Support Frock Flicks with a small donation! During Snark Week and beyond, we’re grateful for your monthly pledges for exclusive content via Patreon or your one-time contributions via PayPal to offset the costs of running this site. You can even buy our T-shirts and swag. Think of this like supporting public broadcasting, but with swearing and no tax deductions!
I’ve mentioned before how the 16th century is my happy place and I have a fondness for Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I, onscreen and off. Elizabeth R (1971) was my first frock flick love and inspired my lifelong interest in historical costume. So of course, I’m going to nitpick 16th-century costumes in movies and TV when they don’t met up to what we know of the period. There are zillions of historical portraits, statuary, drawings, and other images that give good indications of the fashions that were common and popular between 1500 and 1600, and in the latter half of the century, the neck ruff becomes a distinctive fashion among the upper-classes of England, France, Spain, the Low Countries, and anyone who aspired to be like them.
Yet, like so many obvious historical fashions, movies and TV tend to get ruffs wrong. Now, one one hand, I get it — there are a million fast-and-dirty theatrical ways to make a ruff vs. the well-documented and tedious-as-all-fuck historically accurate way to make a ruff!
I’ve done both, and if I were doing it for the screen, I wouldn’t bother with the historical method most of the time. But that doesn’t mean I can’t snark the shit out of those who do it wrong! Because you can make a theatrical ruff and wear it in a historical fashion. The key is to not let the ruff “float.” Meaning, a historical ruff is supposed to be pinned to a garment — it doesn’t fasten around the neck like a choker necklace.
This is more obvious when you consider the evolution of the ruff. It started as a mere ruffle at the neck and part of a shirt or partlet, in either men’s or women’s clothing.
As the ruffle got bigger, it became detached from the undergarment in order to be starched and ironed. But it was still pinned to the undergarment to wear, because that works well.
Sometimes partlets would have smaller ruffs integrated, and the whole thing was elaborately decorated with embroidery and/or gems.
When ruffs started to get really big in the 1570s, women still wore them attached to their partlets because they needed to attach them somewhere!
Until around the 1590s, when ruffs have gotten even bigger, but they were also worn open in the front. Then folks start wearing separate structures underneath the ruffs to hold them up. These devices could be made of things like cardboard or wire and were called a supporter, supportasse, underpropper, or rebato.
Note that open ruffs are almost always worn without another ruff. They’re often worn with jewelry though.
The Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth I is a rare portrait showing a fully closed ruff worn around the neck with an open ruff as well. However, this painting has many allegorical elements and exaggerates the queen youth and beauty (she was a year or two away from death at this point!), so I have a hard time taking this portrait literally.
While historically accurate ruffs may be complicated and time-consuming to make, plenty of filmed productions have gotten a decent historical look for the ruffs they do use! That’s a big reason why it bugs me that so many others fail. IT’S NOT IMPOSSIBLE, PEOPLE!
Decent Ruffs Onscreen
Obviously, my beloved Elizabeth R does it right — whenever the queen is wearing a ruff, it’s with a partlet (or a high-necked gown).
But lookee here, all these random background ladies rockin’ a head necklace and some smokey eyes, but they all managed to wear partlets with their ruffs. No floats!
We can all complain about Gwenie’s hair in Shakespeare in Love, but the costumes were gorgeous, thank you Sandy Powell! I strongly suspect that ruff is connected to that partlet even.
We admire so much about Helen Mirren‘s turn as QEI, including the costumes with some accurate ruff-wearing.
Even flicks with some otherwise questionable costuming make an attempt at non-floating ruffs, so why can’t more of ’em? Hmm?
Floating Ruffs in Movies & TV
Alas, despite those examples, many more frock flicks luuuuuuurve to let their ruffs float around ladies’ necks. I guess partlets or shirts/smocks aren’t sexy? But you’d think big pleated frill under the chin wouldn’t be sexy either, so what have they got to lose? SMH.
It starts early, back in the first big Hollywood 16th-c. movies, and it just doesn’t stop.
