Elizabethan Ruffs

Along with the Spanish Farthingale and the corset, the ruff is another of the items that immediately spring to mind when people consider Elizabethan costume.

It started off in the 1530s and 40s as a modest ruffle on the neckband of a high-necked smock. It was of linen, like the smock, and often box-pleated. It could also be decorated with a buttonhole stitch along the edge. Isabella of Portugal is wearing such a pleated neckband in the portrait to the right.

Isabella of Portugal,

In the 1550s, the ruff began the growth which was to culminate in the gigantic ruffs of the 1590s. The ruffles were still quite small and box-pleated, but layers of ruffling were stacked on eachother for a thicker, fuller ruff. These ruffs were full at the sides and back of the head, and tapered down as they reached the front. Ruffs were made of linen rather than silk, for the springiness and stiffeness of linen made it hold its form better. Linen fabrics like lawn, holland, and cambric were in high demand for ruffs.

Mary Tudor

The 1560s saw the expansion in height of this style of ruff. The ruffles achieved the figure-eight look which they were to keep for the next two decades. Ruffs of the 1550s and 1560s were decorated primarily along the edges, with black, gold, silver, or other contrasting embroidery. Fine cord is also a possibility. Pleated cuffs in a style matching the ruff were also found on shirts, partlets and some high-necked smocks.

Unknown Woman
c. 1561

As the 1560s progressed, the fashion for a ruff of fewer layers with more height and size to each layer was gaining ground. Ruffs with only one layer of ruffle, copiously pleated into the smock neckband, begin to be seen. The Unknown Girl of 1569 is wearing a double ruff, but each ruffle is itself as large as some single ruffs of the time.

These ruffs were made by double box-pleating and gathering the fabric into the top of a band, or in the case of this unknown girl, into the neckband of her partlet/shirt. In period, the ruff was known as the "ruff-band".

Unknown Girl
The 1570s saw an impressive expansion in the size of the ruff. The single ruffle emerged as the fashionable style. It did not expand significantly outward and the size of individual figure-eights did not widen significantly, but it increased in height to 3 or 4 inches. A contrasting edge was no longer as fashionable as it had been in the 1560s. Instead, lace edging shows up more and more frequently as decoration. Ruffs could be worn usually worn closed, though some large ruffs attached to partlets were worn open, in a style frequently seen in French portraits.

This is the decade when the detachable ruff came into its own; these large, stiffened accessories were more easily cared for and maintained without an ungainly partlet or smock attached to them. The art of starching ruffs, imported from the continent, became a sought-after art. The author Stubbes describes "starching houses", where ruffs were washed, starched, and set into shape with "putting sticks", conical irons heated in coals and applied to the ruff.

Queen Elizabeth
(Darnley Portrait),

A French Style of Ruff,

In the 1580s, ruffs began to expand outward as well as vertically. They became slightly flatter, no longer filling the space from shoulder to neck; instead, the figure-eights became wider and flatter and the ruff itself became wider in diameter. This picture of dancers at the Louvre illustrate the trends in ruffs of the 1580s. The man is wearing a ruff closed in the front, while the woman's is open.
Dancers at the Louvre,

These wider ruffs, despite strong starching, required more support then the ruffs of the 1570s. Some doublets had pickadil collars which helped hold out a ruff. Others wore smaller ruffs underneath the large one, in a graduated fashion. Others wore "underproppers" or "supportasses" to keep their ruffs in place. These supportasses could be wire frames worn around the neck, or cardboard covered in linen. They often had points or holes with which to lace them into a doublet or bodice neck. Queen Elizabeth most likely would have worn a supportasse of some sort under her wide, fashionably flat ruff.

Queen Elizabeth

The 1580s also saw the increasing use of lace in ruffs. Originally used for edging an inch or two wide, lace began to comprise a larger portion of the ruff in the 1580s. The outer half or more of a ruff could be made entirely of lace. Often lace bands were stitched together edgewise to create a wider lace. The inner linen part could be plain, or could be decorated with blackwork embroidery. Sometimes it was decorated with cutwork, decorative cuts stitched around the edges to create a filigreed look. Pulled-thread work was also used. Some ruff edges were even decorated with spangles. Ruffles widened as well, with each pleat/ruffle reaching up to several inches across at the outside diameter.

Queen Elizabeth

With the newly-fashionable low neckline of the 1590s, ruffs were sometimes worn open, with their edges pinned to the front corners of the gown's bodice. The ruffs grew ever lacier and more delicate, and the supportasse larger as well. When worn open, the ruff tilted up in back and down in the front. This portrait of 1589 shows an early example of this open ruff, one embroidered with blackwork.

Elizabeth Brydges
These larger ruffs were created, like ruffs of previous decades, by pleating fabric into a band. The number of pleats required per ruffle, and the amount of gathering required for the wider ruffs to fit the neck, expanded over the 1590s.

Some later period ruffs, especially in the Netherlands, appear to have been cartridge-pleated into deep folds and the top and bottom sewn to the top and bottom of a band. Pleating into the top edge of a band is a more period solution, however, and in most cases achieves the look of the portraits more closely.

Not all people followed fashion or wore these precise types of ruffs. Some women are shown wearing closed ruffs in the 1590s. Some men and women are shown wearing small, narrow ruffs in the 1580s rather than the fashionably wide ruffs worn at court. This progression should be taken as a general guideline, rather than a rigid one.

Queen Elizabeth

A closed double ruff,

Ruffs on the Web

A Ruff Calculation: Figure out how much material you'll need for any given ruff.
Stubbes on Ruffs: A contemporary rant on ruffs, very entertaining (and full of information!)
Making an Elizabethan Ruff: Instructions on making ruffs of several different kinds.
The Ruff Page: How to make an Elizabethan Neck Ruff, by Dawn Dupperault