Fashion in the period 1500–1550 in Western Europe is marked by voluminous clothing worn in an abundance of layers (one reaction to the cooling temperatures of the Little Ice Age, especially in Northern Europe and the British Isles). Contrasting fabrics, slashes, embroidery, applied trims, and other forms of surface ornamentation became prominent. The tall, narrow lines of the late Medieval period were replaced with a wide silhouette, conical for women with breadth at the hips and broadly square for men with width at the shoulders. Sleeves were a center of attention, and were puffed, slashed, cuffed, and turned back to reveal contrasting linings.
Henry VIII of England (ruled 1509–1547) and Francis I of France (ruled 1515–1547) strove to host the most glittering renaissance court, culminating in the festivities around the Field of Cloth of Gold (1520). But the rising power was Charles V, king of Spain, Naples, and Sicily from 1516, heir to the style as well as the riches of Burgundy, and Holy Roman Emperor from 1530. The inflow of gold and silver from the New World into recently united Spain changed the dynamics of trade throughout Western Europe, ushering in a period of increased opulence in clothing that was tempered by the Spanish taste for sombre richness of dress that would dominate the second half of the century. This widespread adaptation of Hispanic court attire in Europe was seen as a sign of allegiance to the empire of Charles V.
Regional variations in fashionable clothing that arose in the 15th century became more pronounced in the sixteenth. In particular, the clothing of the Low Countries, German states, and Scandinavia developed in a different direction than that of England, France, and Italy, although all absorbed the sobering and formal influence of Spanish dress after the mid-1520s.
Linen shirts and chemises or smocks had full sleeves and often full bodies, pleated or gathered closely at neck and wrist. The resulting small frill gradually became a wide ruffle, presaging the ruff of the latter half of the century. These garments were often decorated with embroidery in black or red silk, and occasionally with gold metal threads if the garment was meant to be flashier of ones wealth. The bodice was boned and stiffened to create a more structured form, and often a busk was inserted to emphasize the flattening and elongation of the torso. Small geometric patterns appeared early in the period and, in England, evolved into the elaborate patterns associated with the flowering of blackwork embroidery. German shirts and chemises were decorated with wide bands of gold trim at the neckline, which was uniformly low early in the period and grew higher by midcentury. Silk brocades and velvets in bold floral patterns based on pomegranate and thistle or artichoke motifs remained fashionable for those who could afford them, although they were often restricted to kirtles, undersleeves and doublets revealed beneath gowns of solid-coloured fabrics or monochromatic figured silks. Yellow and red were fashionable colors.
Inspired by the mended uniforms of the Swiss soldiers after the country’s 1477 victory over the Duke of Burgundy, elaborate slashing remained popular, especially in Germany, where a fashion arose for assembling garments in alternating bands of contrasting fabrics. Elsewhere, slashing was more restrained, but bands of contrasting fabric called guards, whether in color or texture, were common as trim on skirts, sleeves, and necklines. These were often decorated with bands of embroidery or applied passementerie. Bobbin lace arose from passementerie in this period, probably in Flanders, and was used both as an edging and as applied trim; it is called passamayne in English inventories.
The most fashionable furs were the silvery winter coat of the lynx and dark brown (almost black) sable.
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