One of the most distinctive fashions of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the ruff was a wide pleated collar, often stiffened with starch or wire, which stood out like a wheel around the neck. Expensive and time-consuming to care for, the ruff was only for the wealthy. Ruffs had the effect of holding the head up in a proud and lordly pose, which made them popular with nobility across Europe. Both men and women wore the awkward ruff.
In the late 1400s the necklines on men's doublets, slightly padded short overshirts, and women's gowns opened to reveal the shirts worn underneath. These shirts were often closed at the neck by means of a draw-string laced through the edge of the fabric. When such a string was drawn tight, it produced a gathered ruffle around the neck. This ruffle soon became fashionable, and it grew in size until it became a separate piece of cloth or lace that was tied around the neck. The first wide ruffs appeared in Spain, but they soon spread to England, France, Italy, and Holland, where they remained popular well into the seventeenth century.
Over the course of their two-century history, ruffs varied greatly in size and style. They might be as narrow as an inch or as wide as twelve inches. Ruffs could be closed, which meant that they kept their flared shape all the way around the neck, or open, which meant that they extended to the sides and back only. Open ruffs allowed for easier movement of the head, and they allowed women to reveal their upper chests, or cleavage, as was fashionable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Especially after the introduction of starch in 1560, ruffs could be made to stand very stiffly away from the neck, though many people preferred a ruff that lay flat. Ruffs were often made of lace and paired with lace cuffs at the sleeves.
Ruffs created controversy in the sixteenth century. Protestant groups that protested against excesses in fashion singled out the ruff for criticism, calling the larger ruffs "millstones" or "cartwheels." Ruffs were somewhat impractical: they restricted movement considerably, and those who wore wide ruffs often had to eat with special long utensils so that they could reach their mouths. Some European governments tried to pass laws to restrict their size. Queen Elizabeth I of England, who ruled from 1558 to 1603 and who loved to wear ruffs herself, passed a law in 1580 that limited the size of ruffs worn by people outside her court. She even posted guards at the gates of the city of London in England to monitor the size of ruffs. Like most laws limiting clothing, called sumptuary laws, this law did not have much effect.
It took a lot of work to care for a ruff properly. They were preserved by servants in special boxes. Starch was painted on the white linen fabric used to make ruffs. The fabric was then carefully folded into pleats, sometimes in the shape of figure eights. They were then pressed and dried with a hot round rod called a goffering iron. The very wide cartwheel ruffs were too heavy for starch alone and required a metal framework over which the linen fabric was stretched.
All the Rage. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1992.
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.
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.
Yarwood, Doreen. The Encyclopedia of World Costume. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1978.