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One of our running jokes at Frock Flicks is about “kicky shrugs” worn in place of sixteenth-century partlets. See, partlets are (in my opinion) one of the most fabulous aspects of the era’s womenswear. But filmmakers seem very confused by the concept, and often substitute what looks much more like a modern shrug jacket instead. Let’s run down what a partlet should and could look like, and then who’s gotten it right and who’s gotten it wrong! Because yes, it’s a smaller detail than some of the other shit filmmakers get wrong about this era, but it’s a personal pet peeve.
Trystan did address this issue briefly in her discussion of the travesty that was 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots. But I feel like it’s one that needs more focus! In part, that’s because it relates to another of our repeated maxims: ruffs don’t float. Filmmakers seem to think that a ruff just ties around the neck as a self-contained item, but for most of the 16th century, it was attached to a partlet.
According to Janet Arnold’s Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d,
“Partlets were originally short jackets worn by men, but from the late fifteenth century the term was used for a garment which covered the upper part of the chest and neck. Women’s partlets were made with standing collars in material to match the gown from the 1530s to the 1550s… [They] slowly went out of fashion after about 1580…”
They could match or contrast with the gown, and sometimes matched the (detachable) sleeves — but importantly, they did NOT themselves include sleeves, but were ALWAYS sleeveless.
Partlets — the black piece filling in the neckline of the gown here — came into fashion in the late 15th century. | Margaret of Austria by Jean Hey, c. 1490, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Some were worn over the gown’s neckline, while others were tucked in. | Unknown lady by Pieter Pourbus, 1523
They were generally pinned on, or tied under the arms. | Portrait of an English lady by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1540-43, Kunsthistorisches Museum
They could be super decorative, and were worn across Western / Northern / Southern Europe (I don’t know Eastern European fashion of this era well enough to comment). | Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo with her son Giovanni de’ Medici by Bronzino, 1544-45, Uffizi Gallery
They were frequently black or white but could match the gown. | Unknown lady by Hans Eworth, 1550s
They were worn across the class spectrum. | The Vegetable Seller by Pieter Aertsen, 1567, Gemäldegalerie
They could be opaque. | Diane de France by the Atelier de Clouet, 1568
Or sheer. | Portrait of a lady, bust length, in a black gown and linen partlet by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, Sotheby’s
They often had a small neckline ruffle. | The Four Elements: Fire. A Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background by Joachim Beuckelaer, 1570, National Gallery
And were the base for larger ruffs, which were attached (probably basted) to the partlet. | The “Pelican Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1573-75, Walker Art Gallery
You see them up through the 1580s. | Portrait of a Lady in a Black Robe, attributed to François Quesnel, 16th century, Sotheby’s
And this is what it is NOT:
Now, let’s take a look at films that have gotten partlets right! Because we give props to those who do:
You’ll be shocked to hear that Elizabeth R (1971) got both of these matching-fabric partlets right. No attached sleeves here, and they both end on or above the bust.
See how it ties under the arms? | Elizabeth R (1971)
And here’s a nice sheer one with attached ruff. | Elizabeth R (1971)
It’s harder to see in this black and white image, but Queen Mary I wears a separate partlet in velvet over her velvet gown in Lady Jane (1986).
So there was at least one floating ruff in Elizabeth I (2005), but this partlet looks great.
Not only did Wolf Hall (2015) have great partlets, you can see how they pinned them on!
Upstart Crow (2016) featured nice, class-appropriate partlets.
And while The Spanish Princess season one (2019) got a lot wrong, they did give “Maggie” Pole an occasionally decent partlet.
The Spanish Princess season 2 (2020) went in a better direction, and this partlet is decent, although it comes a bit low and I question the matching underlayer on the sleeves (which honestly should be white).
Another slightly long, but overall good, partlet in The Spanish Princess season 2 (2020).
Becoming Elizabeth (coming later this year) may have problems with the hair (all the arrows), but the partlet on Catherine Parr is great!
And now, the slightly to very, very bad:
Sorry kids, Elizabeth R (1971) isn’t perfect. See that nice decorative partlet that matches the sleeves?
It closes in back. I checked with all of my 16th-century costuming expert friends, and they agree with me that we’ve never seen a partlet close in back.
Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007) wasn’t too concerned about historical accuracy, so it makes sense that they gave this sheer partlet attached sleeves (and forgot any sleeves on the gown??!!).
Anonymous (2011) had overall decent gowns, but this looks much more like an 18th century fichu or kerchief shoved in the neckline (see that embroidered edge poking out?).
At first, I was liking this black Spanish-style dress in The Load (2016).
Until the actress turned around and I saw the “partlet” was sewn into the gown, and didn’t even have a faux-back.
I think this Snark Week meme said it best.
Okay so this one doesn’t have attached sleeves, but it does have weird folds and RANDOM STUDS.
The Spanish Princess season one (2019) LOVED short-sleeved shrugs on Margaret Beaufort.
And this cutaway look, which isn’t tucked into the neckline, is very wrong on Catherine of Aragon in The Spanish Princess season one (2019). Shit, I just realized it’s a CAPE, not a partlet! lololol
While The Spanish Princess season two (2020) did get better, they did this same cutaway-but-over-the-gown style which again, matches the faux-undersleeve. Nyet!
Now you too can snark the finer points of 16th-century partlets! Let us know if you’ve spotted any other shrugs instead of partlets in the comments.