The only appropriate outfit for a well-bred woman of the sixteenth century was a complex ensemble that is known by the simple terms "gown," or "dress." These gowns, depicted in great detail in the many surviving paintings from the period, reveal the riches available to the members of the courts that surrounded European royalty. They could be constructed of luxurious materials like silk, velvet, and lace; lavishly adorned with pearls, beads, and jewels; and decorated with the most intricate patterns of stitching and embroidery. Those gowns worn by members of royalty and wealthy noblewomen were truly works of art. Even common women dressed in gowns that mimicked the wealthy in form, though not in the quality of the materials.
The lavish gowns worn by women from this period were made from at least three distinct parts: a bodice, a skirt, and sleeves. The bodice covered the torso and was similar to a man's doublet, the tight fitting double-layered garment that covered the body from shoulders to waist. The neckline opening of the bodice could vary widely in size, though the most common style was to have a large opening that revealed much of the shoulders and crossed the chest in a slight upward curve just above the breasts. By the end of the century necklines had grown very daring, revealing a woman's cleavage. Most often, however, the area above the neckline was filled with a chemise, a light, sometimes transparent shirt that rose to the neck and that very often ended in an attached and highly decorative ruff, a wide pleated collar. The front of the bodice was a V-shaped panel that came to a defined point at or below the waist. This triangular panel, called a stomacher, was often stiffened with bone or wood and padded with bombast in order to create a flat-chested appearance.
Attached to the bottom edge of the bodice was the skirt. While the bodice was intended to give the woman a slim silhouette, the skirts worn in the sixteenth century were very wide and full and reached all the way to the floor. Skirts were made of overlapping panels and used yards and yards of fabric. They were given their distinctive shape by farthingales, rigid hoops made of cane, bone, or wood. Stitched to the interior fabric of the skirt and anchored at the waist, these farthingales could give the skirts a distinct cone shape, as with the Spanish farthingale, or a drum or wheel shape. Some gowns had a wide opening at the front of the skirt that revealed either a separate underskirt or an interior panel of a different fabric, called a partlet. Women might also wear a decorative apron at the front of the skirt or a safeguard to protect the skirt when the woman was outdoors.
The final component of the gown was the sleeves. Some bodices had attached sleeves, but many sleeves were made separately and were attached to the bodice at the shoulders by means of points, or small ties. Sleeves varied tremendously in style, from formfitting to quite puffy, from a simple single fabric to intricate panels of several fabrics with lace, ribbons, and bows. Most sleeve styles combined some form of puff, often at the shoulder, with sections of more closely fitted fabric. Sleeves usually ended in an ornamental cuff. Many women also wore false sleeves, which hung at the sides of the dress.
Gown styles varied slightly from country to country, with Germans preferring a high-waisted look and Spanish women preferring a cone-shaped skirt, but all grew more ornate as the century progressed. Queen Elizabeth I of England, who ruled from 1558 to 1603, was known for her fantastically lavish gowns, and she set the style for all of Europe. At her death she was said to have possessed over three thousand different gowns.
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
LaMar, Virginia A. English Dress in the Age of Shakespeare. Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1958.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.