SNARK WEEK: Partlets ≠ Shrugs

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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.

Margaret of Austria by Jean Hey, c. 1490, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

1523 , unknown lady, by Pieter Pourbus

Some were worn over the gown’s neckline, while others were tucked in. | Unknown lady by Pieter Pourbus, 1523

Portrait of an English lady by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1540-43, Kunsthistorisches Museum

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

Portrait of Eleanor of Toledo with her son Giovanni de' Medici by Bronzino, 1544-45, Uffizi Gallery

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

1550s, unknown lady, by Hans Eworth

They were frequently black or white but could match the gown. | Unknown lady by Hans Eworth, 1550s

The Vegetable Seller by Pieter Aertsen, 1567, Gemäldegalerie

They were worn across the class spectrum. | The Vegetable Seller by Pieter Aertsen, 1567, Gemäldegalerie

1568, Diane de France, by the Atelier de Clouet

They could be opaque. | Diane de France by the Atelier de Clouet, 1568

Portrait of a lady, bust length, in a black gown and linen partlet by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, Sotheby's

Or sheer. | Portrait of a lady, bust length, in a black gown and linen partlet by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli, Sotheby’s

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

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

The "Pelican Portrait" of Queen Elizabeth, attributed to Nicholas Hilliard, 1573-75, Walker Art 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

Portrait of a Lady in a Black Robe, attributed to François Quesnel, 16th century, Sotheby's

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:

croptop jackets shrugs

Now, let’s take a look at films that have gotten partlets right! Because we give props to those who do:

The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Okay, so this partlet could be slightly wider, but yes! Sleeveless, cute stand-up collar. | The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1970)

Elizabeth R (1971)

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.

1971 Elizabeth R

See how it ties under the arms? | Elizabeth R (1971)

Elizabeth R (1971)

And here’s a nice sheer one with attached ruff. | Elizabeth R (1971)

1972 Henry VIII and his Six Wives

Henry VIII and his Six Wives (1972) didn’t do much in the way of partlets, but this one on Catherine Howard looks good.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

I hated the hair, but that’s a big yes! to Gwynnie’s partlet in Shakespeare in Love (1998).

1986 Lady Jane

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).

Elizabeth I (2005)

So there was at least one floating ruff in Elizabeth I (2005), but this partlet looks great.

Wolf Hall, Mary Boleyn

Not only did Wolf Hall (2015) have great partlets, you can see how they pinned them on!

2016 Upstart Crow

Upstart Crow (2016) featured nice, class-appropriate partlets.

2019 The Spanish Princess episode 4

And while The Spanish Princess season one (2019) got a lot wrong, they did give “Maggie” Pole an occasionally decent partlet.

2020 The Spanish Princess

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).

2020 The Spanish Princess

Another slightly long, but overall good, partlet in The Spanish Princess season 2 (2020).

Becoming Elizabeth (2022)

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:

Elizabeth R (1971)

Sorry kids, Elizabeth R (1971) isn’t perfect. See that nice decorative partlet that matches the sleeves?

Elizabeth R (1971)

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.

2007-Elizabeth-the-Golden-Age.jpeg

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)

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?).

2016 The Load

At first, I was liking this black Spanish-style dress in The Load (2016).

2016 The Load

Until the actress turned around and I saw the “partlet” was sewn into the gown, and didn’t even have a faux-back.

Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Probably the worst were these DENIM shrugs in Mary, Queen of Scots (2018).

2018 Mary Queen of Scots

I think this Snark Week meme said it best.

Mary, Queen of Scots (2018)

Okay so this one doesn’t have attached sleeves, but it does have weird folds and RANDOM STUDS.

2019 The Spanish Princess

The Spanish Princess season one (2019) LOVED short-sleeved shrugs on Margaret Beaufort.

2019 The Spanish Princess episode 5

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

2020 The Spanish Princess

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.

 

 

 

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11 Responses

  1. Alexander

    I really don’t see why it is so damn difficult to get right!!! Lmao. I know from experience that a partlet is one of the easier items of clothing to create – cut and stitch – for a woman’s wardrobe of this period. I am always a little taken aback when I see those ‘kicky shrugs’ used in historical flicks and I wonder which source material they are misreading and getting so horribly wrong. Maybe, perhaps, it is a degree of wishing to make the costumes more “relatable” (arrrrgh!) by bunging their lead actresses in bizarre bolero jackets… but it is just so wrong, wrong, wrong and looks terrible and ill designed. It is possible to do, as your fantastic examples above prove, so why don’t they do it? Bah, I say!

    Reply
  2. Aleko

    That see-through item in the Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli portrait does look much more like a fichu/neck-handkerchief than a partlet.

    Reply
  3. Claire le Deyare

    Is a gollar considered a partlet? Because painting #2 looks like a gollar. Which is as far as I can tell 1) rounded, 2) wool or silk and lined with fur and thus for keeping warm and 3) a 16th century German thing. Whereas my partlets are much thinner and used to 1) not sunburn the boobs and 2) be pretty and decorative, since one of mine is very embroidered but the shirt is not.

    Reply
  4. Eleri

    I’m curious because in the “Unknown Lady” art, she’s wearing two different styles of partlet at the same time; the sheer-with-ruff one, and the fabric one. Was that a thing?

    (In the gawdawful kicky denim shrug pic at the top, you can see something vaguely sheer under it, so maybe that’s what they were going for? Dunno, can’t see past all the denim.)

    Reply
  5. Shannon Hoover

    Functionally, this feels kind of like the 16th century equivalent of a dickey collar.

    Reply
  6. Elizabeth Piland

    One point of confusion for me in your very informative article, The Pelican Portrait looks to me like a fine, white linen, partlet-styled chemise with blackwork and gold thread embroidery. Could be my eyes, could be my tablet, but I don’t see how the sleeves are different than the fabric on chest and neck. Of course as Queen, she is the fashion setter. Could you please enlighten me?

    Reply

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