Both of Bette Davis‘ movies as QEI are chock filled with floating ruffs.
But The Virgin Queen (1955) is super filled with ’em, and not just on the queen. Joan Collins as her wayward lady-in-waiting and all the extras float on through this flick.
Ya gotta love all the flicks about the blind-in-one-eye Princess of Éboli. But ya don’t gotta love that floating ruff on Olivia de Havilland.
Oh look, Mary Queen of Scots gets one too! Only her lady-in-waiting rates a partlet.
Then there’s the random floating ruff in a non-ruff period!
This Russian version of the Queen Margot story looks very shiny…
The motherload of floating ruffs just might be Gunpowder, Treason, and Plot (2004), which I hate with the fire of 1,000 suns for so many reasons. It’s a deeply shitty production, and we gave it a good lashing in our video on 16th-century costumes onscreen.
Did you notice the Helen Mirren Elizabeth I up there on the list of “decent ruffs onscreen”? Yeah, I cherry-picked that because only sometimes does this production get it right. More often, oh do these ruffs float!
It’s a sci-fi / fantasy show, but y’all know how I love the historical episodes, even if they get stuff wrong.
Oooo, boy. There’s so much wrong with the costumes in this series, it’s almost unfair to single out the floating ruffs. Almost!
Ditto this one. By the time they got to ruffs, that was the least of their concerns.
Finally, here is the Renaissance telenovela so bad I still can’t review it. There is so much wrong in this one picture.
Are you onboard with my nitpick? Does it bug you when a show is inconsistently historically accurate?
The Jane Seymour thing is not even a ruff or a collar.Looks like something stolen from a children’s play troupe.
I think it is a sequined Peter Pan collar taken from a sweater previously worn by June Allyson.
My mother had one of those. Definitely 1950s not 1550s!
THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT i THOUGHT!!! June Allyson is missing her Peter Pan collar and is she furious!
Ah! Now I understand the nitpick & it makes total sense why you’d be annoyed by it!
(On the plus side: ‘ruffs done wrong’ is an awesome standby complaint & snark week would be a lesser week without it.)
Many costumer designers clearly see the ruff as a pretty necklace. No other excuse for many of these.
But my main teeth-hurting nitpick is still hair…grown women with flowing locks, beach or otherwise…and I really hate pandering to the “modern audience”, clearly unable to admire or see the beauty of any women with her hair properly done for the period.
Oh for a period drama, just one, without hair offenses…is there one? Possible Kate Beckinsale’s “Emma”, which I finally watched this weekend, and do not recall seeing locks flowing outside of the boudoir. I am sure there are more but probably not among the recently filmed…
After reading Trystan’s explanation of what they are and how they’re supposed be worn, I absolutely agree with “Many costume designers clearly see the ruff as a pretty necklace. No other excuse for many of these.” I’m currently watching season 2 of A Discovery of Witches, and now I’ll be on the lookout for the notorious floating ruffs!
I love that you explained the construction of the ruff first, because you often mention that the floating ruffs are incorrect but I didn’t understand why!
You’re welcome! Sometimes we serve snark with a side of education ;)
But how else are these poor unfortunate women going to survive a ship disaster, but with floating ruffs.
Yes I too nitpick said floating ruffs. But what gets me wanting to throw things at the screen are hair not pinned up and poly silk glitter fabric.
Wow I hadn’t seen The Virgin Queen from 1955 and now…can you die of disdain? Hahahahahaha soooo bad! Thanks for this post you know I feel the same and I’m honored you used the ruff I made for the example. I learned it all from Noel!
Yours looked so much better than mine as an example, so of course I had to use it!
I am in this photo and I don’t like it. :D I blame the brown ‘Elizabethan Costuming’ book. It was good for a lot of things, but its prescribed method for ruff-making was “pleat a ribbon, sew it onto another ribbon and then tie the whole thing around your neck”. And so that’s what I wore, for years, LHC/Frieda-approved. It took me a while to learn the difference between “historical” and “for theatrical effect”.
