The Jacobean Era

Following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, the new reign of James I and VI began. This change united the English and Scottish crowns, replaced the Tudor with the Stuart dynasty in England, and brought James’ wife, Anna of Denmark, to the English court. The new queen loved court masques, and several were put on during the first few years of James’ reign. This sparked a strong trend in portraiture for elite women to be painted in costume, in outfits designed to resemble the masque costumes of the court performances. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of ‘masque style’ portrait, and a precursor to this trend, is the Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I, thought to have been painted not long before Elizabeth’s death, sometime around the turn of the century.

As time passed, new distinguishing features marked the changing fashions of the period. For women, waistlines rose, the silhouette became shorter and wider, sleeves first became slimmer and then began to billow in size and drop down from the shoulder. Collars changed shape too, and ruffs became even more large and impressive than in previous decades.

A fashion for very elaborate embroidered jackets gripped the elite and middle ranks of both genders, and particularly for rich, scrolling patterns of floral motifs.

Another intriguing fashion led some women to adopt elements of masculine dress, such as masculine-style hats and cloaks, and some even cut their hair short – leading some contemporary commentators to respond with criticism or satire on ‘hermaphrodite’ dress. This thrilling vogue was also embodied by the semi biographical character of Moll Cutpurse, who became a famous persona of story and stage, and later inspired Daniel Defoe’s life and times of Moll Flanders. Ms Cutpurse was a fearsome character – a lady criminal who dressed in men’s clothing, smoked a pipe and kept her loaded pistols with her at all times.

In fact, brilliant characters of all kinds abounded during this period. For the ordinary ranks who could not enjoy the lavish performances of the the masques at court, tickets could be bought to attend the public theatres, and enjoy the output of Shakespeare, Marlow, and many others. Actors wore the real, expensive clothing of the nobility on stage. This was sometimes bought second-hand, and sometimes given by wealthy patrons as part of their support, and always a good investment. Rich clothing held its value well, and for an actor a good wardrobe was both a valuable tool of his trade and a potential retirement fund. This made the theatre a place to enjoy not just exciting performances and beautiful dialogue, but fantastic fashion as well.