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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Ruff

Object 47 - Arguably the most recognisable item of clothing from the early modern period, the ruff was a key fashion accessory for both wealthy men and women.

Stephanie Appleton

Today’s post was written by Stephanie Appleton, studying for her PhD in History at University of Birmingham’s Shakespeare Institute.

Petruchio: … And now, my honey love,
Will we return unto thy father’s house
And revel it as bravely as the best,
With silken coats and caps, and golden rings,
With ruffs and cuffs and farthingales and things,
With scarfs and fans and double change of brav’ry.
With amber bracelets, beads, and all this knav’ry.

(The Taming of the Shrew, Act 4 Scene 3)

A portrait of a lady in deep cut green dress with a high ruff, about 1616, in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collection.

Continuing the clothing theme of my last blog (about a bodkin), which introduced a seventeenth-century silver bodkin, my post this week focuses on arguably the most recognisable item of clothing from the early modern period: the ruff. The ruff was a key accessory for both men and women of the wealthier sort at this time and this early seventeenth-century portrait in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust shows a well-attired lady displaying her elaborate neckwear to its full advantage.

Ruffs were made from fine linen which was starched to hold its place when pleated, with the finished article being stitched directly onto the neckband. Elaborate lacework might be added as an extra detail, and an example of such lacework can be seen in this ruff edging in the V&A Collection. Very often cuffs for sleeves were made to match a ruff: together these were called a ‘suit’, and Shakespeare has Petruchio make reference to this trend in The Taming of the Shrew, above.

The style of the ruff evolved across the period, beginning simply as the ruffles which appeared when a shirt or chemise was tied at the neck, with the fashion tending towards larger and larger examples as the sixteenth century progressed. Such extremes of fashion attracted the disapproval of moralists. The puritan commentator Phillip Stubbes, writing in 1583, railed against these “great and monsterous ruffes... that they stand a full quarter of a yarde (and more) from their necks”. He mocks how “they goe flip flap in the winde, like rags flying abroad” and concludes that “The devil, as he in the fulnes of his malice, first invented these great ruffes”.

In fact, ruffs became so large at one point that yet another accessory was needed to hold them in place and maintain their upright position: called a rebato or supportasse, this wire frame was attached to the neckband and the ruff was then pinned onto it, to ensure that it would be held firmly in place.

Due to their proximity to the face, ruffs soiled very quickly and required frequent laundering. This was a time-consuming and expensive process which required the ruff to be completely unstitched, washed, restarched, and then restitched into place. The cost of maintaining the ruff’s immaculate presentation helped to reinforce its status as a high end piece of clothing.

Other European countries like Spain and Holland retained the stiff, upright ruff well into the seventeenth century, but by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in England the fashion was evolving once more. Rather than displaying large, upright neckwear, it became fashionable instead for collars to fall down over the shoulders of the wearer, on the outside of their clothing.