NEW YORK - The ruff is, without doubt, the most gloriously frivolous garment in the history of clothing. Wildly impractical, extremely high maintenance and vastly expensive, it was the most immediate way to convey that you had stacks of cash and all manner of staff dedicated to your appearance. Willing as I am to pioneer a revival of the look here in the Old Master department, I’ll grant you, the ruff is harder to pull off today than it was in past centuries. I fear that I might less emulate the modern, ethereal Comme des Garçons incarnation of my mind’s eye, and more the lace doily extravaganza that is Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula…
The ruff’s origins of course lie in the humble collar of the undershirt or smock, which extended over the neckline of your seldom-laundered outer finery to protect it from grease. This collar gradually became decorative and detachable, and soon grew into outrageous and extravagantly lacy wheels, making you look, in the words of the inimitable Blackadder, “like a bird who swallowed a plate.” This neckwear elongated the neck and isolated the head from the rest of the body, surrounding the face with an otherworldly halo.
Frans Pourbus’ portrait of Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, 1599-1600.
The accessory demanded yards upon yards of fine fabric – usually linen and often edged in lace – which was gathered into a series of pleats at the neckband. Expensive lace was often imported from the Low Countries and specialist lace laundresses were employed purely for its maintenance and care. The lace laundress would wash the fabric, soak it in starch, and then set it into ornately looping folds using hot, iron poking sticks, heated over a fire. This time-consuming and highly skilled process had to be repeated after every wear, but the same length of cloth could be set in all manner of ways to change things up. For yet more style versatility, many ruffs had multiple layers that could be individually set, like the one worn here by the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, painted by Frans Pourbus in 1599 – 1600. A fashion forward Spaniard, Isabella has complemented her ruff here with corresponding cuffs and a matching imp-child.
Franz Hals’ portrait of Paulus van Beresteyn, circa 1619.
Achieving the more diaphanous and elaborate ruff styles required the very finest linen. In Frans Hals’ portrait of Paulus van Beresteyn, circa 1619, the fabric used in Paulus’ ruff also decorates his cuff. Pressed in a single, starched layer at his wrist, we can see just how thin and delicate the linen is, so transparent it shows the embroidery of his sleeve beneath. The more delicate the fabric though, the more likely it is your ruff will wilt through contact with the elements, damp air or simply through wear.
Peter Paul Rubens’ portrait of Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria, 1606.
Larger cartwheel ruffs, like the one worn here by the immaculately put together Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria in Rubens’ 1606 painting, were worn tilted forward to better show off the visage and prevent you inhaling a face full of lace. The angle was achieved with the help of a supportasse or underpropper, made of stiffened, fabric-covered card, which rested on the shoulders behind the head, slanting the ruff upward at the back and downward at the front.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England.
The rise of these colossal ruffs aroused the indignation of Queen Elizabeth I of England who, in 1580, passed legislation condemning the adoption of “great and excessive” neckwear, finding it to be indecent. Amusingly, Bess considered herself exempt from the law, presumably due to her own incontestable taste and reliably “less is more” approach to fashion.