The reign of Queen Elizabeth I was a time when fashion created some extreme moments. The Elizabethan Ruff was a large ornate collar that help balance the enormous wideness of the English Farthingale skirt. The Elizabethan Ruff appeared in its earliest form as a delicate ruffle at the neckline and wrists of women’s chemises and men’s shirts.
The fashion originated in the Spanish court (as most fashions of the time did) with small ruffs, delicate things with a width of 5 cm (2 inches). Once the rest of Europe caught onto the fashion the ruff went large, very large.
The reason for this was not only fashion gone mad but the discovery of starch, making the ruff stiff enough to be extended to amazing widths. The neck and wrist ruffs then became completely separate garments.
1565 was the year starch made its mark opening a new industry producing ruffs made of linen, lawn or Holland cambric. The complex figure of eight construction made them difficult to make and a much sought after skill. The exact method of construction is one of conjecture. Some believe that they were cartridge pleated and others ruffled tightly in a similar fashion to the way normal soft ruffles are constructed. Unfortunately there are no surviving ruffs to confirm the construction method and the only source of reference are portraits.
No matter the construction methods, the ruffs needed expert handling. Although they could be coloured the ruffs tended to be white and cream and with Elizabethans' love for white lead make-up meant the ruffs needed expert laundering. The ruffs had to be reset and restarched every time they were washed. While still damp a heated metal rod was inserted into the individual folds to create the figure of eight signature look.
By 1580 some of the Elizabethan Neck Ruffs had reached almost 23cm (9 inches) in width. This is commonly called the cartwheel ruff and looked as if your head was being served up on a platter. The ruffs were so large that they had to be supported by a wire framework attached at the back of the neck and sometimes in to the back of the bodice. Some of these beauties were also constructed entirely out of lace. There was also the double ruff with a smaller above a larger one.
The best description of a ruff is provided by the infamous Black Adder "Percy, you look like a bird that swallowed a plate".
There are many other different types of Elizabeth ruffs as they evolved but without pictures they are a tad hard to explain. So when you are out and about on the web, check out the portraits of the Elizabethan and Jacobian eras,
especially Queen Elizabeth who was always at the height of fashion or you can take a look at the Costume Manifesto.
For more information and images go to Costume Manifesto: www.costumes.org
Thank you to wertperch for the Black Adder reference.