Customs of Male Nobility

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

Social standing was a subject much debated, rank being considered much more significant than nationality or even color. "We divide our people commonly into four sorts", wrote William Harrison. At the summit were the nobles. Fashion follows power. Rich men who chose to dress in somber hues were rare.

The Sumptuary Laws passed by Henry VIII in 1510 which decreed that Cloth of gold, of silk and purple were for the royal family. Only dukes and above could have tissue of cloth of gold, only earls and above could wear sables, and no one below the rank of baron could wear gold, silver, satin, silk or mixed cloth. Crimson and blue velvet were for the Order of the Garter and its superiors. Only mayors and officials were entitled to velvet gowns and marten's fur. The "square" look began to spread in the early 1500's.

Gowns became wider, sleeves bigger, and shoes square in the toe. It was a masculine look for it made males much broader and bulkier than most could be by natural means. Generally worn loose with the fronts folded back into deep lapels, the chemise (coat) assisted in creating the square silhouette characteristic of the early sixteenth century. It was made with two layers of fabric and interlining of padding or "stuffs." The outside was of heavy silk, while the lining was linen. The padding was usually horsehair though sometimes it was straw. The doublet was cut wide at the front, without buttons, displaying the shirt and stomacher and it gained deeply pleated skirts. The skirts skimmed the knee to cover up except the skirt did not conceal the codpiece.

The codpiece was an elaborate functional bulge, joining the two halves of upper stock (hose) above the crotch. This puffed, slashed, padded grotesque breeches-closing continued in style despite censoring and banning by the church. It was a bag or box that concealed the front opening of breeches. Elaborately decorated it was secured by lacing or buttons. The container served to hold money, handkerchief and sometimes bonbons.

The upper part of the figure was also made to appear square, bulky and broad-shouldered by heavily padding the sleeves. Puffing and slashes in the increased the illusion of a strong masculine figure. Sleeve styles were the same as those of the doublets, and there were also sleeves that had cross slits at the elbows or a long vertical slit on the outside. Arms could be withdrawn from the long cumbersome sleeves through these slits, allowing more freedom of movement.

A linen shirt gathered high around the neckline, or square, embroidery-edged neckline was worn next to the body. Brief padded, slashed a puffed breeches known as pumpkin breeches were worn over thigh length tubes (upper stock) with hose covering the rest of the legs and feet.

Late in the fifteenth century, the pointy-toed poulaine was discarded and replaced by the broad-toed slipper known as the duck's bill. The duck's bill became excessively wide. At one time these ankle strap slippers measured twelve inches across at the toes. They were worn by men and made of silks, brocades, and velvets, heavily embroidered, padded, slashed and puffed.

To keep from walking on their toes, men were forced into a duck's waddling gait. Those worn for the popular game of tennis were soled with felt. Another type of shoe was very low-cut around the heel, and many were made like "mules", with no back. Boots to the ankle, calf or ending in turn-over tops above the knee, were of soft leather and much wrinkled, forming clumsy leg coverings. They were used mainly for travelling, riding and hunting.

The "flat-cap", a head covering in use by all classes from the 1530's onward, had a shallow, soft crown and small unsegmented brim lying flat. It could be put on straight or tilted. It was worn by apprentices and artisans in utilitarian materials, but the well-to-do wore velvet, often with a jeweled band or large jeweled brooches held the plumes to the crown, standing erect or trailing off the brim at the back.

Noble men wore large jeweled neck-chains, made to fit across the collar bones or shoulders rather than around the neck, and sometimes to hold the two sides of a cloak in place; pendants, lockets and miniatures hung over the doublet on similar chains; finer chains, holding less conspicuous jewels; rings for fingers and thumbs; and a single earring, usually a pearl drop, made up the sum of the jewelry worn by men. In addition, belts, sword and dagger hilts and their scabbards and sheaths, hat bands and gloves could be jeweled; and jewels were sewn into the decorative patterns of garments. Gloves, of gauntlet shape, were made of leather or of silk, wool or velvet and were often perfumed. They could be carried in the belt, which could also hold the purse and the large lawn handkerchief, edged with lace or fringe, often with a tassel at each corner.


Velvet, brocade, damask (often in two colors), taffetas, satin and plain or watered silk were among the most popular stuffs for making the clothes of the well-to-do. Cloth of gold, colored silk or gauze woven with gold or silver thread, and gold or silver tissue shot with such colors as violet, green or crimson were among the stuffs worn by people of rank. All colors were available and yellow was especially in favor, as were its variants of parchment color, orange, amber and saffron. Taffeta was woven with a raised, velvety surface cut into patterns in a different color from the ground and this treatment was copied in less expensive materials. Crinkled crepe was known, also watered silk and parti-coloured weave, made to look like marble and known as "marbled" silk.

In more sober dress the fashion was for cloths with a thick pile, plush, mohair and tufted or knotted surfaces. Brown, greys, russets, dull blue and dun color contrasted in them with brighter shades. In addition, all the ordinary kinds of wool, linen and some cotton were in use. Lace was in great demand for the delicate edgings of caps, collars, cuffs and standing ruffs. Hats and "bonnets" were made of beaver, felt, smooth fur, velvet, damask and any durable woolen or silken stuff, and stiffened with buckram or canvas, or sometimes starched or stuffed with paper.

Slashing, the most characteristic ornament of the period, was at its height in the second quarter of the century.

Pinking was the piercing and edging of small holes, arranged in a pattern. Small circular ornaments such as metal rings, buttons or beads could be applied in patterns. Tabbed or scalloped edges and borders of fur were very usual trimmings. Bands of embroidered or plain stuff (guards) might be sewn on in parallel lines, or parallel slashing (panes) used to give the opposite effect.

Embroidery and fine needlework were widely practiced arts in this century and was often done in colors, in black on a colored surface, or in metal thread. Jewels, particularly pearls, were lavishly used as trimming but were not necessarily real. Motifs included conventionalized as well as naturalistic presentations of flowers, fruit birds and animals. Cutwork, (the edges of material joined by strips in a cut-out geometrical design) was used as a method of seaming as well as for decoration, and seams were frequently covered by ornament of one kind or another.

One of the most famous examples of court competition for glory came in 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when Henry VIII met Francois I of France (whose beard he had copied) and displayed so much cloth of gold, an expensive fabric woven with silk and gold thread, that the site of the meeting was named after it ("the Field of the Cloth of Gold").

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