The Ruff as an Object with Life
Ruffled collars or ruffs were the most recognizable and attention grapping luxury accessory of the early modern era in the dress culture of the European upper class. The ruff, resembling the spread courtship displays of the male ruff birds, are familiar especially from Dutch and English portraiture from the 14th and 15th century. That both the collars and the birds have the same name in English is no coincidence. Unlike the ruff bird females however, the ruffs were used as accessories by women as well.
The popularity, size and layers of the ruffs all increased during the 15th century. At the same time there was also an increase in satirical comments and drawings on them. Coexistence with a ruff in flawless condition wasn’t possible without time, money, a certain lifestyle, skilled artisans and their specialized tools. All of these factors reinforced the social status of the ruff bearers as well as the status of the ruffs as luxury items in relation to other accessories and clothing in use at the time. Behind the satirical name calling was moral and idealistic passions on inequality. The English Puritan Philip Stubbes the unworthiness of the ruff in his pamphlet Anatomy of Abuses from 1583. For Stubbes, ruffs were first and foremost strange looking trinkets.
Despite different types of decorations and numbers of pleating, all ruffs were originally made from long pits of top quality linen. If the ruff had 530 pleats, the required length of cloth was about 17 meters. The strength of the cloth and desired end result influenced the size and number of pleats. Stitches were controlled, with one stitch per pleat. When three and four tiered ruffs came into fashion in the 15th century, the value of artisans specializing in ruffs was enormous. At the height of ruff fashion, the ruffs included also a frame made of metal wire or whale bone that helped keep the ruff in the desired position around the neck. The masterful support frame, rebatos, was covered in translucent linen or lace and the new accessory was allowed to show from underneath the ruff itself.
Only the wealthiest citizens of the greatest cities could deliver their used ruffs to professional starching houses for treatment, while others had to rely on the skills of their own laundresses. The skill of the laundress was measured in how even the pleats were horizontally and vertically once done. To ensure an end result as smooth as the virgin undersurface of a mushroom, the stitches on the ruff were sometimes completely undone before washing. Since a drop of wax was sometimes placed between the pleats as an adhesive during ironing, removing the wax was part of the washing procedure.
Washed ruffs that had been repressed into fine pleats and blanched in the sun, were submerged in starch – or the devil’s liquore, as Stubbes puts it. The starch had to be completely dried on the fragile linen, or the ironing wouldn’t be successful. Extra care was needed when working with colored starch to keep the result from ending up striped. The whiteness of the ruff was intensified using the optical illusion of adding blue pigment to the starch. Ruffs dyed yellow using saffron crocus were very desirable and plays from the time make mention of their fashionability. Yellow dyed ruffs are rarely in evidence in paintings as the tone is very close to old and faded varnish. The yellow shade has been wiped away when cleaning the paintings, together with the old layers of varnish.
Skilled laundresses could create spectacular, joyful and understated wholes out of the same ruff using ironing rods of different sizes and shapes. Stubbes rudely called the specialized tools made out of wood, bone, silver, iron and steel the satan’s tongs. His description gives the impression that some of the ironing rods were hollow and filled with holes, which would give them the same function as a modern steam iron. The metamorphoses of the ruff were endless as each ironing would lead to a unique end result. While forming the ruff, the gender specific and individual virtues of the bearer were flattered, with the form of the ruff emphasizing especially the beard and the bosom. To keep the pleats from giving into air currents and breathe, a ruff in full glory needed to be protected from the damp. – A ruff doused by the rain flip-flops like a dish cloth in the wind or like the wings of a windmill, Stubbes jibes.
“But if it happen that a shoure of rain catch them before they can get harbour, then their great ruffles strike sayle and downe they falle as dishclouts fluttering in the winde, like Windmill sayles.”
Mirja Tervo, Master of Arts, researcher on luxuries
ARDOLD, J: Patterns of Fashion 4: The cut and construction of linen shirts, smocks, neckwear, headwear and accessories for men and women c. 1540-1660. Macmillan, London 2008
STUBBES, P. The Anatomy of Abuses, 1583, Facsimile, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Ltd, Amsterdam 1972
English translation: Vanessa Sjögren