece worn underneath the outer coif, which comes quite far foward along the crown of the head and then curves back in a sillhouette quite similar to that of the late Elizabethan coif. The backs of these coifs are not seen, but one can postulate that it is shaped by a seam running down the back of the head and/or gathered at the base of the neck.
A sketch of London washerwomen created at this time, a detail of which is shown to the left, reveals coifs very similar to that worn by the women in the back of Heere's painting. These are close fitting around the sides of the head with the top far back towards the crown where it meets a gathered circle sewn on the back. A band of fabric, or under-cap of some kind, is worn underneath this coif, similar to that worn by the Englishwomen in de Heere's sketch. Whether it is worn as protection for the hair or to give the coif something to be fastened too.
The coifs worn by these washerwomen are somewhat similar to that worn by a vegetable seller in a Flemish painting by Beuckelaer dated to 1573, shown to the right. The woman in this picture also wears a coif consisting of a gathered circle at the back of her head, but it is fastened to a narrow band rather than to two sidepieces coming forward to the jaw, like the London washerwomen were wearing, or to a wired close-fitting coif two side points, like the Englishwoman in de Heere's sketch is wearing. This flemish coif is seated far back on the woman's head; in fact, I don't know how she kept the coif on at all, unless the painter is indulging in a bit of artistic license. I myself use a stretchy comb sewn to the inside of the band to keep this kind of coif, which is sometimes referred to as an "Italian coif", secure and in place.
The two details from additional Flemish paintings, to the right, show women wearing something vaguely similar to the italian coif above: a dark brown, slightly puffed circle of fabric is on the back of the woman's head, with a length of hair, wrapped with a ribbon, wound around the base of the "coif" to keep it in place. The second woman is wearing something which, though hard to make out, could also be a small, round coif attached to a band. The bottom of the coif looks rather flat, which suggests that it is cut differently then the white one shown in beucklayer's painting.
Paula Kelly has also created a Coif embroidered in gold and polychrome silk.
Constructing an Elizabethan Coif