Renaissance to Colonial America


Renaissance Fashion

During the Renaissance period, Sumptuary Laws continued to dictate how each class could dress. As during the medieval period, upper-class citizens were able to dress in fine, expensive fabrics, while the lower class wore basic garments made of wool and linen.

Women’s Fashion

German nobleman and noblewoman (Renaissance) / vintage illustration from Meyers Konversations-Lexikon 1897

Upper-class Renaissance women wore large, elaborate and ornate gowns made of silk, brocade, satin and velvet. Bodices were tight to the waist, and skirts were full to the ankle. Rolls and hoops were worn around the waist and under the skirt to give fullness to the gown. Most gowns had an outer skirt that parted in the middle to reveal a decorated underskirt or petticoat. Sleeves were usually long and large, puffing out from the elbow to the wrist. Necklines were low. Hats were simpler and fit closer to the head with veils extending down the back.

Lower-class women wore dresses of a similar cut, but they were much lighter. They were also less fitted and worn without rolls or hoops. This allowed for more freedom of movement as work was performed.

Men’s Fashion

Queen in royal dress and luxuriant collar

Upper-class men dressed in outfits consisting of several main parts: a basic dress shirt, a fitted top (also called a doublet), a fitted jacket (also called a jerkin), upper hose and nether hose. The doublet often extended to the thigh area. Upper hose were close-fitting and usually came down to the knee, although some upper hose were shorter. The nether hose were skin tight and accentuated the man’s calf.

Lower-class men wore a similar outfit, only without the doublet and jerkin.

Fashion of Colonial America

During this period, Sumptuary Law was no longer in effect, so there were fewer differences between the fashions of wealthy and poor. Styles were very similar, but the clothing of the wealthy was more ornate.

Women’s Fashion

Gowns of colonial America mimicked those of the Renaissance period in style. Fitted bodices with low-cut necklines were prevalent, although women who lived in more modest communities would often cover the chest and neck with a sheer scarf or collar. Skirts were still very full at the waist, and bustles were worn under the skirt to make it appear larger in the back. Sleeves were fitted to the elbow, with a ruffle extending to the forearm. The split outer skirt with a decorative petticoat was still very popular.

Toward the end of the Colonial period, the dress style changed dramatically. Women’s gowns were much lighter, with a high empire waist, short sleeves and flowing skirt that fit close to the body.

Men’s Fashion

Colonial men’s fashion was also similar to Renaissance fashion at first; most men wore a loose dress shirt, a doublet or vest and a long coat. Dress shirts of this period had cuffs at the wrist and stiff collars that were worn popped up. The cravat, or decorative neck scarf, became popular during this time and evolved into the modern-day tie. Upper hose were replaced by breeches, but the two are very similar. Tights were still worn below the knee.

One distinct change in men’s fashion was the popularity of the wig and folded hat. It was the style for men to wear their hair long, pulled back at the top of the neck and curled in front. They also powdered their hair to make it appear white. It was difficult and uncomfortable to wear a hat with a wig, so hats were often carried under the arm. This led to a new hat style-the ‘three corner hat’ or tricorne that we have come to associate with this time period.