The ruff is one of the distinguishing features of the Elizabethan age. Worn by the middle and upper class as an essential accessory, it came in a variety of widths, shapes, decorations, and even colors.
The Elizabethan ruff began modestly enough. During the time of Henry VIII, Men's shirts and some women's smocks had a simple band around the neck, which was decorated with cutwork, blackwork, embroidery, pulled-thread work, and a variety of other treatments. Beginning in the 1550s, neckbands begin to show up in portraits sporting a small ruffle of gathered fabric, 1/4 an inch to 1/2 an inch wide in most pictures, around the top. During the same decade, women's partlets and fall-back collars also acquired a ruffle at the top; Katherine Parr's portrait shows one example of this. This ruffle, gathered or pleated, stayed relatively small during the 1550s.
It was during the 1560s that the "Elizabethan ruff" as we know it truly began to emerge. It was at first quite small in size, no more than an inch tall and an inch deep, and hugged the neck closely. At this point the ruff was still part of a smock, shirt, or partlet, and was pleated or gathered closely into the top edge of the neckband. In some cases the ruff formed even figure-eights; in others, the ruff curls were irregular in shape. Starch was unneccessary to create these ruffs, and they were for the most part of fine linen, undecorated save for a buttonhole-stitch edging in black or colored thread. Some portraits show two pleated ruffs on top of eachother to provide greater height and full.
By 1568, there are many portraits which show the ruff as a definite costume accessory in its own right; still relatively small, but in more fashionable circles it began to increase in height, breadth and depth, not to mention in decoration. A thin edging of lace was sometimes added to a ruff, as was cording, braid or piping of silk or metallic colors.
As you can see from the picture to the right, painted in 1569, the ruff was by then a large and obvious item of fashionable wear. It was still of a relatively modest size, flaring up and out around the chin, and is most likely attached to the top edge of the woman's partlet or smock. The edges are decorated with a narrow gold cord. Wrist ruffs match the ruff around the neck in smaller scale.
The type of ruff shown in this picture looks to be attached to the girls partlet, but many ruffs of this time were separate items, no longer part of another garment. The ruffs of queen Elizabeth's time were made of fine linen, usually lawn, cambric or holland, fabrics particularly favored for ruffs. The frills of the ruff were attached to a band which went around the neck and tied together at the front with ties.
By 1570, the basic form and shape of the ruff was set: a band of fabric pleated into one edge of a band, which formed a series of figure-eights on its outer side. Middle-class and conservative folk wore smaller ruffs of plain linen, while the more fashionable and wealthy wore ruffs up to three inches in depth and often elaborately decorated.
It was during the 1570s that the expansion of the ruff truly began, both in depth (the distance between the neck and the outer edge of the ruff) and in height (the distance between the top and bottom edges of the ruff). The advent of starch, which Puritan chronicler Philip Stubbes so roundly condemns, was one of the factors which permitted and perhaps even encouraged the enlargement of the ruff; starched linen was stiff enough that ruffs of three, four and even five inches in depth could stand upright without drooping or losing their shape and definition.
In addition, more lace was used in their decoration--sometimes several widths of bobbin or needle lace were sewn together to create the width necessary to edge a ruff. Gold and silver threads were used to decorate it, as well as sequins, needlework, and other popular forms of handwork and embroidery.
Around 1580, a new form of ruff appeared--a ruff which was cartridge-pleated to the width of a neckband, rather than pleated into the top edge. This type of ruff was, according to English commentators of the time, brought into England from France--yet the French, when they observed the new fashion of ruff, were quick to refer to it as the "English Monstrosity".
This ruff sprang straight out from the neck, rather than hugging close and flaring up and out as did ruffs pleated into a band. It's cartridge-pleated construction, in combination with starching, allowed the ruff to achieve even greater widths than previously considered possible.
The "supportasse" or "underpropper", which could be a wire frame placed under the ruff to keep it up or stiffened pasteboard covered by fine fabric, was used for the larger ruffs of the 1580s and 90s. Another alternative was using 3 or 4 ruffs of decreasing size underneath a large ruff.
Constructing Elizabethan Ruffs
Stubbes on Ruffs: an Elizabethan commentary on the subject