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Clothing for the Middle and Lower Classes in the Late 16th and Early 17th Century: Historical Overview

  This essay was taken from a handout provided at my lecture given at the Society for Creative Anachronism’s (SCA) Pennsic War.

                  Clothing for the Middle and Lower Classes in the
Late 16th and Early 17th Century: 
 Historical Overview

The study of middle and lower class garments is something that must be approached a little differently from our usual study of court garb. Because the middle and lower classes did not change their clothing style as quickly as did the nobility, it is often difficult to tell the dating of a style based on its silhouette.

The lower classes were not usually painted or drawn in the formal portrait genre. That is, a person of the middle or lower class was unlikely to be found sitting for a portrait in order to immortalize himself or herself for posterity. Yes, artists painted and drew their relatives as a source of practice subjects. They were also known to draw upon the lower classes as pictorial examples for admiration or caricature. However, true portraiture was the bailiwick of the nobility. These people wanted to be remembered by history because of their own personal accomplishments or because of family ties. They spent money to be remembered. This was not an accident. It was a conceit of the class of which they belonged.

Where we find a surprising presence of the lower classes is in the engravings of the period and in the new “still life” genre. And it is in the middle class that such historical re-enactment sites as Williamsburg (Virginia) and Plymouth (Massachusetts) devote such care to reconstruct. It is from such sources that one can extrapolate information regarding middle and lower class life.

The study of clothing begins with the nobility. If you see and understand what was worn by the noble class, then you realize that the clothing of the lower classes was ultimately a simpler and less sophisticated continuation of the same styles. The clothing of the Middle and Lower classes “aped their betters”. For example, you will find a ruff or a falling band on a chemise (smock) of the under classes. However it took longer for the trickle-down effect of fashion to arrive and once it was established, it took much longer for the style to change. Also, fashion changed slowly for people as they got older. The style you find on a person of twenty years old differs greatly from that of the fashions of a fifty-year-old.

Sumptuary laws attempted to restrict the styles of fashion with varying degrees of success. The lower class could not obtain certain items, such as lace, silver and gold trim or cloth of gold, simply because of the excessive cost. However, to a wealthy merchant with money to spend, clothing was often the source of stiff penalties in the form of fines. The result: the Crown’s coffers were enriched when the fine was paid. But the merchant class continued to wear their rich clothing, despite the outrage of the nobility and the condemnations from the pulpit. And the merchant class was satisfied with the arrangement because, despite the cost of the fine, the fine clothes that they wore allowed them to look prosperous, successful and noteworthy. It also allowed the merchant class to, visually if not actually, reach beyond their station.

We must remember that the late 16th and early 17th Centuries were tumultuous times in England. Though it was not a time of war, there were political pressures abounding. The waning years of Elizabeth’s reign exacerbated the debate and fears fueled by her lack of a successor. The selection of James VI of Scotland may seem to be a logical choice to us 400 years in retrospect. But at the time there was much opposition from the populace to a “foreign” King ruling England. Not since the unfortunate days of Queen Mary I had a foreigner been titled King of England. Philip I of Spain, despite his desires to the contrary, had little personal power under the agreement that forged the marriage between Catholic Mary and himself. After her death, five years into the marriage, he lost all power he had ever had over England. This reverted entirely to Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth. So, England, by the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, had been ruled by an Englishwoman for the entirety of most peoples’ lives. It struck fear into the hearts of many that a Scot, despite his clear English lineage, would come to be called King.

James knew of these feelings. His personal wardrobe included heavily padded doublets that protected him from assassination attempts. His progress from Scotland to England to take possession of the English throne brought a gleam to his eyes when he saw the peaceful, prosperous land that had been Elizabeth’s legacy to him. Since he had been raised to think of himself as an absolute monarch (a Stuart failing), he saw and perceived it to be “all his”.

During this time, actually a holdover from the later dark days of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, the political climate became uncomfortable for those who disagreed with the Royal Opinion – especially in matters of religion. We in the Twenty-first Century really cannot conceive of the importance that religion held in the minds and hearts of the people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Religion started their lives, from the day that they were baptized, and religion ended their lives when they received Last Rites and were buried under the rites of the Church. The names of the religions might have changed and the ceremonies altered, but the importance of religion in the daily lives of the Englishman never faded. It was during this period of time that the concept of a “personal religion” came to the forefront. We of this century have filled our lives with a new philosophy, that of humanism. It was this humanism that began to take shape in the late 16th Century – contemporaneous with the eras of Henry, Elizabeth and later Charles, James’ son and heir.

But what does religion and politics have to do with the clothing, you might ask? Everything. A man or woman, of whatever status or class, was immediately identified and categorized by what he or she wore. The simple elegance of the Puritan was as much a statement as the lace-encrusted foppishness of the Cavalier courtier. Their philosophies and their politics and their personal wealth were reflected in their clothing. Truly clothes made the man (and woman)!

With this brief historical overview, I encourage you to continue your study into the clothing of the middle and lower classes in England of the late 16th and early 17th centuries using the Bibliography below.


Burgers, Jacqueline: Wenceslaus Hollar: Seventeenth Century Prints from the Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Alexandria: Art Services International, 1994.

Jones, Jeanne: Family Life in Shakespeare’s England: Stratford- upon Avon 1570 – 1630. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1996.

Hibbert, Christopher: Charles I. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

McLeod, Kirsty: Drums and Trumpets: The House of Stuart. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd., 1977.

Schneider, Norbert: Still Life. Loln: Taschen, 1994.

Sim, Alison: The Tudor Housewife. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996.

Walters, Kate: Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy. New York: Scholastic Publishers 1993.

Walters, Kate: Sara Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl.New York: Scholastic Publishers, 1989.

Watson, D.R.: The Life and Times of Charles I. London: Book Club Associates, 1972.