At the beginning of the 16th century, women’s fashions were still shifting out of the medieval period. Weighty square-necked gowns and expansive sleeves were characteristic of the early transition into the Renaissance. Women wore floor-length bell-shaped skirts with trains. Skirts were made of stiff fabrics but not yet boned and the colors were muted. By the second quarter of the century, the hourglass silhouette prevailed in women’s fashion and didn’t change significantly until the early 1600s.


The silhouette was established in France and England. Bodices were used to create the hourglass shape, consisting of a petite waist and ample chest and hips. The skirts and bodice were detached pieces that had to be sewn or strung together. A petticoat was worn beneath the overdress. As the silhouette evolved, the bodice grew more inelastic and longer to form a V-shape at the waist. A gem-laden belt was used to cover the edges of the skirt and bodice.


The silhouette stiffened toward the latter part of the 16th century. A piece of metal, wood or bone was placed in the fa├žade of the bodice. Additional bones or wood were placed in the sides of the bodice to fortify a cone-shaped silhouette. The bodice was followed by full skirt, which covered a series of metal or bone hoops known as a farthingale. Women also tied a sickle-shaped cushion, known as a “bumroll,” around their hips, according to “The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History: 1501-1800.”


During the medieval period, the chemise or standard body garment was the same for both men and women. As time passed, men and women began to alter the chemise to suit their needs and tastes. In the early 1500s, the chemise was made of linen and had a broad and open neckline. It remained hidden beneath the dress. Sleeves were pinched at the wrist with a band.


Trends in Spanish fashion began to affect women’s fashion in Europe in the second quarter of the century. Weaving black thread through white linen, known as blackwork, became a popular way to decorate clothes. While frills encircled the neck and wrists, ruffles were stitched to garments’ edges. Cuffs and neckbands provided yet more opportunities for decorative embellishment.


The undersleeve became a discrete piece of clothing that wasn’t attached to an undergarment. Instead, it was knotted or stitched to the inside of the outer sleeve. Undersleeves were embellished with embroidery, velvet and gems. Outer sleeves were cut or slashed to reveal colorful undersleeves or scarves. The design of oversleeves also changed. The top of the sleeve hugged the upper arm and fanned out at the lower arm, forming a bell shape.


Until Anne Boleyn brought the French hood into court, the square and pointy English hood dominated fashion. The bow-shaped French hood could be worn further back from the forehead, revealing tresses that frame the face. Women stitched veils and small flaps to French hoods to stylize them.