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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.
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?