Decoding Clothing In Shakespeare’s Plays

Though most posts on this site involve food and beverage, I have long had an interest in 16th Century theater and culture, and at one point was Theater Director for a nonprofit historical society. In that capacity, and later as an instructor at Osher Institute/UCLA Extension, I developed a lecture series called “What Shakespeare Left Out. I still occasionally present talks about the structure of Elizabethan society and the way it was reflected in Shakespeare’s plays. One of my more popular programs involves the class structure of Britain, which at that time had a rigid dress code.

That code was written into law in 1574, and it regulates in minute detail what people of different classes could wear. The text immediately below governs the nobility, and has been abridged to modernize some terms and avoid repetition:


No man shall wear cloth of gold or silver, or silk of purple color except Earls, all above that rank, and Knights of the King (and then only in their mantles).

None shall wear cloth of gold or silver, tinseled satin, silk, cloth mixed or embroidered with gold or silver, or foreign woolen cloth except Barons, all above that rank, Knights of the Garter, and Privy Councillors.

None shall wear any lace of gold or silver, lace mixed with gold or silver, silk, spurs, swords, rapiers, daggers, buckles, or studs with gold, silver or gilt except Baron’s Sons, all above that rank, Gentlemen attending the Queen, Knights and Captains.

None shall wear velvet in gowns, cloaks, coats, or upper garments, or embroidery with silk, or hose of silk except Knights, all above that rank, and their heirs apparent.

None shall wear velvet, satin, damask, taffeta, or grosgrain in gowns, cloaks, coats, or upper garments, or velvet in their jerkins, hose or doublets. except Knight’s Eldest Sons and all above that rank.


None shall wear cloth of gold or silver, or silk of purple color except Countesses and all above that rank.

None shall wear silk or cloth mixed with or embroidered with silk, pearls, gold or silver except Baronesses and all above that rank.

None shall wear cloth of silver in belts or kirtles except Wives of Knights and all above that rank.

None shall wear embroideries of gold, silver or silk (mixed) or headdresses trimmed with pearls except Wives of Baron’s Eldest Sons, all above that rank, Baron’s Daughters, Wives of King’s Knights or Privy Councillors, or Maids of Honor.

None shall wear velvet in upper garments or embroidery with silk thread except Knight’s Wives and all above that rank.

None shall wear velvet in kirtles or petticoats, or satin in gowns, cloaks and other outer garments except Wives of Knight’s Eldest Sons, Gentlewomen attending Countesses, and all above that rank.

None shall wear satin, damask, taffeta or grosgrain in their gowns except Landed Gentlemen’s Wives and all above that rank.


Among the middle and lower classes, there were still more restrictions – on the cost of fabric in clothing, on the quality of jewelry, and on the height of men’s hats and shoes. Gentlemen could wear swords, which were a fashion statement as well as a weapon,  and ladies might wear a single or double ruff depending on their husband or father’s income and social status.

            Where people were restricted as to the quality of the cloth they wore, they would make up for it with ornate embroidery, the finest buttons allowed, and finally, with simple volume of fabric. An edict of 1562 read:

            “For the reformation of the use of the monstrous and outrageous greatness of hose, crept alate into the realm to the great slander thereof, being driven for the maintenance thereof to seek unlawful ways as by their own confession have brought them to destruction: it is ordained that no tailor, hosier, or other person, whosoever he shall be, after the day of the publication hereof, shall put any more cloth in any one pair of hose for the outside than one yard and a half, or at the most one yard and three-quarters of a yard of kersey or of any kind of cloth, leather, or any other kind of stuff above the quantity; and in the same hose to be put only one kind of lining besides linen cloth next to the leg if any shall be so disposed; the said lining not to lie loose or bolstered, but to lie just unto their legs, as in some ancient time was accustomed; sarcanet, muckender, or any other like thing used to be worn, and to be plucked out for the furniture of the hose, not to be taken in the name of the said lining.”

The very fact that these laws needed to be made shows how the human desire to be social climbers is eternal. It also tells you something very important about how audiences reacted to each character as they came on stage. They may not have known who that person was, but they knew what they were, their social status compared to everyone else on stage. There is an element of fraud to anyone who pretends to be something they are not, dresses in a way that does not reflect their actual place in society. Many scenes in Shakespeare’s plays have less impact to a modern audience because of the fact that we don’t have that immediate and instinctive reaction to the arrival of someone who is vastly more important than everyone already there. Those with experience in the military might consider the effect on a group of private and sergeants if a general were to arrive unexpectedly and have a pretty good idea what this was like.

Modern costumers and theater producers often ignore these rules, either because they are ignorant of them or because it will cost the theater company a lot more money to dress people appropriately. It is worth doing, because when done well and consistently the audience gets it even if it has never been explained to them.