A painting by Bernhard Strigel representing the extended Habsburg family

Anthropology: Renaissance Fashion Trends and Their Influence on Modern Society


The Renaissance was a flourishing period in world history, with a significant impact on the Western hemisphere. At that time, there were many ways to show one’s wealth, economic, and social status, but one of the most exciting and visually-pleasing ways was through one’s clothing.
Renaissance dress featured lavish fabrics, intricate designs, and flashy jewelry – especially among the upper classes. The further down the social ladder one went, the simpler and more practical people’s clothing became. A widespread adoption of voluminous clothing was first apparent in the mid-1520s.
A lot happened in the 1520s, especially in England, France, and Spain. The Reformation took place, the conquests of Mexico and Peru were underway, and Ottoman expansions into Southeastern Europe were teeming on the horizon, among other long-lasting changes.
Both Henry VIII of England (1491-1547) and Francis I of France (1494-1547) sought to outdo each other’s show of wealth and power, culminating in the infamous festivities at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (circa 1520). However, both kings were eclipsed by the rise of Charles V (1500-1558), whose influence and family ties covered Spain, Naples, Sicily, Burgundy, and the Holy Roman Empire. Three monarchs at the peak of their powers in the 1520s were fashion icons, influencing their respective subjects and dominions, albeit with some regional differences.

Renaissance Dress Codes and Faux Pas

Did you know there were dress codes during the Renaissance?

Laws dictating who could wear what and costs meant that each social class wore different clothes. The lower classes opted for practicality, commonly wearing linen, wool, or sheepskin. Cotton wasn’t largely produced at this time, and didn’t gain wide popularity until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. While the lower classes also had limited means of cloth, servants’ liveries with their master’s emblems escaped many of the restrictions since they represented the masters, not themselves.

However, the aristocracy preferred luxurious fabrics including satin, velvet, and brocade, and had more budget for wardrobe updates. Before the Industrial Revolution, all fabrics were made by hand, which greatly affected price. The so-called sumptuary laws created social and power barrier across Europe, and offenders were often jailed or fined. Although the materials varied heavily between social classes, the basic elements remained the same, and just like today, styles frequently changed.

Fashion Trends in England (1520-29)

Men’s Fashion

European opinion on English style was not hot when Henry VIII became king in 1509 at age 17. There was a modicum of French and Italian influence, but English fashion largely reflected the country’s status as a minor power.
Henry took great pains to ensure he was seen in the latest fashions by ordering clothing in bulk twice a year. Compared to the dour, relatively plain fashion of his father’s court, Henry’s wardrobe “contained a wider range of fabrics with more decoration and color” (Lynn 71).
Cold season meant voluminous layers. Contrasting fabrics, slashes (cutting the outer fabric and pulling another layer through from beneath) and intricate embroidery were hallmarks of the English court. In Henrician clothing, one of the most popular styles was the wide-shouldered doublet, made wider and boxier with the help of short fur-lined gowns (Lynn 74). Common materials used included velvet, fustian, damask, calico, and canvas trimmed with lace (Bradfield 71). Red, black, and gold embroidery was also popular. Daggers, gloves, and short swords were all common accessories. Popular colors were deep red and blue velvet, and gold-embroidered materials.
Interestingly, the sumptuary laws in England acted more as a code of conduct aimed mainly at “men of the upper-middle level of the social spectrum – the knights, esquires, gentlemen and burgesses – than to groups of higher or lower rank” (Phillips 24). Outside the royal family, forbidden materials and accessories included cloth of gold, purple silk, cloth with gold or silver thread, double velvet, sable, letuse (snow-weasel fur), and ermine; pearls and other gemstones were also widely prohibited.
Picture 1, English fashion during the Renaissance.
The upper sleeves of Thomas More’s doublet showcase the era’s slashings (circa 1527). Note the sable fur trimming his collar and his chain of office. Image credit: ARTSTOR. 

Women’s Fashion

The fashion for women in England was similarly opulent during this period: tight gowns, trailing skirts, square necklines, and sleeves with oversized cuffs. Tailors and dressmakers frequently made their gowns from taffeta, velvet, silk, damask, or fine woolen cloth. Light to dark greens, blue-greens, and grays were trendy colors. Embroidery with black silk and hanging girdles were also used.

The vast majority of sumptuary laws in England — and most of Europe — didn’t strictly apply to women during this time. Lydia Ethridge (2017) notes that Renaissance women embraced the innovations and greater customizations to hairstyles and clothing as ways to define and express themselves in a patriarchal society. However, restrictions did apply, and they generally only applied to veils and headgear.

The wives of Henry VIII were also big fashion influencers. The Spanish farthingale was introduced to England by Catherine of Aragon. During Anne Boleyn’s tenure as queen (she wasn’t French herself but her years as maid of honor and lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude are documented in French historical records), crescent caps and square-necked bodices became popular fashions. In addition to leg-of-mutton sleeves, Anne of Cleves brought Flemish styles to the English court.

