Customs of Female Nobility

The Pirate King's Notes on the life of the
Female Upper Class European Nobility
during the Renaissance

A lady within the European upper class or Nobility was a person of rank and distinction.

She was often the administrator of vast estates when her lord was gone, or she did so in her own right. She was well educated and her opinions were respected. Ladies of the Court were a power to be reckoned with as they were clever, witty and politically aware, as well as being beautifully dressed. They were fully a match for the men they lived with, as long as they remained aware of their place in a "manís world".

When a great lady arose in the morning, she removed her night or bed gown and night-cap, and was helped by her servant into her partlet or shift. Night gowns, specifically for sleeping in, were introduced into the Court of England from France by Anne Boleyn. The lady's chemise was made of the very finest linen, cotton, or silk, and was often so delicately woven as to seem like gauze. They were sometimes embroidered or sewn with pearls. Married ladies wore their chemises closed, and single ladies wore theirs open.

After the chemise was put on, the next things to be put on were the petticoat, farthingale and more petticoats. The tightly laced corset took care of any unsightly bumps or bulges, and pushed up the breasts for all to see. Then went on the elaborately decorated underskirt, overskirt, bodice and sleeves.

Many ladies wore the Spanish Surcote over all this, especially in cold weather, or they wore the closed surcote by itself over the shift as a casual at-home or maternity gown.

Her hosen were hand-knitted of silk or worsted and were vey costly. She wore soft leather shoes with 1"-2" heels, or low heeled slippers made of velvet, satin, or fine Spanish Cordovan leather. They would be further embellished with shoe roses or jeweled buckles. She wore chopines over slippers if she went out walking in the muddy streets.

Her face was heavily made up with the rather primitive and decidedly dangerous cosmetics of the time. The look was for pale skin, pink cheeks, red lips, and large, dark expressive eyes.

White lead was the main ingredient in the foundation, and it pitted the skin, causing more than one lady's early death. Fulminate of Mercury was used to peel off the skin pitted by the lead and give the lady a smooth complexion again. Ladies put drops of belladonna in their eyes to make them look bigger. Hair dye was used by some ladies, but the substances used sometimes caused the hair to fallout!

Hair was dressed in a variety of styles from short and curly in the front to long, straight and one length. Hair was usually parted in the middle, brushed down over the ears, and pulled into a bun at the nape of the neck.

Hats were worn by everyone. Any female over the age of thirteen wore some kind of head covering. The most popular styles were the flat cap and the French Hood. Court ladies would sometimes wear a long, pearl-edged gauzy veil over a diadem. For hunting, they bundled up their hair into a net and securely pinned on a flat cap or other hunting hat over that. Although they are not remotely period, sunhats are considered acceptable headgear. If you want to maintain realism, and brave the sunshine, period hats are preferred.

She would have hanging from her girdle (belt) a pomander, fan, maybe a small purse, hand mirror, handkerchief, or scissors and needle-case combination. Fans were made of feathers or cloth and were shaped like a flat circle or oval on a stick (Folding fans originated in the Orient, and had not yet been introduced to England). They had fans woven of straw most often.

Pomanders were pierced metal balls with scent inside, or a dried orange or lemon studded with cloves and placed in an embroidered or jeweled velvet covering. They were used to keep away "bad airs" which they thought carried diseases. In a time when people seldom bathed and streets were an open sewer, they might not have been far wrong.

The lady would wear scented gloves made of leather that were slit over the tops of her fingers rings. When she went outside on a rare, sunny mask over her face to avoid sunburn. This guarantee her anonymity if she so desired. Jewelry was abundant, including gold chains, bracelets, necklaces, brooches, rings, strands of pearls, earrings, jeweled buttons, girdles and tips for her points. After she was dressed, it was a wonder that she could move at all.

It must be remembered that a great lady did no work with hands more strenuous than needlework. However, remember that ordinary day wear, even for a noble lady, was less ornate and confining than her finest gown for Court appearances.


A shift-'or chemise was a womans' s basic garment, no matter what class she belonged to. It was the first thing she put on in the morning, .~ and the last thing she took off at night, assuming that she took it off at all. Lower class women had the habit of keeping their shifts on day and night, for the sake of warmth and convenience. The upper classes, with their warmer rooms, often slept in their skins, or in a kind of night-gown, called a "bed-gown".

A shift could be designed with a low or high neckline, be made of coarse linen or fine silk, be plain or embroidered, collarless, or made with a collar that had a narrow ruffle at the neck. The low necked shift was worn by lower class and lower middle class women only, and could usually be pulled higher on the neck by tightening the drawstring (if it was designed with one). The high necked shift (also called at this time a Chemise) with or without a collar and cuffs, would have been worn by men of any class, as well as the women described. Womenís shifts can be anywhere from hip to floor length.

For comfort's sake, we suggest that you make your shift out of 100% cotton or other natural fiber that breathes. Polyester and poly-blend fabrics look good and are easy to care for. Unfortunately, they do not 'breathe' well allowing your body to cool itself off.


Women of the Court should wear fabrics of fine quality such as taffeta, satin, silk, brocade and velvet. The colors should be bright but not gaudy or glaring. They may also wear cloth of gold or silver in small quantities. Real gold and silver cloth would be very expensive and would have been used sparingly. The use of purple fabric, of any shade, is restricted to members of the royal family. Black dye was rare and very expensive; it was, therefore, worn only on very formal occasions. The custom of being buried in black and wearing black at funerals may have stemmed from this. Indigo dye was one of the only dyes grown in England. This made blue fabric cheap and readily available.

Anyone of high birth, status or ambition avoided that shade of blue because peasants wore a lot of it. White makes beautiful clothing, but is not recommended because it will always be dirty on the Faire site. Fabrics which are printed or even look printed are not to be used. Printing on fabric had not yet been invented and therefore, will not be allowed. Brocade designs and woven fabrics which are reminiscent of another period, i.e. plaid or paisley, etc., will not be allowed.

When choosing fabric, ask yourself if it could have been made in the sixteenth century? If the answer is no, or you are not certain, don't buy it.

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