Queen Elizabeth’s What Not To Wear

Life at Greenwich Palace in Tudor times was one long party. Masques and balls, plays and concerts, tilts and jousts, the palace saw them all. And if you were a courtier, you had to look the part. Women trussed themselves up in farthingales and bum rolls, iron corsets and stiff collars, but the men really went to town.

No expense was spared displaying fine calves, saucy thighs and sundry other eye-popping areas of interest. Silks and satins, damasks and velvets; yards of fabric went into creating an attractive set of bulges, and as the time wore on, the puffy pants and paunchy peascods got bigger and bigger. Padding went from the discreet to the ridiculous as every courtier tried to catch the Queen’s eye. And you certainly didn’t want to be caught wearing the same codpiece twice.

Trouble was, that this was also the beginning of the rise of the ‘merchant class’ – that nasty, dirty ‘new’ money – and as some members (ahem) of the middle classes became wealthier they, too, wanted to get in on the puffy-pants look. It was all getting A Bit Out Of Hand.

It all came to a head in 1566, when Elizabeth decided to lay the law down over exactly how big your codpiece should be. She called a “grave conclave” at Greenwich Palace to create a set of rules for what who could wear.

At first it was decided to bring to ‘the public’s’ (read ‘the plebs’) notice that the laws Henry VIII made against excess of apparel (he could talk) still held firm. But it was decided that that obviously wasn’t enough. Embroidery, gold-pricking and especially a passion for fringing, were getting extremely garish indeed. More stringent regulations needed to be created.

First they had to create a hierarchy in fabric – to make sure no one wore anything fancier than their station.

1) No one under the degree of baron or knight of the garter shall wear any woollen cloth made out of this realm, except in bonnets only.

2) No one under the degree of a baron’s son or knight, except that he have a clear £200 a year (so money did talk at least a little) shall wear any velvet in his gown or coat or any embroidery or pricking with gold, silver, or silk on his apparel or horse-trappings (i.e.- don’t think you can get away with dressing up your horse instead of yourself…)

3) No serving-man, husbandman or journeyman shall wear in his doublet anything but fustian, canvas, leather or woollen cloth.

Elizabeth rubbed her chin to think of suitable penalties for disobedience on the clothes line. She decided that anyone under the degree of the son and heir of a knight who wore silk in his hat (or night cap – no peeking now…) had to pay £20 a day fine and be imprisoned for three months. If you happened to employ such an upstart, you would be fined £100.

Trouble was, she figured, people would just get round the grade of cloth by having more of it – sending the puffy pants to even more enormous sizes and codpieces to Blackadder Black-Russian proportions. Never mind the quality, feel the fringing…

So the size of the trunks had to be regulated too. No one under the rank of baron should have more than a yard and a quarter of cloth in the upper parts of his hose, which must not exceed ‘in compass’ one yard and half a quarter. They could have no more than two linings – cutting out the possibility of extreme padding – and no one under the rank of baron should have any silk or satin in them, no embroidery and absolutely no fringing.

This last regulation, of course, as a by-product, curtailed the burgeoning craze of Ye Lyne Dancinge, which, although massively popular in the early parts of the reign, having been brought back from the New World by Sir Walter Raleigh, suffered a complete collapse with the banishment of fringing, only finally gaining popularity in the late 20th Century when cowboy hats and dodgy boots were finally permitted by our present Queen. The knock-on effect was that all the lyne-danceres took up Sir Walter’s other imports, smoking and potatoes, which means that Elizabeth I was pretty much directly responsible for lung cancer and the obesity crisis.

The “grave conclave” by the Elizabethan Fashion Stasi at Greenwich seemed to many like they were just raining on everyone parades, but there was at least one sensible measure (some might argue the fringing-regulation was also not before time.)

Another fashion, which puts the current tend for knives by teenagers into some kind of perspective, was for carrying swords of ridiculous lengths around gentlemen’s waists, and of course the hoi-poloi copied them. They got in the way all the time, cut the fringing off a couple of barons’ country & western shirts and had several people’s eyes out before the grave conclave decided to do something about it. No blade longer than a yard and half a quarter long was to be carried. Phew. That must have made everyone feel a lot safer.

I can’t help thinking a grave conclave for the 21st century wouldn’t go amiss. My particular choice would be those jeans teenagers wear that are so baggy they hang off their arses, somewhere about their knees. Oh – and drop-waist jeans for girls. NO ONE looks good in them. No one.

One Comment to “Queen Elizabeth’s What Not To Wear”

  1. rockey says:

    haha great article, really funny xD