Ruffs and collars were a dramatic accessory in England during the Early Modern period. Collars actually serve a practical function- the were meant to protect clothing that was made of fabrics that were cumbersome to wash. Therefore, collars (along with cuffs) were often pinned to the garment so they could be removed and washed separately. Because people often needed multiple sets, collars could be used to create unique looks in a time when the number of outfits that people had were limited.
During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, high collars, often called ruffs, were in fashion. This style of ruff was created by layering and ironing fine fabrics that had been starched. In some cases, the ruffs had wire in them to help support the weight of the garment. The ruff could be arranged in a few ways. In some cases, the ruff was attached to a tight collar on a dress or jacket. In other cases, you will see a layered ruff that looks like a wheel around the wearer’s neck. You can see this in the picture of the Unknown Woman below. Later in the 16th century, opening the front of the ruff became more common. This is seen in the Ditchley Portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and then was emulated by other ladies, like Ellen Maurice seen below. This style of ruff let a woman show off her necklaces and the neckline of her dress. Men also wore ruffs, but it seems that their style of ruff begins to relax earlier than with women. Part of this might have been due a more relaxed overall style for menswear at the time.
Nicholas Hilliard (English, 1547- 1619). An Unknown Woman, aged 26, 1593. Watercolour on vellum stuck onto a playing card; 5.8 x 4.8 cm. London: Victoria and Albert Museum
Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (Flemish, 1561- 1635). Ellen Maurice, 1597. Oil on panel; 90.6 x 74.2 cm (35 5/8 x 29 1/4 in). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art
In the late 16th and into the 17th centuries, ruffs and collars began to change shape. One style was the rebato, a standing collar that was supported by wire. These ruffs, which were worn by men and women, created a wide circle that stood up around the neck and were often trimmed with lace. But eventually, collars that laid down on the wearer’s clothing gained popularity. These collars were referred to as falling bands or falling collars. They did not require the same amount starching or wire. But they were very elaborate, often made with fine handmade bobbin lace. Falling bands are quite wide by the 1620s, and begin to get a bit smaller in size as the century went on.
Designer unknown (possibly French). Rebato (collar), Early 17th century. Metal-thread bobbin lace, wire, cotton; 40.0 x 45.7 cm (15 3/4 x 18 in). New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Designer unknown (England). Band, 1630-1650. Linen, bobbin lace, linen thread, hand sewing; height 27, width 76.2 cm. London: Victoria & Albert Museum
Agecroft Hall’s collection has several portraits that show a variety of styles of ruffs and collars. If you get a chance to visit, you can make your own scavenger hunt to identify all the different types that are on display!
Source: Fashion History Timeline, Fashion Institute of Technology.