ca. 1560

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Art Under the Microscope: Threads

How exactly was the gilding of tapestries done in the 16th century? These microscopic images reveal all.  

These images show the warp and weft threads used to create a background detail in the Triumph of Bacchus tapestry recently exhibited in “Woven Gold: Tapestries of Louis XIV.” 

Viewed from a distance (like when the tapestry is hanging high up on a wall), the combo of the crimson silk with the gold threads looks like a bright copper, and here we can see all the separate colors and textures that build up that look.


Triumph of Bacchus, design overseen by Raphael, ca. 1518-19; design and cartoon by Giovanni da Udine. Brussels, workshop of Frans Geubels, ca 1560. Paris, Mobilier National, inv. GMTT 1/3.  Image © Le Mobilier National. Photo by Lawrence Perquis


Art Under the Microscope is a series that features, well, art under the microscope, as photographed by our conservators to better study and preserve our collections.

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It’s the end of the week, so you know what that means: FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today we’re talking about another iconic piece of historic fashion- the ruff. It is such an extreme and distinct piece of fashion, and one which seems highly impractical. It is also one of the few pieces of historical fashion that was equally popular among men and women. So where did it come from?

During the Renaissance, both men and women wore a simple muslin gown as a slip-like undergarment. These pieces would often be tightened around the neck with a drawstring, causing it to appear rouched or ruffled around the neck. At the same time, necklines of outer-garments began to lower, so that this  ruffled edge became visible. It became a common practice, particularly among the wealthy, to add a lace embellishment to the exposed edge.

As the neck ruffle became a more prominent accent, people naturally began to put more effort into perfecting it. This was aided greatly when in 1560, it was discovered that starch could be used to stiffen fabric. Around this time, ruffs became their own garments, separated from the muslin gown. This was for a few reasons. As a separate piece, they could be more structured and elaborate. They were also then able to be cleaned separately, as the delicate lace needed more gentle care than the durable muslin. Finally, the collar being separated from the gown meant that women were able to sport the fashionable frills while still exposing their cleavage, a common practice in the 16th Century.

As soon as the collars became separated, they took on a whole new life. They became vastly more elaborate, with perfectly starched and ironed pleats and loops. A metal iron very similar to a modern curling iron was used to shape the loops. This style of ruff, the style most people today associate with the word ruff, was known as a fraise collar. They were often made with matching cuffs, which were also detachable. Fraise collars were often extremely wide, largely in thanks to Queen Elizabeth I. When the monarch was still fairly new to the throne, she had to battle to be accepted and respected in her position. To make herself appear more severe and intimidating, she wore giant cartwheel ruffs. She even tried to impose a law that people outside of court could not wear ruffs beyond a certain width, though those who could afford elaborate ruffs in the first place rarely obeyed these demands.

Ruff sizes and styles shifted constantly over the next century or so. Women would occasionally wear open ruffs, which would fasten to the top of their bodices as opposed to wrapping fully around their necks, known as the Medici collar. The stiff pleating eventually gave way to softer ruffles, and by the Cavalier age in the 17th century, a simple, flat collar with lace trim was all that remained of the ruff.

Want to learn more about the ruff? Check out these books:

Fashion in the Time of William Shakespeare, by Sarah Downing

In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, by Anna Reynolds 

Have a question about fashion history you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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▪Armor of Henry II, King of France (reigned 1547–59).
Designer: Part of the decoration design by Jean Cousin the Elder (French, Souci (?) ca. 1490–ca. 1560 Paris (?))
Designer: Part of the decoration design possibly by Étienne Delaune (French, Orléans 1518/19–1583 Strasbourg)
Designer: Part of the decoration design possibly by Baptiste Pellerin (French, documented in Étampes 1542–75 Paris)
Date: ca. 1555
Geography: possibly Paris
Culture: French, possibly Paris
Medium: Steel, gold, silver, leather, textile