The sixteenth century is widely considered to be one of the pivotal centuries in human history, a time when the overall organization and structure of human society went through a fundamental change. It was the high point of a larger historical period known as the Renaissance, which lasted from the late fourteenth through the sixteenth century.
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.
Bases were a form of skirt, worn by upper-class members of the military, that were a striking departure from typical men's costume of the sixteenth century. During this period, most men wore a doublet, a slightly padded short overshirt, with hose and breeches.
Bombast was absolutely essential to the men's and women's clothing of the sixteenth century, yet it was never actually seen. Bombast was a form of stuffing made from cotton, wool, horsehair, or even sawdust.
During the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries, the most common everyday clothing for men was a kind of short jacket or overshirt called a doublet worn with thick woolen, linen, or silk hose. The hosiery of the time consisted of two separate stockings that covered the legs but left an opening at the top that exposed the wearer's genitals.
Though farthingales were rarely seen, they were the item most responsible for the various distinctive shapes of women's skirts in the sixteenth century and beyond. A farthingale was a series of stiff hoops, usually made of wood or wicker, sewn into a fabric under-skirt.
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.
Men in the sixteenth century had a number of choices about what to wear on their lower body, almost all involving some combination of breeches, or baggy pants, and hose. The basic combination of hose for the lower legs and breeches for the waist and upper legs had been in use since about 1200.
Over the top of their doublets (a slightly padded overshirt) and jerkins (a close-fitting, often sleeveless, jacket), men of the sixteenth century wore a number of jackets or cloaks. These cloaks were worn for warmth but also for decoration.
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.
Fabric arm coverings, or sleeves, were an essential part of the clothing ensemble worn by both men and women during the Renaissance. Although sleeves were sometimes attached directly to men's doublets (overshirts) and jerkins (jackets) or to the bodice of women's gowns, just as often they were made separately and were attached to garments by means of points, or small ties at the connecting end of both garments.
As in the preceding several centuries, the hairstyles worn during the sixteenth century were driven by the tastes of kings, queens, and their courts. During the early part of the century, for example, French king Francis I (1494–1547) wore his hair in a long bob and many in France followed his example.
One of the more common hats worn by men during the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century was the copotain. Generally black in color and made of a thick felt, the copotain had a medium size brim, ranging between one and three inches, and a tall rounded crown.
From as early as the founding of the Roman Empire in 27 B.C.E. women have been known to color their hair.
One of the major trends of the late sixteenth century was for women to expose more of their hair and to wear more elaborate hairstyles. Borrowing from the tradition of creating massive shaped hats with the use of wire cages, such as the steeple and ram's horn headdresses of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, women began to use stiff wire to give structure to their hair.
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.
Among the many accessories that both men and women might carry in the sixteenth century were finely made Cordoba leather gloves. People carried a variety of gloves during the time period, including gloves made from leather, suede (leather with a rough surface), or kid (the skin of a young goat), but the most prized gloves were made of leather from Cordoba, Spain.
Fashionable ladies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were known for carrying a variety of personal accessories, including gloves, pomanders (scented jeweled balls), handkerchiefs, and fans. Fans had been used in China from as early as 3000 B.C.E.
More than any other garment, the flea fur helps us to understand just how different living conditions were in sixteenth-century Europe. People of the period did not bathe very often, and they rarely washed their clothes or bedsheets.
One of the true fashion innovations of the sixteenth century was the introduction of the handkerchief as a fashion accessory. Handkerchiefs themselves were not new; people had been carrying a small cloth for blowing their nose for years.
By the sixteenth century footwear construction methods had grown quite advanced. The shoes of common people were generally made of leather, and while they were fairly simple in construction they were also very durable.
The craze for chopines in Italy coincided with the peak of attraction for extravagant dress during the 1500s, when almost every article of clothing was highly exaggerated. By the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, Spanish, French, and Swiss women were also teetering fashionably on chopines.
The sixteenth century was not known for its practical footwear. The shoes that most wealthy people wore indoors were either very delicate, perhaps made of silk or velvet, or very cumbersome, like the extremely high chopines worn by women.