Oh yeah, I started there too & still have the brown book ;) I snark from experience!
The latest disappointment is the second season of A Discovery of Witches, set in 1590. The man’s stuff is bad — leather trousers, open-necked shirts, no hats — and the women’s is even worse, Really sad when the set construction is so impressive all the way through. Seems wardrobe was an afterthought.
Yes! I was so confused why Emma 2020 had a floating collar, like an 1812 homage to floating ruffs.
In the early 1800s, it was a trend to have ruffled collars like ruffs! They were almost always attached to chemisettes (like dickeys or a half-shirt that tucked into the top of a gown’s neckline), very similar to partlets. So they still shouldn’t float, tho’ there might be exceptions since by then, the faux-ruffs weren’t made the same way, they’re just layers of ruffles/pleats.
I wonder if the whole floating ruff idea started with the 18th-century ruched ribbon choker? That was a very popular fashion, and later in the Empire of Napoleon I when historical detailing in fashion was much in vogue, as well as standing lace collars inspired by the 16th-century open ruff, they also went in for layers of frilled lace so much bigger than the ribbon choker that they look like ruffs – some attached to a chemisette but some not. In fact from the front the ice-blue number from The Virgin Queen actually could be a not-brilliant attempt at a First Empire gown.
It might just be me, but it almost looks like Mary in Seven Seas to Calais is wearing a partlet, it is just much more sheer than her lady in waiting’s? I haven’t seen the movie, though, so it might just look that way in the screenshot.
I couldn’t get decent screencaps when I watched the movie, but the floater offended me enough to save this pic in my file until this post ;)
Long time reader, first time commenter…oddly enough, I think the floating ruff might just have a historical precendence. The Casanova (1987) pic shook something loose in my brain and I suddenly remembered seeing floating ruffs in the 18th century paintings of Watteau—his painting “Fetes-Venitiennes” is one of many examples—but often these “galante” scenes have an curious feeling of romantic fantasy that only have a loose connection with the contemporary clothing of the time; most ruffs in his paintings (and a few other artists as well) seem to reference characters from commedia dell’arte, which in costuming style almost always references the 16th century, around when commedia dell’arte it was born.
I hope this comment isn’t annoying because I truly LOVE LOVE LOVE this blog, please keep up the good work! Mwah!
We are never annoyed by additional information presented in a positive manner! We only get cranky when people “well ACTUALLY” us ;)
Update: did a little digging and found the 18th century portrait Madame Peletier des Forts by Jean-Baptiste Santerre featuring a definite floating ruff, but once again, because she’s holding a mask, it seems like the floating ruff was some kind of popular 18th century masquerade accessory…weird!
cheers I’m amazed, however, that you could pick out that photo from the Tudors… because there are so many things wrong with it. Good idea to put the arrows, lol!
Anne and her fellow masquers seem to be wearing their underwear as a costume. Bare arms were a huge no no in the 16th century, it was a matter of modesty and of survival. It was the Little Ice Age after all! There’s a reason fur trimmings were huge at the time.
I’m enjoying the eyeliner on that lady in Henri IV.
Uh yeah, what’s with the raccoon eyes?
Hi, great post, love it so much! I just wanted to ask about this one type of ruff worn mostly in England in the beginning of the 17th century (e. g. https://cz.pinterest.com/pin/52213676906008060/). Is it some sort of a hybrid between the “usual” ruff and the open one with the construction under? It really looks like it is floating, no wonder some people would think that :D
I suspect that, like QEI’s Rainbow portrait, there’s a bit of artistic license going on. It’s debatable that bodices were cut that low & worn unfilled, so there could be a sheer partlet worn. And by that time, the size of the ruff would require some kind of supporter (wire or cardboard) which needs to be tied or pinned into the bodice. Here’s an effigy photo from around the same time where you can see a bottom strap of lace connected to the bodice, & that’s another place to pin the ruff & supporter, since it’d need help — https://i.pinimg.com/originals/f2/c1/89/f2c189f7166c907d6c9ddf38d716e21d.jpg