The sixteenth century was one of the most extravagant and splendid periods in all of costume history and one of the first periods in which modern ideas of fashion influenced what people wore. Some of the larger cultural trends of the time included the rise and spread of books, the expansion of trade and exploration, and the increase in power and wealth of national monarchies, or kingdoms, in France, England, and Spain. Each of these trends influenced what people chose to wear and contributed to the frequent changes in style and the emergence of style trendsetters that are characteristic of modern fashion.
Perhaps the single biggest factor influencing fashion in the sixteenth century was the wealth of European kingdoms and powerful city-states in Italy. Trade and exploration had led to a boom in the economies of Europe, and the textile, or fabric, industries were at the center of that boom. Wool production in England and silk production in Italy were especially important. These industries allowed for the creation of rich fabrics. At the same time tailors guilds, or associations of craftsmen, proved very skilled at turning these fabrics into luxurious clothes. The monarchs and the members of their court were enriched by these trends and could afford the most expensive clothes. But the guild members, traders, and merchants who made up a growing middle class could also afford these clothes.
The powerful kings and queens who led European nations believed that one of the ways that they could display their power was through their clothing. Powerful leaders had always set an example by their clothes, but King Francis I of France (1494–1547), who ruled from 1515 to 1547, was the first to become a true fashion trendsetter. He deliberately and carefully chose unique and outlandish outfits, and then challenged members of the royal court to adopt his styles as a way of asserting his leadership. Other monarchs followed Francis's lead. French King Henry III, who ruled from 1574 to 1589, set new standards for French luxury and popularized the use of lace for men, though his critics said that he dressed too much like a woman. Perhaps the greatest fashion trendsetter of the century was Elizabeth I of England, who ruled from 1558 to 1603. This powerful
Fashion historian Ruth M. Green commented in the introduction to Jack Cassin-Scott's Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760, "fashion was initiated in courts and spread from them like ripples in a pond." Merchants and members of the middle class followed the lead of the court, and poorer members of society even tried to find ways to imitate the styles of those above them in the social order. The poorest people could scarcely copy the fashions of the wealthy, but they did change the form of their garments to follow trends and could sometimes gain access to discarded or secondhand garments.
People's attempts to stay in fashion could be very costly. In England and France large owners of land were expected to entertain the monarch and their court when they traveled about the country. They felt pressured to throw large parties and to clothe themselves and their families in the latest and most expensive fashions. When the royal courts traveled, they nearly made the outlying nobles go broke trying to keep up with their standard of display. As Michael and Ariane Batterberry wrote in Fashion: The Mirror of History, "At the great country houses the 'progresses' of the queen and her entourage were as welcome as a visitation from assassins."
Monarchs and nobles weren't the only ones giving fashion guidance during the sixteenth century. People began to use new printed books to get information about clothing and manners. The first book of fashion advice for men was Count Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano (1561), which was translated into several languages, including English as The Book of the Courtier. Along with advice on conversation, horse riding, and other manners, Castiglione urged men to develop their own sense of style. Similar books soon became available for women.
For all the changes that fashion brought to the clothing of the sixteenth century, the basic form of garments remained fairly stable. The standard garments worn by men were hose and breeches for the lower body and a doublet, a padded overshirt, with attached sleeves for the upper body. During the early part of the century men often wore a prominent codpiece over their genitals, but this garment virtually disappeared by the end of the century. Both men and women wore ruffs, wide pleated collars, around their necks. Men wore a shirt beneath their doublets, and they wore a variety of cloaks and mantles, a type of cape, over the doublet. Perhaps the most memorable was the mandilion, a cloak draped over one shoulder almost purely as a fashion statement. The basic garment for women was the gown, but it was far from simple. Actually a combination of several garments, including bodice, sleeves, skirts, and underskirts, sixteenth-century gowns have been considered some of the most beautiful garments of any era in history.
The fact that certain garments were worn consistently throughout the century does not mean those garments stayed the same. The cut, color, and finish of garments changed considerably in response to fashion. People used embroidery, jewels, lace, ribbons, and many other forms of decoration to continually seek ways to express their own sense of style.
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