Elizabethan Dress, Costume and Controversy

The Queen c. 1580. Elizabeth was reputed to have owned over 3,000 dresses by the end of her life.

The Queen c. 1580. Elizabeth was reputed to have owned over 3,000 dresses by the end of her life.

The fashion excesses of the Elizabethan era dwarf even the most outrageous walkways in Milan today. One earl was reported as spending half his annual income on clothing alone. It was common practice for landlords to part with some of their valuable turf merely to bolster their closets. The wealthy swanked about in outfits often richly decked with gold, silver and jewelry, elaborately ruffled and stitched to the very bottom seam.

Sumptuousness and ornateness characterized the prevalent mode of Shakespeare’s day. The English asserted their rank through the refinement and elaboration of their fashion, like competing birds sporting increasingly brighter plumage. So contentious were the sartorial escalations, that the Elizabethan crown codified clothing standards. Outraged at perceived threats to their class, the elite cracked down with attempts at dress regulation. Legal codes, called “sumptuary laws”, endure from the era, acerbically denouncing “the great excesses of apparel… of the inferior sort” among the lower classes. To the strict social order of the day, the symbolic infringement of overstepping one’s clothing violated one’s dictated class, an offence severe enough to constitute a crime. Perhaps no accusation captures the colorful contempt aimed at outfit mismanagement as the reference to the practice of a “disguised and monstrous manner of attiring themselves” among the non-gentry.

Sumptuous outfits are on display even in this 16th century martial arts tome.

Sumptuous outfits are on display even in this 16th century martial arts tome (‘De Arte Atletica’- Paulus Hector Mair)

Shakespeare’s fabled career blossomed in the midst of this fashion backlash, which might seem severe to even the most adamant defender of modern style today. Shakespeare’s dramatic scene may have been embroiled in a classist, cloth-ist controversy that has mostly been forgotten today.


The upsurge of wealth in modernizing Europe dumped a profusion of fine drapery on England, particularly the teeming metropolis of London. Soon, secondhand markets trickled the surplus to lower classes. Theaters, naturally interested in diversifying their wardrobes, dabbled heavily in the practice of trading, displaying and renting elaborate aristocratic garb. A lawsuits remains as evidence, in which a disgruntled noble persecuted theaters for their open patronage of “mean” (read “poor”) men. Furthermore, a contract from the Rose Theater suggests that actors habitually left the theater in their costumes, thereby violating the developing dress codes by strutting about in accouterments unbecoming to lower classes. Reactionary antipathy bubbled up among the uppermost classes, who perceived this as a mockery of their prerogative and a threat to class exclusivity. Several polemics from the era record, in no gentle terms, the animosity against the theaters for transgressing class lines with their shameless outfits.

An unknown girl.

An unknown girl, exquisitely dressed.

The theaters, for their part, seemed to have relished the role of social irritant. Imitation and replication is natural to theater, likely harnessing the popular attitudes of the era. The theaters were shielded, for the most part, from the harshest legal percussions by their royal patronage, and were in a sense a haven for the edged irreverence visible to this day in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Soon the theaters adhered to the mockery of “types” (noble, princeling, merchant, etc.), a technique popularized in the Elizabethan era. The actors’ ensembles, then, were the visual centerpiece and source of credibility of this effect. The surprising effect (unfortunately no longer communicable to modern viewers) of seeing those who before had been lofty superiors, clad realistically on stage and subjected to gaffes and humiliation, undermined the distinguishing power of dress and gnawed at the very class lines. The social implications of these snips are sophisticated, but suffice to say that this pageantry likely jabbed at the superiority of their pantaloons, if not their power. Scandalous, indeed.

The widely explored anti-authoritarian themes of Shakespeare’s work may partly stem from the events that surrounded them. Never underestimate the power of a good outfit, then. Though this is no longer visible to modern eyes scanning these scripts, the very costumes the actors wore may have been a scandalous, humorous, daring affront to the aristocracy, and a nod to the fizzling class tensions of the era.

(For reader reference, most of the information derives from Amanda Bailey’s article “Monstrous Manner: Style and the Modern Early Theater”. Click the pictures for hyperlinks to further information on Elizabethan fashion or check out http://www.elizabethancostume.net/#general.)

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