“As there can be no circle without a center, no more can beauty be without goodness….And therefore is the outward beauty a true sign of the inward goodness” (Castiglione 6).
In a society rife with religious and political reform, when you could execute for an offense and have the same returned in a single afternoon (maybe not, but it sure seemed like it), political leaders of the day were anxious. Anxious to please. In England, they were anxious to please the Queen. And the Queen? She was anxious to please the world.
To leave a good impression – to please someone – there are methods. A rather expensive one being your clothes. Elizabeth knew this; and keenly aware of her need to impress politically, internationally, she put into effect the Sumptuary Laws. These statutes outlined, very precisely, who could and could not wear what. It contains a section for men’s clothes, a section for women’s clothes, and a warning that infractions would be “redressed in all open assemblies by all wise, godly, and lawful means.”
Heavens, there were even guidelines for their underclothing.
Consequently, clothing became a very clear marker of rank and status. Let alone the idea of preventing normal folk from wearing nice things – and let alone the vanity of rich apparel – if you wanted to stay alive, you dressed according to your rank, whether you could afford it or not. You provided outward proof that you were stable, successful, cultured, valuable. More than quoting poetry, more than studying and honing personal skills, “even the most committed patrons of artists, poets and translators spent a far greater proportion of their income on clothes than they did on the arts” (Vanderjagt 209).
I tried to imagine myself in a world like this, where it really mattered whether my blouse was purple or white, where it mattered which threads I used in my embroidery, where I could get in serious trouble for wearing the wrong underwear. It was hard. I am very used to a mentality of fashion being an expression of self, whereas Elizabethan wear was an expression of money (real or not). And I came to two conclusions.
One: no wonder stage costumes of the day were frugal, hinting rather than displaying at a character’s identity.
Two: no wonder at the demand for New World commodities, particularly silk and fur. Those things were lifesavers.
Some fun reads on the subject:
How to Dress (a guide to putting on an Elizabethan gown)
Make-up 101 (a guide to cosmetics and beauty standards of the era)
Hoby, Sir Thomas. “From The Courtier, From Book IV.” 1561. Print.
Vanderjagt, Arie Johan. Princes and Princely Culture: 1450-1650. Vol. 2. Netherlands: The Netherlands Koninklijke Brill NV, 2005. Print.
“Who Wears What I.” Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes. Elizabethan.org. N.d. Web. 22 September 2015.