English Dress in the Age of Shakespeare

English Dress in the Age of Shakespeare

English Dress in the Age of Shakespeare

English Dress in the Age of Shakespeare

Excerpt

English dress during the age of Shakespeare reflected the vitality and high spirits of the period. The growth of England as a world power, the increase in trade and prosperity, and the political stability created by Queen Elizabeth's shrewd policies, all helped to develop a spirit of self-confidence. One result of this exuberance was an increase in the taste for fine raiment and an indulgence in magnificent clothing which make the Elizabethan age one of the most gorgeously dressed periods in the island's history.

Although the upper class and even the great merchants of earlier eras had also dressed in rich and colorful fabrics, the sixteenth century saw an elaboration in dress that had not been common. In keeping with the doctrine that everyone was born to a certain station ordained by heaven and should content himself with his lot, however humble, sumptuary laws had traditionally prescribed the degrees of luxury permissible to each class. For example, folk under the rank of a knight's eldest son were prohibited from wearing satin, damask, taffeta, and similar rich attire. Queen Elizabeth retained legislation to this end, but the power and wealth of the middle class increased during her reign to such a point that the previous regulations had to be relaxed; in a new statute of 1580 they were modified to allow a certain degree of finery to those who could afford it. A parallel may be seen in the attitudes of the Puritan elders of New England, who attempted to discourage the wearing of fine clothes by similar laws in the first decades of colonization. Eventually, however, they had to give up the effort because prosperity in their flocks stimulated an irrepressible desire for finery.

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