Sixteenth-Century Body Decorations

The personal grooming habits of people in the sixteenth century seem strange to us today. On the one hand, wealthy people took great care with their hairstyles and, in the case of women, with their makeup. On the other hand, the practice of bathing was infrequent among even the wealthiest people and quite rare among the poorer classes. Europeans in the sixteenth century simply misunderstood the nature of disease and believed that they could get sick if they used water to clean themselves. Other than this odd belief, Europeans from this period took great care with their appearance and with the accessories that they chose.

The use of makeup was widespread among wealthier women in the kingdoms of Europe. The most common form of makeup was white pancake makeup applied to the face, with bright red rouge used to color the lips and the cheeks. As fashion historian Ruth M. Green noted in the introduction to Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760, by Jack Cassin-Scott, the contrast of these colors would have made women look doll-like in bright light, but probably appeared more subtle in the candlelit castles of the time. The cosmetics used during this period were based on poisonous preparations of lead and quite unhealthy.

Both men and women wore a number of accessories as part of their typical outfit. For men, the most common accessories were a belt, a sword, and a pair of gloves. Men wore a simple leather belt from which they hung their sword, an item that no gentleman would do without. The sword might be highly ornamented, with its sheath and handle bearing jewels or other decoration. Men also tucked their leather gloves into their belt. Women carried a range of accessories, including fans, soft Cordoba leather gloves, and handkerchiefs. One of the most unique fashion accessories was the pomander, a metal or gold ball that contained perfume and was attached to the belt with a cord or tie. Many women of the time are pictured holding the pomander near their nose, perhaps to ward off the smells of body odor that must have filled the air. Because of this lack of sanitation, men and women alike also draped flea furs about their necks to attract the fleas that infested their clothes away from other parts of their body.

"As for jewellery (sic)," writes Ruth M. Green, "there could hardly be too much of it" for both men and women. Men wore rings, long dangling neck chains, pendants, and even jeweled earrings. Women also wore rings on every finger and even the thumb, as well as bracelets and necklaces. Goldworking skills were highly refined during the era, and widespread exploration and trade made a variety of jewels available to the wealthiest people. Perhaps the most striking use of jewels during this period was as ornamentation for garments. Nearly every garment worn could be enhanced by jewels sewn onto the surface or worn on belts or garters around the sleeves, legs, or waist. Women often laced strings of pearls into their hair, and ruffs, wide pleated collars, and high collars were also studded with small pearls and jewels.

The jewelry, accessories, and makeup discussed were used only by the wealthy people who attended the courts of the kings and queens of Europe and perhaps by the wealthiest merchants of European cities. Most ordinary people in the sixteenth century could not afford and would have had little use for these impractical elements of costume.


Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.

Chamberlin, E. R. Everyday Life in Renaissance Times. London, England: B. T. Batsford, 1967.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Taylor, Laurence. Everyday Life: The Sixteenth Century. Morristown, NJ: Silver Burdett, 1983.

Cordoba Leather Gloves
Flea Fur

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