Top Five Ruffs in Frock Flicks


The ruff may just be the most iconic part of a fashionable late 16th or early 17th-century costume. Rising from a simple frill on the neck of a shirt to giant pleated and starched cartwheels that were held up by wire structures, ruffs became symbols of conspicuous consumption particularly in English, French, and Netherlandish fashion. So frock flicks set from the 1550s through 1630s should have some kind of ruff on characters of middling to upper classes. As long as they don’t float, I don’t mind how they’re constructed, and here are some of my faves!



Mary Queen of Scots (1971)

Let’s start small, around 1561, when Mary Queen of Scots is still in mourning for her first husband and leaves France to return and rule Scotland. Appropriately enough, she wears a small, neat ruff edged in black … and with a bit of gold thread in there because she’s the queen.

Vanessa Redgrave, Mary Queen of Scots (1971)



Elizabeth R (1971)

Obviously I have to include this series, but one thing that’s great is how you can see a progression of ruff sizes. From the smaller ruff of the 1570s, getting bigger in the 1580s, then a huge open ruff in the 1590s as the queen ages.

Elizabeth R (1971) Elizabeth R (1971) Elizabeth R (1971)



Fire Over England (1937)

Supposedly set in 1588, this early flick about Queen Elizabeth I gives her two stacked ruffs, and I love it. I can kinda see a historical precedent (click the title for my in-depth review), but really, it’s just a more-is-more aesthetic.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - blk swirl gown 2 ruffs Fire Over England (1937)



Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Also supposedly set in the 1580s, this movie plays fast and loose with history in many ways, not the least of which is costume. And yet I keep coming back to this gown’s open ruff and wired ruff arrangement. It’s dramatic and effective, and given that there’s a lot of different portraits of high-status women with fantastical wired ruffs, maybe one really was constructed like this?

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007)



Orlando (1992)

Right around 1600, we see the character of Orlando in this delicious black suit with a dark ruff, which wasn’t really a historical style, but it looks so good here. Ruffs could be tinted in the period by adding color into the starch that the linen ruff was soaked in. The effect would be pastel, and pink or blue ruffs were popular. I guess if you added black to starch, it might give this dark grey effect.

1992 Orlando 1992 Orlando



Tulip Fever (2017)

Set in 1630s Amsterdam, this is when ruffs peaked in size and popularity, so it’s a good thing that costume designer Michael O’Connor went for it. These are the most amazing cartwheel ruffs I’ve seen onscreen!

Tulip Fever (2017) Tulip Fever (2016)



What ruffs have you noticed in late 16th- and early 17th-century frock flicks?

16 Responses

  1. Saraquill

    I know you’re talking frock flicks, but my mind is on the term “head on a platter” ruff. Are those the same as cartwheels, or a different subspecies?

  2. Aleko

    I think that what that wired veil in Golden Age is channelling is this 1583 portrait of Elizabeth, just taken to ludicrous extremes. (In this portrait Elizabeth is portrayed as Tuccia, a Vestal Virgin who disproved an accusation of unchastity by carrying a sieve full of water from the Tiber River to the Temple of Vesta without spilling any. (You can see the sieve in her left hand.)

  3. Susan

    I seem to think there was one in the Miniaturist. And of course the Girl with the Pearl Earring. Judy Parfit rocked in hers.

  4. Cláudio Alves

    For ruff lovers, I strongly recommend Peter Greenaway’s take on THE TEMPEST. With costumes designed by Ellen Lens and Emi Wada, PROSPERO’S BOOKS is a highly stylized take on historical iconography. The ruffs, in particular, are exaggerated to high heavens, reaching gigantic proportions. I love them so much!