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England was a very interesting place to live during the time just before, during and just after Shakespeare lived in the sixteenth century (1550-1650). During this time period the country of England went through a total of eight rulers including: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I who was also famously know as “Bloody Mary”, Elizabeth I, James I, and Charles I. During this period it was easy for one to decipher what social class a person was in by observing how they dressed, and how or what they ate.
How a person dressed during the sixteenth century was very often a good indicator of their social class. This time period saw many rapid changes in fashion, many changing in short periods of time. In the early part of the sixteenth century, the fashions that were most often seen were clothes that had a softer construction such as long flowing gowns, and by the end of the century the fashion had changed significantly to clothes that were very fitted on the top of the garment and bulky or heavy looking toward the middle and bottom of the garment. Fashion in the wealthy class was taken very serious and most of their money went towards buying their clothing. The “Fashion and furniture were influenced by the elegant courts of France and Burgundy”(Caselli p.8) as well Queen Elizabeth I.
Fabric was one of the most important indicators of a social class. During the sixteenth century everybody wore wool; however, the wealthier class wore fine quality wool where as the poor class would wore a coarse wool. Wool was in such a high demand during the sixteenth century it was estimated that there were “three sheep for every human being in England” (Caselli p.12). Expensive fabrics that only the wealthier class could afford included: silk, brocade, velvet, crimson and cotton. Cotton was an expensive fabric during the sixteenth century because it had to imported from the West Indies and the New World. Crimson was a good indicator if a person was of royalty because, “No person except royalty would dare wear crimson except in under-garments, and the middle class were not allowed to wear velvet except for sleeves.” (Calthrop). Often people would add extravagant extras to their clothing such as: lace, ribbons, pearls, cuts, slashes, and puffs. Slashes were a fashion trend that become known as “slashing”, where one would layer clothes and on the outer layer slash out different shapes to show off the fabric that was underneath the top layer. This trend made it possible for one to show off different fabrics or colors of fabrics in one outfit.
Women’s clothing during the sixteenth century showed level of class by the use of puffy or long sleeves, tight bodices around their waste, and the amount of ruffles gathered around the neckline of her dress. Poor workingwomen often wore a simple apron over linen or wool dress. Women of higher class or status often wore hooped skirts with frames that were sometimes made of whalebone called a farthingale. The farthingale was covered with layers of petticoats and fabric; in contrast they wore very tight corsets to give them the smallest waist possible. It is said, “the wealthy in this era look a bit like walking overstuffed furniture.” (Maginnis para. 9). If women could not afford to own a farthingale she would wear a padded roll around their waist called a bum roll. Queen Elizabeth I made it popular to show your class through the amount of ruffles on a dress. When Queen Elizabeth I wore ruffled collars they had a slit in the front, making it easier to eat meals and show of her bosom. This style of dress became very popular in portraits of the Queens following Elizabeth I.
The Sleeves of woman’s blouse or shirt also showed levels of class or status by their pronounced puffiness. The sleeves were made out of multiple pieces of fabric and held together by jeweled fasteners. It was also very popular for women to wear a variety of headdresses, the more elaborate the higher the level of status or class. However, toward the end of the century it became more optional to wear headdresses and was often only worn when the weather permitted it.
Men’s clothing of the sixteenth century was considered to be very feminine because of the tight leggings or hoses that they wore. The fabric the tights were made of was often a indicator of class and wealth the more expensive fabrics were: silk, brocade, velvet and cotton. Men’s clothing during this century also consisted of pointed shoes that were stuffed with hay or boots that came over the knee. Men wore short jackets known as a jerkin over another jackets known as doublet. A Jerkin had sleeves that often were open, from the shoulder down to the wrist, so that it showed the doublet underneath. A doublet was the length of a waistcoat shaped so that it fitted close to the body. A doublet also normally had no sleeves and had an opening at the neckline to show a ruffled collar, because ruffles for men just like women were an indicator of class.
For the wealthier class the men wore a gown or cloak over the jerkin. In addition to a jerkin or doublet men who worked in parliament often wore trunks or breeches that had been stuffed with wool. Breeches were pants that were very full and ruffled at the thigh and tight from the knee down. For the working class of men they normal wore a loose tunic and leather sometimes a leather jerkin known as a beef-jerkin. “After 1572 by law all men except nobles had to wear a woollen cap on Sundays. This law was passed to give the wool cap makers plenty of work!” (Lambert para. 11).
Food was also an indicator of your class in the sixteenth century ” food was a sign of wealth its abundance demonstrated the fortune of the host who had invited his guest to partake of food and wines.” (Pierre p.45). Food during the sixteenth century was often purchased at small markets and fairs in town and in bigger town such as London there were specific markets which sold wither fish, dairy or produce, and the meat was sold at large livestock markets. Meat, however was mainly purchased by the wealthy because it was expensive and a luxury for special occasions. Vegetables were cheap and were the main food that the poorer class ate on a regular basis. Fruits where mainly eaten by the wealthier class because fruit in its raw form was thought to be bad for you and was only eaten once baked into a tart or pie. All classes ate bread, but the wealthier class ate breads that were made from fine white flour and the poor at breads made form barley or rye. At a feast during the sixteenth century bread was given out based on level of class. As an example, workers would get the burnt bottom of the loaf, the middle would go to the family and the upper half would go to the guest of the feast. If you had money your beverages were wine or ale only while the very poor drank water because the water conditions were so bad, and the children drank milk. During the Elizabethan era, England experienced new foods from the new world such as turkey in 1525. There was also a rise in the use of sugar; however, it was expensive so most people used honey to sweeten their food. The six main ways to prepare foods during the Elizabethan era included: spit roasting, baking, boiling, smoking, salting and frying.
Hospitality was also a main part of food the rich showed off their wealth through gold and silver plates, the middle class used plates made of pewter and the poor mainly used wooden plates and simple wooden utensils. The use of a two-pronged fork was starting to spread during the sixteenth although many people still ate with their fingers. There was often a new found effort to refine table manners, it was proper to “pick up the meat with three fingers, and not to fill the mouth with overlarge morsels” (Pierre p.46) and to avoid putting meats in the mouth using two hands.” (Pierre p.46).
Throughout the sixteenth century, there were very obvious changes in the styles of clothing, and the types of foods that were eaten. But one the one thing that remained constant was the ways in which the various social and economic classes separated themselves from one other. The wealthy very often enjoyed the best fabrics, the highest quality and exotic foods, while the middle and lower classes each were separated from the upper classes by less desirable fabrics, lower quality food.
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