The 14th century began the start of the Renaissance, an era initiating in Florence, Italy, with the new and visionary works of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Filippo Brunelleschi. Renaissance — or rebirth — also hailed the beginning of a new era in clothing, when one’s station in life was often determined almost exclusively by apparel. Sumptuary laws prohibited who could wear what, making it easy to judge people simply by what they wore.


Four Cultures, One Common Thread

Italy, Germany, England and France each had their own distinctive looks during the Renaissance, writes Scott Robinson of Central Washington University, although common themes such as “rich heavy materials, in voluminous amounts, large sleeves, close body garments, large hip-clothing, wide-toed, heelless shoes and covered heads” could be found across the board. Colors were often dark, and velvet was the fabric of choice. In almost all European cultures, petticoats were the foundation for women’s dress, while the “camica” or shirt was the foundational piece for men. Both men and women wore at least five layers of clothing as status symbols of their wealth.

Social Standing at a Glance

Social status and wealth were expressed during the Renaissance in color and fabric choices. During the Elizabethan era, between 1558 to 1603, sumptuary laws restricted commoners to garments of only one color, while wealthy individuals could dress in multiple colors.The upper class would literally wear their wealth in brocades, velvets, silks, furs and jewel-encrusted dresses and shirts. Commoners were relegated to mostly linens. To circumvent the one-color sumptuary laws, however, commoners would slash their monotone outer garment to reveal the varying colors of the clothes underneath. This started a fashion trend, “slashing,” that the upper class later adopted.

Women Dressed to Attract Men

Sumptuary laws didn’t just restrict what lower classes wore; they also dictated women’s apparel. Unmarried women were given more flexibility than married women because, according to Ulinka Rublack, Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Cambridge, they needed to attract mates. They were thus allowed to wear more accessories, such as silk hairbands. Married women were encouraged to also maintain their appearance to ensure their husbands remained faithful. Corsets were introduced in the 16th century, as were “Spanish farthingales,” or hoop skirts, both thought to give the female form a more attractive, cone-like structure. While corsets endured from the Renaissance into the 19th century, hoop skirts fell out of fashion as the Renaissance was ending in the 17th century. Yellow became a popular color in 1510, with many upper class women choosing it — that is, until prostitutes began doing the same and the color was soon abandoned by the wealthy.

Henry the VIII, Male Fashion Icon

Men’s Renaissance fashion was heavily influenced by the Tudors, specifically Henry the VIII. In her book “Dress at the Court of King Henry VIII,” Maria Hayward notes Henry the VIII was described as “the best dressed sovereign in the world” by Sebastiano Guistinian, a Venetian ambassador. The long, pointy shoes that men wore at the beginning of the Renaissance soon gave way to the squared toe favored by the Tudor monarch. The flat cap, a hat with soft crown and broad brim — another look the king favored — became part of everyday wear, as did puffed sleeves and the jerkins a sleeveless velvet jacket that was a precursor to the modern vest. Henry the VIII was reputed to spend 16,000 ducats — equivalent to $3.1 million — annually on clothing.