Example Image 2, Renaissance fashion
In this portrait (circa 1525-6), Catherine of Aragon’s gown displays the rich embroidery and girdles that were considered popular. Note the slashings and thick overcuffs. Image Credit: ARTSTOR.

Fashion Trends in France (1520-29)

In France, fashion was constantly changing, incorporating the latest elements from different countries. Some of the styles they emulated and adapted were from England, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Bright colors (reds, yellows, purples, pinks, and greens) were popular for both sexes.

Early in the 16th century, the French fashions became strongly influenced by Italian trends, due to Francis I’s interest in Renaissance arts coming from Italy and ongoing wars which led to increase in communication and exposure to Italian clothing fads.

Francis was a trendsetter, well known for his lavish textiles and silks. Like Henry VIII, he strove to make an impression, and he often drained the royal treasury to up his wardrobe. Indeed, Francis’ fine eye for fashion and his desire for attention was particularly noted in the “purple satin, branched with gold and purple velvet, embroidered with [Franciscan] friars’ knots” (Davenport 473) that he wore at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Men’s Fashion

Francis and the men of his court made frequent use of boat-neck linen shirts edged with frills and blackwork embroidery. Wide-brimmed hats trimmed with ostrich feathers or decorative metal tags (typically gilded) were quite common, as were slashed doublets and beaded jerkins. Contrasting fabrics were also used, along with prominently puffed sleeves.
Example image 3, Renaissance fashion
Francis I (1494-1547) is considered an icon of French fashion by medieval historians. Note the volume and slashing of his sleeves. Image Credit: ARTSTOR.

Women’s Fashion

The king’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre, was famous for her fashionable taste as well. If you wanted to flatter her, you would emulate her penchant for sweeping silhouettes, deep necklines, elaborately cut sleeves, and black bonnets. Marguerite also had a passion for pearls, delicate embroidery, and other rich gemstones.
Example image 4, Renaissance France fashion trends
The king’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre, was equally stylish. In this 1527 portrait, she indulges German and Italian trends and wears fine golden jewelry. Image Credit: Walker Art Gallery.

Fashion Trends in Spain (1520-29)

In contrast to England and France’s colorful opulence and flashy elegance, Spanish style was usually dark and solemn. Both sexes wore more restrained clothes with less embellishment. Collars and shoulders lost padding, sleeves became fuller instead of tight. Jerkins closed to the neck; skirts were short and slightly flared instead of full.
Favored fabric hues included blacks, deep greens, deep reds, and grays. Velvet and satin, gold thread, and pearls were common staples in Spanish wardrobes, and Moorish influences were seen in plain embroideries and silhouettes. Titian’s Man with a Glove is a good example of the Spanish court’s severe, rigid fashions.
Example picture 5, Renaissance Spain fashion trends
This portrait of a young Spaniard is exemplary of his country’s restrained fashion sense. Note the subdued color scheme and plain silhouettes. Image Credit: ARTSTOR.

The Spanish dress for women was generally modest, to the extent that bodices completely concealed “the upper torso to the neck” (Hill 378). It was especially relevant among women close to Isabella of Portugal, Charles V’s beloved wife and confidante.

Example picture 2, Renaissance Spain fashion trends
This portrait of Isabella of Portugal, wife of Charles V, demonstrates the new fashion in this beautiful burgundy gown (circa 1520s). Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Over time, Spanish influence noticeably spread to the Netherlands and Italy. Flemish influence could also be seen in the court of Charles V, who spent much of his childhood in Flanders. In addition to his vast inheritance of Burgundian, Spanish, and Austrian realms, the power and influence of Charles’ empire stretched from Germany to northern Italy and included Spanish kingdoms in southern Italy, such as Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia. His connections with the Spanish and German colonies of the Americas also guaranteed much overlap in culture, dress, and fashion, as the denizens of both societies came into contact and clashed.

Children’s Fashion

During the Renaissance, children of the 1520s were usually dressed as miniature adults, with low necklines and clunky underthings. Toddler boys wore gowns until they were breeched, usually around the time they were seven-years-old.

Princess Mary Tudor (1516-1558), later Mary I of England, at the time of her engagement to Charles V. She is wearing a rectangular brooch inscribed with “The Emperor”. Image Source: Wikipedia.
A painting by Bernhard Strigel representing the extended Habsburg family, with a young Charles V in the middle. Image Credit: Wikipedia.

Hairstyles and Headgear

Interest in contemporary fashion and material culture grew throughout this period, as did hair care and styling. For both Renaissance women and men, headdresses, hair styles, and beards indicated one’s social, political, and economic status. The styles and care of one’s hair could be applied to a variety of situations just like they are now, and headdresses and hair-coverings “could be both valued possessions and sources of anxiety” (Welch 242), though there were differences in maintenance across national and social boundaries.

