A Description of Elizabethan England. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
Of Our Apparel and Attire
[1577, Book III., Chapter 2; 1587, Book II., Chapter 7.]
AN ENGLISHMAN, endeavouring sometime to write of our attire, made sundry platforms for his purpose, supposing by some of them to find out one steadfast ground whereon to build the sum of his discourse. But in the end (like an orator long without exercise), when he saw what a difficult piece of work he had taken in hand, he gave over his travel, and only drew the picture of a naked man,1 unto whom he gave a pair of shears in the one hand and a piece of cloth in the other, to the end he should shape his apparel after such fashion as himself liked, sith he could find no kind of garment that could please him any while together; and this he called an Englishman. Certes this writer (otherwise being a lewd popish hypocrite and ungracious priest) shewed himself herein not to be altogether void of judgment, sith the phantastical folly of our nation (even from the courtier to the carter) is such that no form of apparel liketh us longer than the first garment is in the wearing, if it continue so long, and be not laid aside to receive some other trinket newly devised by the fickle-headed tailors, who covet to have several tricks in cutting, thereby to draw fond customers to more expense of money. For my part, I can tell better how to inveigh against this enormity than describe any certainty of our attire; sithence such is our mutability that to-day there is none to the Spanish guise, to-morrow the French toys are most fine and delectable, ere long no such apparel as that which is after the high Almaine fashion, by-and-by the Turkish manner is generally best liked of, otherwise the Morisco gowns, the Barbarian fleeces, the mandilion worn to Colley-Weston ward, and the short French breeches make such a comely vesture that, except it were a dog in a doublet, you shall not see any so disguised as are my countrymen of England. And as these fashions are diverse, so likewise it is a world to see the costliness and the curiosity, the excess and the vanity, the pomp and the bravery, the change and the variety, and finally the fickleness and the folly, that is in all degrees, insomuch that nothing is more constant in England than inconstancy of attire. Oh, how much cost is bestowed nowadays upon our bodies, and how little upon our souls! How many suits of apparel hath the one, and how little furniture hath the other! How long time is asked in decking up of the first, and how little space left wherein to feed the latter! How curious, how nice also, are a number of men and women, and how hardly can the tailor please them in making it fit for their bodies! How many times must it be sent back again to him that made it! What chafing, what fretting, what reproachful language, doth the poor workman bear away! And many times when he doth nothing to it at all, yet when it is brought home again it is very fit and handsome; then must we put it on, then must the long seams of our hose be set by a plumb-line, then we puff, then we blow, and finally sweat till we drop, that our clothes may stand well upon us. I will say nothing of our heads, which sometimes are polled, sometimes curled, or suffered to grow at length like womans locks, many times cut off, above or under the ears, round as by a wooden dish. Neither will I meddle with our variety of beards, of which some are shaven from the chin like those of Turks, not a few cut short like to the beard of Marquess Otto, some made round like a rubbing brush, others with a pique de vant (O! fine fashion!), or now and then suffered to grow long, the barbers being grown to be so cunning in this behalf as the tailors. And therefore if a man have a lean and straight face, a Marquess Ottons cut will make it broad and large; if it be platter-like, a long, slender beard will make it seem the narrower; if he be weasel-becked, then much hair left on the cheeks will make the owner look big like a bowdled hen, and as grim as a goose, if Cornelis of Chelmersford say true. Many old men do wear no beards at all. Some lusty courtiers also and gentlemen of courage do wear either rings of gold, stones, or pearl, in their ears, whereby they imagine the workmanship of God not to be a little amended. But herein they rather disgrace than adorn their persons, as by their niceness in apparel, for which I say most nations do not unjustly deride us, as also for that we do seem to imitate all nations round about us, wherein we be like to the polypus or chameleon; and thereunto bestow most cost upon our arses, and much more than upon all the rest of our bodies, as women do likewise upon their heads and shoulders, In women also, it is most to be lamented, that they do now far exceed the lightness of our men (who nevertheless are transformed from the cap even to the very shoe), and such staring attire as in time past was supposed meet for none but light housewives only is now become a habit for chaste and sober matrons. What should I say of their doublets with pendant codpieces on the breast full of jags and cuts, and sleeves of sundry colours? Their galligascons to bear out their bums and make their attire to fit plum round (as they term it) about them. Their fardingals, and diversely coloured nether stocks of silk, jerdsey, and such like, whereby their bodies are rather deformed than commended? I have met with some of these trulls in London so disguised that it hath passed my skill to discern whether they were men or women.
Thus it is now come to pass, that women are become men, and men transformed into monsters; and those good gifts which Almighty God hath given unto us to relieve our necessities withal (as a nation turning altogether the grace of God into wantonness, for
Luxuriant animi rebus plerunque fecundis,)
not otherwise bestowed than in all excess, as if we wist not otherwise how to consume and waste them. I pray God that in this behalf our sin be not like unto that of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose errors were pride, excess of diet; and abuse of Gods benefits abundantly bestowed upon them, beside want of charity towards the poor, and certain other points which the prophet shutteth up in silence. Certes the commonwealth cannot be said to flourish where these abuses reign, but is rather oppressed by unreasonable exactions made upon rich farmers, and of poor tenants, wherewith to maintain the same. Neither was it ever merrier with England than when an Englishman was known abroad by his own cloth, and contended himself at home with his fine carsey hosen, and a mean slop; his coat, gown, and cloak of brown, blue, or puke, with some pretty furniture of velvet or fur, and a doublet of sad tawny, or black velvet, or other comely silk, without such cuts and garish colours as are worn in these days, and never brought in but by the consent of the French, who think themselves the gayest men when they have most diversities of jags and change of colours about them. Certes of all estates our merchants do least alter their attire, and therefore are most to be commended; for albeit that which they wear be very fine and costly, yet in form and colour it representeth a great piece of the ancient gravity appertaining to citizens and burgesses, albeit the younger sort of their wives, both in attire and costly housekeeping, cannot tell when and how to make an end, as being women indeed in whom all kind of curiosity is to be found and seen, and in far greater measure than in women of higher calling. I might here name a sort of hues devised for the nonce, wherewith to please fantastical heads, as goose-turd green, peas-porridge tawny, popinjay blue, lusty gallant, the devil-in-the-head (I should say the hedge), and such like; but I pass them over, thinking it sufficient to have said thus much of apparel generally, when nothing can particularly be spoken of any constancy thereof.