To quote from Blackadder II:
Blackadder : What are you wearing around your neck?
Percy : Ah! It’s my new ruff!
Blackadder : You look like a bird who’s swallowed a plate.
Percy : It’s the latest fashion actually and as a matter of fact it makes me look rather sexy!
Blackadder : To another plate swallowing bird perhaps. If it was blind and hadn’t had it in months.
The ruff, one of the more eccentric garments of the Elizabethan era, was a fashion statement to rival those of the 1970s. Starting life as a simple collar, the ruff grew more elaborate through the course of Elizabeth I’s rule to become symbolic of the era. It was a circular collar made from a pleated frill worn by both men and women. On women it covered the neck, chin, shoulders, and breast, and on men it covered the neck and shoulders.
The quality of a ruff was a sign of status. They were worn by aristocrats and proletarians alike, although the quality of material would vary greatly. In the aristocracy, a ruff was likely made of lawne or camerick, both very expensive fine linens. Quality ruff’s were decorated with lace, gold, silver, and fine silk. Ruff’s belonging to wealthy women would often be decorated with decorations to represent the sun, moon, and stars. For the poorer folk, a ruff would likely be made of cheap fabric that would have likely irritated the skin.
When the first ruff came into fashion in the 1560’s, it was a simple accessory measuring approximately 3″ wide by 2″ deep. This was known as either the cartwheel ruff or a fan-shaped ruff. This was a common adornment of the adventurer and courtier to Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh.
As the ruff became bigger and more flamboyant, it was necessary to use a metal wire frame (gauze wings) at the back to the neck to hold it in place. Laces or strings (band strings) were attached to the opening of the ruff to secure it around the neck. It was common for an elaborate ruff to be held together with hundreds of pins. The material to create a single ruff, in later stages, amounted to as much as five metres of material. Pins were an essential part of Elizabethan clothing which in turn led to a very buoyant pin-making industry.
Cleaning the ruff was far from trivial. Being a fashion accessory it was mandatory to keep the garment in pristine condition, and this was done using vast quantities of starch. This also helped to maintain the shape of the ruff and keep it upright.
The ruff was at times used to add finesse to cuffs and sleeves of clothes.
The ruff was eventually replaced by the standing collar during the reign of James I, but it could be said it led the way for neck ware in years to come.