Then and Now: Ruff! Ruff!

Last week I talked about pearls in the Chanel Resort 2014 collection, and noted one look which featured a ruff. Well, I want to explore that ruff a little more. Because what is it doing in a Chanel runway show? Chanel is timeless. Ruffs are notThey are outdated, right? Well, no. They’re not outdated, but they aren’t exactly timeless either. These days, the ruff is more of…a statement piece.

Chanel Resort 2014 collection

A ruff collar on Gabrielle d’Estrées, 1550, artist unknown.

The Ruff: Who? What? When? Where? and Why? From the mid-1500’s to the mid-1600’s in Western Europe, men, women, and children donned the ruff on the daily. Ruffs evolved from pretty ruffles worn by men under their doublets, which would poke out and cause a little ruffly collar like on the man shown below….

Antoine de Bourbon, father of Henri IV, king of France, 1557

…to its own independent, detachable accessory such as this collar worn by Emmanual Philibert of Savoy, cousin of King Philip IV of Spain and supreme commander of the Spanish Navy in the Mediterranean.

Painted by Sir Anthony van Dyck, Flemish, 1599–1641, Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy, Viceroy of Sicily, 1624

The question is…why? Well, I’m not really sure. However, considering this was a period when colonization was occurring, the ruff at its most ridiculous could have something to do with Europe’s “I’m-conquering-the-world” ego. The stiff neck would force one to hold his or her neck high and haughty, giving off an aura of “I am more awesome than thou”. The ruff was made with linen and edged with lace (Linen was much better quality during the Renaissance than it is now). Later in the century it could be made entirely of lace, a relatively new textile, which was super expensive because it took forever to make.

A ruff from the 1620’s.

They could be dyed with vegetables to yellow, pink, mauve, or blue…though blue was outlawed in England by Queen Elizabeth I because blue was the color of Scotland’s flag. She issued the Royal Prerogative: Her Majesty’s pleasure is that no blue starch shall be used or worn by any of her Majesty’s subjects, since blue was the color of the flag of Scotland …”

Queen Elizabeth I in a half-collar ruff.

Ruffs were made stiff with the help of starch. Starch was imported from the Low Countries (Modern day Belgium and Netherlands), and gained further popularity when Mistress Dinghen van der Plasse, a talented Flemish ruff maker, moved from Flanders to London in 1564 and set up her own starch-making business.  Starch is gained from cereal grains such as wheat or corn. “Wait,” you say, “They made clothing with food?” Yes, it’s true. If that isn’t the ultimate sign of extravagance, to use food for clothes instead of, you know…survive, I’m not sure what else is.  We’re not the only ones who find that silly. William Cecil, chief minister to Elizabeth I, said, “Is it not a very lamentable thing that we should bestow that upon starch to the setting forth of vanity and pride which would staunch the hunger of many that starve in the streets for want of bread?” True that, good sir. True that.

The Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, Archduchess of Austria by Frans Pourbus, c. 1599. Ten percent of Austria starved for these ruffs…(Kidding…maybe.)

The ruff persisted until the early 1600’s, when it fell to the falling band collar (Get it?), a loose, lace collar which probably became popular in part because it was infinitely more comfortable.

A falling band collar in the 1640’s.

Where do we see ruffs today?  If you think ruffs are a thing of the past…well, you’re wrong. The bishops of the Church of Denmark still wear ruffs as part of their formal uniform, as well as the more conservative of bishops in Norway, and choirboys in Anglican churches.

Peter Fischer-Møller, a Danish bishop.

As for pop culture, some extreme fashionistas wear not-so-subtly Renaissance garb such as Lady Gaga (Obviously!) who wore a Queen Elizabeth I-inspired latex dress with ruff to meet Queen Elizabeth II (Really!).

Lady Gaga in a leather ruffle designed by Lake & Liberty.

…and Klaus Nomi, an eccentric German musician from the 70’s and one of the first celebrities to die from AIDS in the 1980’s. And, of course, you find them on dogs for itches they can’t scratch. A.k.a. the Elizabethan Collar or E-collar. No, I’m serious. That’s what it’s called.   Sources: The Fashion Historian, The Art of Power, Wikipedia

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