Tudor Talk

Last Friday  21 October we presented our Tudor Talk for a ladies group in Brancepeth.

My talk included Tudor Underwear and costumes inspired by King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.

Quite a few questions after my talk were relating to the Tudor Under garments and laundering of the clothes.

What did they wear under their outer garments?

Could the clothing be washed?

Did the ladies wear any type of knickers?

How were the skirts held out?

The chemise, called a “smock” or “shift” in the 16th century, was a simple garment was worn next to the skin to protect clothing from sweat and body oils. As Elizabethans rarely indulged in full-body baths, and as the clothing of the middle and upper classes was not the kind one could pound on a river rock or scrub regularly with ashes and lye soap, the chemise was vital to Elizabethan costume.Smocks were made of fine linen, as fine as the wearer could afford. Many of the better smocks were made of what we now call “handkerchief-weight” linen. Lawn, cypress and holland were three 16th c. varieties of sheer linen used for fine smocks.

Extant chemise


These smocks hung to just about knee to calf-length, on average. This is a square -necked gathered smock – it has a  very voluminous body and sleeves, I have gathered the fabric into a square neckband and wristbands. It was sometimes pulled through the slashing of the outer garments during this period.Resistance to fungus and bacteria – Linen has natural antibacterial properties and that is why it is used in medicine. It also acts against the bacteria that make you smell. Regarding washing of the garments – the silk and heavily embellished fabrics could not be washed.  They outer garments were heavy to don and doff, stiff and uncomfortable to wear and to be honest very smelly.  Without the essential chemise next to the skin they would have been even worse



This corset has been inspired by the corset found on the ‘effigy’ of Elizabeth the First. I have designed a tabbed waist corset, which is the type which is the easiest to wear. The tabs distribute pressure so the corset does not ‘dig in’ at the waist. The Elizabethan corset gave a period shape to the body and had straps to help lift the breasts. It was made of linen (I have constructed it in cotton twill or linen. Spring steel boning has been inserted into channels to give strength.  During the 16th century corsets were stiffened with whalebone, reeds, steel or rope. I have used binding on the edges as Elizabeth’s corset was bound with leather. The lacing holes are reinforced with sturdy cotton thread and the corset is laced with cord.

To create the correct shape for clothes of the period a Spanish Farthingale was worn. This was a bell-shaped hoop skirt worn under the skirts of well-to-do women during the Tudor and Elizabethan era. From 1530 to 1580, the farthingale played an important part in shaping the fashionable silhouette. (First Farthingale worn by Joan of Portugal to hide pregnancy – had two illegitimate children)

The Spanish Farthingale, as its name suggests, originated in Spain. Tradition holds that the Spanish Farthingale arrived in England in the 1520s, introduced by Katharine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s future queen. It is true that, beginning in the 1530s, clear evidence of hoop skirts worn by English noblewomen begin to appear in court paintings and portraits.



The pattern for this farthingale is from Juan de Alcega’s Tailor’s Pattern Book, published in 1589. It has been created from sections of calico – which are cut and then pieced together.  The sections of fabric are placed so that no bias seams are sewn to each other. This was to eliminate the sagging which two bias seams sewn together would inevitably experience. I have cut additional pieces of fabric, 2 inches wide, to match the length of each piece of boning to create casings for the stiffening.After everything is sewn together, the farthingale would have been gathered at the top and the raw edges bound with a strip of fabric.  It is reasonable to say that the opening would have been in the back or in the front for a front-lacing corset.Three materials were known to be used for stiffening farthingales in Elizabeth’s time: rope, bent rope, and whalebone. Most recreation farthingales are made using hoop skirt boning. Hoop skirt boning is 1/2-inch-wide stiffened canvas or plastic with spring steel along the edges. It is very stiff and can hold out the heaviest of skirts, yet is lighter than other boning materials. After the boning is inserted the casings are tacked close.  The boning can however be easily removed so the farthingale can be washed.


A Bumroll, which, as its name suggests, was a roll tied around the bum, was an essential piece of Tudor and Elizabethan underwear. In Elizabethan times, it was more commonly called a “rowle”; “bumroll” is the modern term for the item. A bumroll is made from a crescent shape of non-stretchy fabric such as calico which is stuffed with wadding and has ties attached to the ends.



The first hard evidence of a separate roll worn around the hips are a reference to them in Elizabeth’s wardrobe accounts from 1580. It was tied around the hips to make a woman’s skirt swell out becomingly at the waistline before falling to the ground. It was used throughout the 16th century and into the 17th, and considered an essential aid to fashionable dress. Elizabeth I wore one with her gold gowns.

Gold Elizabeth I Gown

Gold Elizabeth I Gown

By the way no type of panties or knickers were worn – If you are interested – the first type of this type of underwear were in a form of leggings or long drawers, they originated in France in the early 19th century, and quickly spread to Britain and America. Without the correct underwear, the shape of the dress of the period would be unable to be achieved so it is a very important part of the costumes.

You simply can’t look like Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn or Mary Queen of Scots without the right foundation garments. If you make the attempt, the most you’ll achieve is the look of a poor and cheaply made fancy dress costume: A lumpy and ill-fitting mess. It’s impossible to achieve the lines of an Elizabethan gown without a corset (as well as a host of other “underpinnings” such as bumrolls, farthingales, or hoops).

I would like to thank the super ladies of the group especially Janet for their help in setting up the costume display.

I had a great time chatting to them all afterwards – I also enjoyed a couple of cakes, fruit cheese and two glasses of Elder flower wine with them as well  – beautiful!

We really appreciated your kind hospitality and hope we meet again!





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