Working Women's Clothes in 1580s London: Servant, Alewife, Housewife
January 2004, substantially revised April 2006
(and again in 2008. Hey, research is always changing, and we have to keep up with the times.)
New! - I regularly receive requests for information on where to get historical patterns to make an Elizabethan outfit, especially in reference to this article. To make things easier for interested people to find, I have provided links to patterns created by the excellent Kass McGann of Reconstructing History. I can personally attest to the quality of her patterns, and the amazing research, background information, and period construction details she provides with each pattern.
As an added resource, she will soon be adding a "Getting Dressed" guide for Elizabethan clothing, which covers the period in much more depth and detail than in this little article.
London in the early 1580s was an exciting place to live and work. Immigration from the Continent and other parts of England was at an all-time high - the population of London doubled in size between 1520 and 1590, and the population of London in 1587 was 100,000 souls. In 1584, Sir Walter Ralegh started the Roanoke Colony, and plants and animals from the New World were a source of wonder and talk all over London. People were still excited for Sir Francis Drake's circumnavigation of the world in 1577 - the first Englishman to do so. In 1580 Elizabeth was excommunicated by Rome, and the "New Religion" was firmly established, though fears of a Catholic uprising by Queen Mary of Scots' supporters were never completely suppressed. Even as Mary languished in Fotheringay Castle, a failed assassination attempt on Elizabeth in 1583 caused further unease. Still, at the beginning of 1584, the English were hopeful of a bright future. Money was coming in from privateer plundering, Elizabeth had turned away from Spain to support the Dutch Protestants chafing under Catholic rule in Holland, and London offered the kind of social mobility that allowed a servant to become a gentleman if he played his cards right - Raleigh, a country boy, had become Elizabeth's new favourite after his success in Ireland.1
While clothes for the lower classes were never as fashionable as Court clothes, all the residents of London were well aware of the changes in fashion thoughout Elizabeth's reign. The second-hand clothing shops provided a constant source of clothes only slightly behind the leading edge of style for those who could afford it2, and bequests of last year's clothing to servants were not uncommon.3 Londoners, even those of humble occupation, prided themselves on their appearance, and while they may not have been able to afford the newest or most elaborate styles, carefully updated their own clothes to reflect the new silhouette or decoration. Records and contemporary pieces of clothing document the changes made; if they could not afford new pieces, existing ones could be altered.4
In the early 1580s, the Spanish and French influence on fashion was still very apparent in London; the female silhouette was narrow, and the male silhouette was narrow waisted, with high padded trunkhose and long legs. Coats (known as gowns) were extremely common for both men and women.5
The following list is a breakdown of the common clothes worn by women in the early 1580s, documented from depictions of the period of working class people. Though modern class distinctions would not have made sense to the Elizabethans, they are often used for easy classification according to modern understanding. For our purposes, the "working" classes are the lower and middle classes of today - the 90% of working women in London who were servants, low-level sellers of goods, and housewives of small households.6
Shift (or smock; not chemise): Every woman above the poorest level had at least two, so one could be worn while the other was washed. The options are high necked and low necked. The high necked style was probably more common for the working classes everyday wear, as fiddling with the pinned partlet worn over a low shift would be tiresome while working. The partlet seems to have fallen out of favour for the lower classes as the high necked shift became more fashionable for women.7 Both partlet and high-necked shift were most commonly fastened with string ties, and were often worn open.8
Petticoat (skirts): Most women would wear at least two, and most women would not bother with underpinnings such as a roll or farthingale when working or for casual wear. The silhouette of the 1580s is still fairly narrow, and paintings such as the Fete at Bermondsey depict women wearing quite narrow skirts.
Skirts were sometimes cartridge pleated, sometimes box pleated, or gathered into a narrow band, but did not contain as much fabric as those of later fashions.9 Personal experimentation with about 3.5 yards of linen creates a skirt of exactly the silhouette of the women in Hoefnagle's painting.10 A fuller skirt can be achieved with 5 yards.
Skirts of finer materials (especially silks) would be lined, for warmth and to provide more structure to the fabric. Often the lining would be wool (flannel).
There are no extant petticoats that show what kind of fastening was used - my research into this is ongoing. For many years, I have used a small tie threaded through eyelets, but it is also possible that sewn tapes were used. Dutch paintings show an opening of the skirt worn to the side (possibly also a slit for the pocket), but it can also be worn in front. Wearing the opening at the back is awkward, so it is most likely that the side or front fastening was used.
Coming soon: An article on fastenings and petticoat points.
Bodies: Today called a bodice or a corset, the "pair of bodyes" was stiffened with whalebone (baleen), reeds, or buckram linen. The fastenings in 1580 seem to be either lacings or hooks and eye in the front and lacing only in the back, and extensive research seems to suggest that front lacing was more common. More affluent women would cover a front laced pair of bodies with a stomacher - a decorated front panel that was pinned into place over the lacing, which is part of the reason why lacing is not seen more often in pictures11, but the broadsheets of the cryers of London12 show many front-laced bodies. Buttons are not documentable on bodies in the 1580s. The neckline is still quite wide and square, and the pointed front is not as exaggerated on working clothes. If a doublet was not worn over the bodies, sleeves would be attached to the bodies, as seen on the young woman dancing on the right side of the Bermondsey painting.11 A pair of bodies with a skirt attached was called a "petticoat bodies".12
(a slightly fuzzy example of a pair of bodies with attached sleeves.)
Roll: If a roll was going to be worn, it would be tied on over the under petticoat. Most women would not wear a roll ("rowle") or farthingale for working, as it gets in the way. The roll is the cheap and easy version of a farthingale, so it does not seem logical that the two would be worn together.
a square doublet
Doublets: Doublets for women in 1580 are almost identical to men's doublets. They were fastened with buttons and/or hidden front lacing (There are two extant examples of back-laced doublets; one is a man's doublet that laces on the side seams, one is a woman's doublet that laces up the center back. I have found no pictorial evidence for doublets done in this style in England, and for aesthetic and convenience reasons, you are better off going with a front-fastened doublet. In an earlier version of this article, I said that doublets never laced up the back, but this is clearly an area that needs more research).
One of the more fashionable things of this era is the large padded sleeve rolls on women's doublets; many contemporary paintings and woodcuts show this style.13 Another stylistic change for women was the square doublet; cut like a doublet, but with a low square neckline, it fastened in front with hooks and eyes, lacing, or buttons.
Gowns or Coats: Almost all depictions of English women outside the home show them in some sort of coat or over-gown. In the Bermondsey painting, they are worn open and closed, sometimes belted or worn with an apron over the gown. Women wore short and long-sleeved gowns, but a lot of the pictures from the 1580s show short sleeves, with the sleeves of the doublet or bodies showing underneath.14
Kirtle/Petticoat Bodies: Instead of a doublet and petticoat, some women wore a dress that is now called a kirtle, and was probably called a "petticoat bodies" in the period. This can be an a-line unwaisted dress that has removable sleeves, or a pair of bodies (boned or unboned) with the skirt attached.15
Jacket - Some women, instead of wearing a gown or coat, wore a short waist-length jacket over their kirtle/bodies. While most people are familiar with the richly embroidered jackets of the upper classes, working women also wore jackets, frequently as outerwear. The short length of the jacket made it more suitable for everyday tasks.
(This is also one of the most amazingly flattering garments of the Elizabethan age. I am desperately in love with all of mine, and wear them at every opportunity.)
Aprons: All working women would wear an apron - to protect their clothes, to wipe and dry their hands, and to use as an all-purpose cloth, oven mitt, and mop. All depictions of working class women show them in aprons of some sort - the poorest wear unbleached or dirty-coloured linen, the richer wear white, sometimes edged with lace for best wear. Depictions of colours other than white are rare, but there is some evidence that aprons could be dyed other colours - blue and yellow seem to have been two of the more popular shades.16 The apron acts as a belt to hold necessary items while working.
Coifs and Headwraps: All women wore some kind of head covering when working. The simplest was a head-wrap - a long rectangle of linen wrapped around the head and tucked into place. The next was the coif - a one-piece linen cap that was often worn with a triangular forehead cloth. The coif ties were wrapped around the woman's bun and the forehead cloth was worn over or under it, tied like a do-rag. The combination of the two kept the coif in place even during strenuous work.17
Hats: Women wore tall hats just like the men's style, and can be seen in many pictures wearing quite fashionable felt or fabric hats (including a ridiculous little miniature tall hat on one woman in the Fete at Bermondsey picture)18. Women also wore straw hats, especially when working outdoors. Knitted or sewn flat caps do not seem to have been as popular for ladies - there are very few English pictures that show women in flat caps, though they do seem to have been the fashion in Germany.
Shoes and Hose (stocks, or socks): Most people wore one of two styles of shoe, and they were interchangeable for men and women. The first was a kind of slipper, seen in the Bermondsey painting, the other a cutout laced shoe19. Both were made of varying materials, depending on the class of the wearer, but most working women would have had sturdy leather shoes, able to last and withstand walking through rough streets and bad weather.
Hose were still more often sewn on the bias rather than knitted - knitted hose are still more for the rich than the working class in the 1580s, though socks knitted of wool would have been available. They were made of linen or wool - silk and cotton socks were outside the price range of the average woman. Socks were held up with garters - either tapes or leather with buckles. Many of us have used knitted garters, but the one pair of period knitted garters I have found is much finer knit than the ones we use, so while I can document knitted garters, I can't document them in coarse knit.
5. A Fete at Bermondsey, Jorges Hoefnagle, 1575. Contemporary portraits and woodcuts show the narrow line of skirts until the wheel farthingale became fashionable in the 1590s. The elegant bell-shaped French Farthingale required a fitted skirt cut in gores (as can be seen in The Tailor's Pattern Book), but the simplicity and economy of a pleated rectangle of fabric made the basic skirt more common, especially amongst the working classes.
6. The Horizon Book of the Elizabethan World, Horizon Magazine, American Heritage Publishing Co., 1967
7. Historical Fashion in Detail, Avril Hart and Susan North, V&A Publications, 2003
9. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Arnold
10. A Fete at Bermondsey, Jorges Hoefnagle, 1575.
12. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Arnold.
13. The broadsides "The Bellman of London" (1590s), and "A Light Here Maids" (1599), though slightly late for 1580, show many of the women wearing some sort of coat or gown, often open, with an apron tied over it. From Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London, Sean Shesgreen, Rutgers University Press, 2002. The Fete at Bermondsey, the Civitates Orbis Terrarum (British Library), and the broadsheet Tittle-Tattle (British Library) also all show women in gowns, often belted or with an apron tied over them.
14. Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd, Janet Arnold
15. Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c. 1560-1620, Janet Arnold, Drama Books, 1985.
16. Jamestown Settlement and Museum, Clothing Research Department. They have been very helpful in providing information about their research on natural dyes and fabrics, and how quickly they fade and wear out.