1. Fabrics and layering reflected social standing

The types of material used in clothing reflected the hierarchy of Tudor society. Linen and wool were worn by all people, with the best types of wool and silk reserved for the wealthiest.


In the 16th century, an ordinary woman would wear a kirtle over a linen undergarment called a smock; a wealthy woman might also wear a petticoat. A kirtle comprised top and bottom sections – a slit and laced bodice, incorporating stiff canvas for support, plus a full skirt with a front slit – fitted to each woman’s measurements, with different tailors catering to rich and poor.

More affluent women displayed their wealth through layered clothing and underneath such finery as crimson silk petticoats.

Men’s underwear took the form of a long shirt and tightly fitted leg coverings known as hose, which was cut on the bias of the fabric to give it elasticity. By the end of the Tudor era, full-leg hose had evolved into knee-length breeches made from leather, wool or silk, depending on the individual’s status and wealth.

2. The codpiece was the ultimate men's accessory

Increasingly popular from the mid-15th century, codflaps and codpieces served a functional purpose by fastening the bias-cut hose and covering the crotch area. Gradually, they evolved into elaborate fashion statements: wealthy men flaunted codpieces adorned with ornate decoration.

Although the precise reason for their increasingly extreme protuberance is unknown, codpieces combined function with fashion, catering to both comfort and societal expectations of display.

Surviving examples indicate a range of styles, from opulent to extremely simple. The popularity of codpieces ebbed by the late 16th century, but they remain intriguing artefacts, reflecting the interplay of function, culture and style during the Tudor period.

3. Tudors wore conventional garments

A painting of Queen Mary I wearing a dark-coloured coat and a French hood, sat on a red chair.
Queen Mary I, sporting a fashionable French hood. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

A Tudor man wore a doublet – a type of short, padded jacket – fitted and buttoned at the front and often paired with a jerkin (another fitted torso- covering garment) or a gown for layering.Gowns were worn for formal and special occasions and church attendance, with distinctions between best, middling and everyday wear.

Meanwhile, women’s accessories – notably headwear – became surprisingly complex. The early flat linen kercher (tied headscarf) gradually acquired structure, incorporating wire at the edges to form a ‘cornered kerchief’.

For those of a higher social status, the French hood became very popular, made with expensive silk and interchangeable jewels and pearls. These headdresses required time to assemble, and were secured on top of laced and braided hair.

4. Colour choices were limited by law

Central to the Tudor wardrobe was an appreciation of colour, with choices typically reflecting both wealth and status. An individual might own multiple garments of the same type – a man might have three doublets, a woman three kirtles – but in different colours.

Natural, less-expensive ‘sheep colours’ were the norm, whereas red – produced using dyes such as madder – and tawny were pricier options. Black emerged as the most important colour in Tudor clothing. More vibrant hues – yellow, green, blue – were fashionable in the early 16th century, but diminished in popularity over time.

One notably enduring colour was violet, a less-costly alternative to purple, which was reserved mainly for royalty. Violet could be achieved by blending woad and madder, but orchil – a dye obtained from certain lichens – was the best source. Violet long remained a surprisingly popular shade for clothing for both men and women because it was close to purple, a colour long restricted to royalty by law.

5. Tudor folk were dedicated followers of fashion

A painting of Queen Elizabeth I with an elaborate ruff, dress and jewellery.
Queen Elizabeth I is synonymous with the elaborate late-Tudor ruff. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Trends shifted over the course of the 16th century, notably in garments worn by the noble and middle classes. There was, for example, an evolution in the shapes of skirts, with wealthier women sporting conical, close- fitting and drum-shaped gowns as the decades progressed. Sleeves developed, too, changing from a fitted cut to elaborate, farthingale sleeves with whalebone supports.

Men’s attire, such as doublet and hose, also underwent alterations in shape. The most pronounced change was in neckwear, evolving from small shirt ruffles during Henry VIII’s reign to the flamboyant ruffs of the Elizabethan period; and by the late 16th century, falling bands were de rigueur.

Exchange between nations also influenced trends, with royalty embracing foreign styles. Indeed, the English were teased for sporting an eclectic mix of European styles. Hybrid fashions were partly the result of thrift: those buying clothes second- hand couldn’t be too picky about where they came from.

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6. Tailors were highly respected artisans

Few people crafted their own clothes, relying instead on skilled artisans to make and repair them. A prospective Tudor tailor took a seven-year apprenticeship, then developed his craft as a journeyman who travelled and trained under various master tailors to hone his skills.

Master tailors excelled in cutting fabric efficiently and fitting it precisely, whereas apprentices and journeymen focused on stitching, undertaken under their mentors’ supervision.

Although women often sewed household and body linen, tailors fashioned complex garments in wool and other, more luxurious, fabrics. Tailors’ expertise reflected diverse needs across the social hierarchy, and some specialised in producing specific garments: for example, hosiers made hose.

This specialisation of artisans, and the apprenticeship-journeyman-master progression, was intended to assure customers they would receive service of the highest quality and professional standard from their tailors. But there are many records of complaints, with tailors being fined for poor or inappropriate work.

7. People cared for their clothes

A photograph of two
Historical re-enactment of two maids washing clothes in Italy. (Photo by DeAgostini via Getty Images)

Tudor people took a pragmatic approach to cleanliness, aiming to increase the longevity of their clothes through targeted cleaning and care. Common sense dictated that prevention was best: table napery protected clothes during meals, and aprons were worn by both men and women for work and even on special occasions. Oversleeves, often knitted, also protected clothing from daily grime.

Washerwomen worked along riverbanks or at designated washing facilities in towns. For example, Nottingham had washing stairs where flowing water enabled people to clean garments communally. Surviving 16th-century washhouses on hillsides in Italy show how the plumbing worked by gravity.

Tudors tended to care for their outer clothing in the way we care for modern winter coats: they seldom washed items made from wool, instead brushing or spot-cleaning for a quick spruce-up. Stains were removed from soiled garments by spritzing with alcohol followed by brushing. Underwear and accessories were washed frequently because having clean linen was a sign of respectability.


This content first appeared in the October 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed

Discover more content from week one of the HistoryExtra Academy Elizabethans course

The Elizabethan Court, with Professor Tracy Borman – watching time 15 mins

Where history happened: Tudor courtiers with Suzannah Lipscomb – reading time 13 mins

Elizabeth I's personality: the unfathomable queen – reading time 9 mins

In conversation: Tracy Borman on Queen Elizabeth I – watching time 16 mins

Princely pleasures at Kenilworth: Robert Dudley's three-week marriage proposal to Elizabeth I – reading time 6 mins

Elizabeth I's Accession Day Celebrations – reading time 7 mins

Robert Dudley: Queen Elizabeth I's great love – reading time 12 mins