What Tudor man wore

Monday, April 15, 2013

Stephanie Richards and Kellie Black explain the Tudor man's wardrobe

Remember the traditional cut out doll? Enjoy Kellie Black's take on a historical feature from the May 2013 issue of The Dolls' House magazine. Costume expert Stephanie Richards provides the history lesson.


We tend to associate the fashion police with modern times, but there is nothing new under the sun. In Tudor England there were Sumptuary Laws detailing who was allowed to wear what. How about encouraging home industry over foreign imports? No, not new either. 'No man under Lord shall wear any kind of woollen cloth made outside this Realm of England, Ireland, Wales and Calais'. For example, the Royal family were the only people who could wear ermine. If you were male, over six years old, and under the rank of Lord, you had to wear a cap of English wool on Sunday.

Colours were regulated as well as fabrics. Bright red and indigo came from expensive dyes and like velvet and silk, were restricted to upper classes. Lower class colours included reddish brown from rose madder root and blue from woad leaves. (Just to encourage compliance, you got three days in the stocks for disobedience.) These laws were not all about boosting English commerce. A person's status was inextricably linked to what they wore; no one was allowed to dress above their station.

Status dressing

To illustrate I would like to introduce Mr Lower, and Mr Lord. Mr Lower, a manual labourer, needed freedom of movement in his clothes. Mr Lord, a peer of the Realm, could be less concerned about this and carry on wearing bright red velvet and indigo silk covered in gold embroidery. In considering a typical outfit for Mr Lord and Mr Lower we'll see what a world of Tudor difference there was between them.

Download Mr Lord paper doll here

Download Mr Lower paper doll here


Mr Lord's apparel started with linen shorts and a shirt. Breeches were to the knee and secured to his doublet by leather or braided linen laces called points. The points were threaded through eyelets and tipped with metal ends called aiglets, which made them easier to lace. His hose were knitted silk, with garters tied in a side bow below the knee. Mr Lower wore breeches and a loose tunic, which he also slept in, woollen stockings and garters. Both wore a codpiece. This practical piece of clothing was a flap laced to the upper hose. It was often decorated and could be used as a purse.

Sleeveless jerkins came next. Mr Lord wore his over a high collared doublet with padded shoulders and slashed sleeves. He would wear brightly coloured shirts to show the slashing effect off to its best advantage. Mr Lower might have a buff jerkin, so called because of the yellowish colour of the thick cowhide. Mr Lord would then add a starched fine linen ruff, a pair of decorated Spanish leather gloves, a dagger and a velvet hat, adorned on the upturned brim by a jewelled pin, and a short cape worn on one shoulder. The whole ensemble completed by his flat velvet or leather shoes. Mr Lower completed his ensemble by putting on his cloth shoes.

Wear to work

Merchants were rich traders. They wore linen shirts and either wool or thick twilled cloth called fustian for outer garments. Over doublet and breeches would go a sleeveless fur trimmed coat. They wore fur caps outdoors, wool caps inside. From their belt hung a metal purse bar with a drawstring leather or cloth purse. A poor street trader who sold fish wore a coarse linen apron, with sacking tied round his waist to help protect his clothes from his basket of fish.

Bishops sported floor length fur trimmed over gowns. Linen preaching bands at the neck and a soft square black cap completed their garb. Barber Surgeons performed operations, bloodletting and dentistry. They were lower in status than a doctor and wore a large apron and a broad brimmed, flat crowned hat. Yeoman farmers owned their own land, so could afford wide brimmed hats, leather shoes and belts, sheepskin jerkins and perhaps a cloak. Farm labourers wore homespun cloth tunics, coarse woollen breeches and a felt cap. Sailors sported a canvas jacket and breeches made from a canvas and wool mix cloth called kersey.

Off the peg

For those who could buy, there was a wide choice of materials and ready-made goods.

English Wool came from Yorkshire and the West Country and was known as the best in Europe. Finest quality wool cloth was called Scarlet, which could only be worn by wealthy noblemen. It was produced in many colours, but red was the most common and in time the name passed to the colour. Broadcloth was made in Worcester. Linen was produced in Lancashire. Manchester contributed garters, laces, ribbons and thread. Hand knitted stockings came from the Cotswolds. English embroidery was used on hankies and on sweet smelling herb bags used to mask smells. Silks from the East Indies came from Spanish and Portuguese traders. Peddlers brought lace from Brussels. From Russia came fur; wolf, lynx and Siberian sable. Home grown fur included beaver, bear and badger. Leather shoes tended to be English leather, their soles made from leather or cork. Bermondsey in London was the place to go for leather, though the rich could have their shoes and thigh length boots made from fine Spanish Cordoba leather.

Cloth and wash

So where would our gentlemen (or their lady wives) go to acquire materials for their clothes? Mrs Lord would go to a mercer or a draper. Mercers dealt in best quality cloth, linens, silks and fustian. Drapers sold cloth retail or wholesale. Buttons and needles came from the haberdasher. Mrs Lower used coarse woollen cloth from homespun yarn. Second hand clothes were passed on to others and the theft of garments from communal drying fields was not unknown. Clothing was held to be so valuable that one such thief was sentenced to have his hands cut off. Sometimes clothing came with the job. Farm labourers were partially paid in clothes and sailors who were mustered to fight against the Armada in 1588, were given a blue coat by Elizabeth 1.

After acquiring and wearing clothes comes washday. Clothes were washed in a tub with soap made from animal fat and ashes or a lather made from the soapwort plant. Soap was too harsh for fine cloth so clothes were cleaned depending on their fabric. Some items were simply aired and brushed. 

If you had any clothes that you weren't actually wearing, they would be stored in oak chests. Mr Lord would own an elaborately carved example. Some chests had drawers and some had legs to keep them off the filthy floor. Inside, cotton pouches were used to store fragile items like hose. Larger garments were protected in a satin case strengthened with buckram. If Mr Lower had a chest, it would be plain wooden boards. Everyone used herbs in the chests to help mask smells.

Gramercy, Mr Lord and Mr Lower.

 How much?

Q. How much was a yard of Scarlet wool in Tudor times? 

A. 36 shillings and eight pence (equivalent to £400 a metre today).


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