If you know anything about Renaissance clothing, you’ll know that the dresses worn by the women of the period - especially those in the upper classes - were nothing short of magnificent. But did you also know that the very fabrics used in traditional Renaissance clothing were used to symbolize wealth, status and class? Let’s turn back the clock and take a look at how these dresses - and the fabrics used to make them - influenced the style and politics of the era.
Before we take a closer look at the dresses themselves, let’s recap on what these Renaissance dresses symbolized: Renaissance pieces represented more than just simple clothing at the time; they were symbols of status, wealth, fashion sensibilities, and even the beauty standards of the period. It was during this period that the hourglass silhouette became incredibly sought-after, and could be achieved - by those with the means - through tight-fitting bodices and full skirts. Families with money could deck out their daughters in the most luxurious corset dresses - often made with luxurious imported fabrics like silk or velvet - and in wearing these garments, the wealthiest women of the era could easily indicate their high social standing. In short, traditional Renaissance women dress codes were about more than just aesthetics.
Next up, let’s talk about the iconic hourglass structure of these dresses; the structural elements of Renaissance dresses were both complex and innovative, and were designed to cultivate the then-coveted hourglass figure we just mentioned. The bodice, often stiffened with bones or reeds, provided the necessary support to create the desired shape, while underneath petticoats were layered under peplum skirts to create an additional layer of elegance and illusion. Again, this hourglass figure was a staple feature of wealth in the Renaissance era; while the 90s and 2000s may have touted Runway-slim as the ideal body type, the ladies of the Renaissance (or rather, the powers at be influencing them) were all about curves, femininity, and the performance of a very rigid and somewhat exclusionary form of physical beauty.
Finally, let’s talk fabrics: the choice of fabric in Renaissance dresses was heavily influenced by sumptuary laws, which dictated what could be worn by different social classes (yes, really). These laws were intended to maintain the social hierarchy - with luxurious fabrics like silk and velvet reserved for the upper classes - and this ultimately ended up influencing the fabric choices for the Renaissance dresses of the time.
So, what materials were used for authentic Renaissance dresses? Let’s take a look:
Wool was a staple fabric in Renaissance clothing, prized for both its warmth as well as its durability; sourced primarily from sheep, wool was also likely subject to class divisions, with coarse textures being used for lower-class garments to fine, soft wool being the go-to for the upper class. Wool pieces were also often dyed in rich colors and used in everything from everyday wear to more formal attire, and - despite the class divisions of the time - its accessibility did make it a common choice for a wide range of social classes during the Renaissance era.
Cotton - while a natural fabric - was less common than wool but valued for its lightness and breathability, and as it tended to be imported from regions like Egypt and India, cotton was a luxury in Renaissance Europe. And as you can likely already guess, yes - its rarity made it more expensive and typically reserved for the upper classes.
If today silk is still seen as a luxury fabric, it was pretty much the epitome of luxury in Renaissance fashion. Imported from Asia via the Silk Road, it was extraordinarily expensive and worn primarily by the nobility. Many Renaissance dresses made from silk were also often richly embroidered, showcasing both the wealth of the wearer as well as the skill of the craftsmen.
Velvet was another favorite among the nobility in Renaissance Europe; typically made by weaving two thick fabrics and then cutting them apart, velvet had a luxurious pile that caught the light, creating a sumptuous and indulgent look perfect for elaborate Renaissance dresses. Most typically used for gowns, cloaks, and hats, velvet - like silk - was a symbol of opulence and sophistication in Renaissance attire.
While taffeta remains a popular clothing material today (think ballet dresses and prom dresses), it was also a popular choice for dresses during the Renaissance era. A crisp, smooth fabric, taffeta was known for its stiffness, which allowed it to hold its shape well, making it ideal for creating structured garments like farthingales.
So, what makes an authentic Renaissance dress in the 21st century? Whether you’re just into cosplay or you’re planning your outfit for your next Ren Faire, the key lies in faithfully replicating the era's distinctive styles; think the iconic corset bodices, the dimensional, flowing skirts, and the elaborate sleeves - all while using materials that echo the period's luxury, like silk, velvet, and brocade.
At Holy Clothing, we create custom-made, size-inclusive Renaissance Dresses, each handmade and crafted with the highest quality fabrics right here in the United States - so have a browse of our collection and don’t hesitate to reach out to us for a custom request!