Women’s Hairstyles

Hair care and styling was a costly and time-consuming venture. In the Renaissance, women grew their hair as long as it would grow, and fixing longer hair often meant asking servants or female relatives for help. The routine and tools involved were “extensive, including scented waters, dyes, combs, pins, special towels for drying the head (sugacapi) and mirrors, while some of the procedures such as plucking and depilation were painful” (Welch 244-5). The Renaissance hairstyles of women did not include bangs since they scraped their hair back from their forehead to expose their hair for braiding and coiling above the ears or forming ‘horns’ on either side of the head. Using elaborate hoods and wimples with complicated folds, gables, and peaks, women encased their coils in hairnets and snoods, which were decorated with gold, pearls, and semi-precious stones. The hair of brides and girls during the Middle Ages was usually loose, while married women wore a veil, hat, or cover as a sign of propriety. But with the Renaissance’s transition to independence, “women started to expose their hair, especially in England and the Netherlands, where the pressure of the Catholic church and the Pope of Rome was lesser” (“Hairstyles” 10).
Portrait of Barbara Pallavicino by Alessandro Araldi, circa 1510. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Men’s Hairstyles

Almost all men during the early Renaissance cut their hair below the ears and wore bangs. Grooming was overseen by professionals, “either by employing a personal barber or through regular trips to the barbershop for hair-cutting, beard-trimming, nail-care and the removal of earwax” (Welch 243-4). Headgear wasn’t just for ladies; Renaissance men wore wide hats, caps, or beret-like hats to cover their hair, sometimes trimmed with feathers or jewels.
Portrait of Charles V. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Significance in Anthropology

Along with being incredibly expensive and cumbersome, fashion during the 1520s (and the Renaissance at large) was also used as a form of self-expression and public performance. The clothes one wore were a mark of status and reputation, much like they are today, but you could argue that the idea of power dressing started back in the Renaissance. An aid to establishing authority and friendship, the sheer amount of garments and the emergence of national styles during this period showed a new attitude towards fashion and experimentation with appearances. Those differences were also subtle indicators that society as a whole was changing.

As theocracy and religion dwindled, people were freer to engage in interaction and express their opinions. Clothing became a way to show culture, personality, and preferences. It would be impossible to discern between upper and middle class without the growth of independent thought and nonconformity. Fashion trends from the Renaissance continue to thrive into the present day, and they illustrate the various ways in which human nature continues to evolve through history.


Bradfield, Nancy. Historical Costumes of England: 1066-1968. New York: Costume & Fashion Press, 1997. Print.

Davenport, Millia. The Book of Costume. New York: Crown Publishers, 1948. Print.

Ethridge, Lydia K. “Women’s Fashion and the Renaissance: Considering Fashion, Women’s Expression, and Sumptuary Law in Florence and Venice.” Inquiries Journal/Student Pulse5.10 (2013). <http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/a?id=777>

“Hairstyles through the Ages.” Slogan, vol. 21, no. 2, 02, 2016, pp. 10-11. ProQuest, http://proxy195.nclive.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/magazines/hairstyles-through-ages/docview/1768624847/se-2?accountid=14968.

Hill, Daniel Delis. History of World Costume and Fashion. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.

Lynn, Eleri. Tudor Fashion. 2017. Print.

Phillips, Kim M. “Masculinities and the Medieval English Sumptuary Laws.” Gender & History, vol. 19, no. 1, Apr. 2007, pp. 22–42. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/j.1468-0424.2007.00462.x.

Welch, Evelyn. “Art on the Edge: Hair and Hands in Renaissance Italy.” Renaissance Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, 2009, pp. 241-268.

Images Cited

Circle of Master of the Female Half-Lengths (Flemish). Portrait of Isabella of Portugal (1503 – 1539). Circa 1520s. Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flanders_Isabella_of_Portugal.jpg

Clouet, François, d. 1572. Francis I. [n.d.]. Artstor, library-artstor-org.proxy195.nclive.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822000739647

—-. Marguerite of Navarre. Circa 1527. Walker Art Gallery, https://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker/collections/paintings/13c-16c/item-236719.aspx

Hans Holbein the Younger, European; Northern European; German, 1497/98-1543. Sir Thomas More. 1527. Artstor, library-artstor-org.proxy195.nclive.org/asset/AMICO_FRICK_103804839

Hornebolte, Lucas, ca. 1490-1544. Catherine of Aragon. 1525-26. Artstor, library-artstor-org.proxy195.nclive.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822000924504

Titian, ca. 1488-1576. Man with a Glove. c.1520. Artstor, library-artstor-org.proxy195.nclive.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822000645497

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