The 16th century might seem to be overflowed with magnificent Tudors, curly Italian Renaissance nobles, finely dressed reformers or colorful mercenaries. But the finest woolen, the golden brocade and the velvet was dedicated for the privileged few. Most people in Europe were of the more simple kind.
Although 16th century is a period known for it’s experimental playfulness when it comes to fashion among both highborn and low, that doesn’t mean the strict medieval rules surrounding clothing and fabrics in any way disappeared. On the contrary. The newly found consumerism did force the higher classes in society to enforce strict sumptuary laws, making sure the the finest accessories and fabrics remained a privilege for the chosen few. Breaking these sumptuary rules in the lower classes meant either a loss of property (the garment being confiscated) or a fine, working as a strain on a member of the working classes. A person of lower status could not purchase the “rights” to a specific item or material.
Sumptuary laws “regulated clothing, ornamentation, food, drink, and other forms of luxury, imposing a hierarchy of consumption. These laws prohibited certain ranks of persons from wearing specified cloths, garments, or ornamentation. Typically, the rarest furs were reserved for royal families, lesser furs for nobles, and inferior furs for commoners”. An English proclamation of 1559 stipulated:
“None shall wear in his apparel any cloth of gold, silver, or tinsel; satin, silk, or cloth mixed with gold or silver, nor any sables; except earls and all of superior degrees.”
In England 1510, for example, “Parliament passed an extensive and detailed law regulating the wearing of all sorts of fabrics and of trim from fur to gold and silver. This law was amended and added to in 1514 and again in 1515 and 1553”.
This meant that commoners most definitely couldn’t, and wouldn’t, dress as extravagant as the nobles or classes above them. Lower classes, such as laborers and apprentices would wear linen, a light, cool fabric derived from the flax plant, wool, or sheepskin.
But how did the commoner, and the truly poor, dress and look like during the 16th century? This question intrigued me to look into depictions of the 16th century paupers and peasants. (As my collection of depictions from this period is predominately northern European, it’s reflected here as well). Enjoy: