NEW YORK - The ruff is, without doubt, the most gloriously frivolous accessory in the history of clothing. Impractical, high maintenance and expensive, the ruff was the most immediate way, in the 16th and 17th centuries, to convey that you had loads of money and all manner of staff dedicated to maintaining your appearance. From monarchs to merchants, no prosperous woman, man or child in Europe would sit for a portrait without first donning the appropriate, crisply starched neckwear.
The ruff’s origins lie in the collar of the humble undershirt or smock, which extended over the neckline of your seldom-laundered outer finery to protect it from sweat and grime. This collar gradually became decorative and detachable, and soon grew into outrageous and extravagantly lacy wheels, elongating the neck and isolating the head from the rest of the body, surrounding the face with an otherworldly halo. A sparkling white and sharply-pressed ruff exuded cleanliness and, in those days, cleanliness meant godliness. Not just reserved for the clergy, freshly washed collars and cuffs were emblematic of piety for any wearer. Or, at least, that was the initial intention. As the vogue took off and many designs became more extravagant, the more fashionable, oversized ruffs became synonymous with vanity and ostentation.
In varying styles and sizes, ruffs were part of everyday dress for certain social classes – needless to say, they were not worn by your average housemaid or goat herder for a day’s toiling. Ruffs were a costly look. The accessory demanded yard upon yard of fine fabric, usually linen, which was painstakingly gathered into a series of pleats at the neck band. Expensive lace was often imported from the Low Countries for edging and specialist lace laundresses were employed purely for its maintenance and care. The laundress would wash the fabric, soak it in starch and then set it into ornately looping folds using iron poking-sticks heated over a fire. This time-consuming process demanded skill and had to be repeated after every wear, but the same length of cloth could be arranged in all manner of ways.
(LEFT) UNYA WATANABE FOR COMME DES GARÇONS FROM AUTUMN/WINTER 2000–2001, NOW IN THE COSTUME INSTITUTE COLLECTION AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. (RIGHT) A LOOK BY BRITISH DESIGNER GARETH PUGH FROM SPRING 2009.
For yet more style versatility, many ruffs had multiple layers that could be set individually, like the one worn by the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Archduchess of Austria, painted by Frans Pourbus in 1599–1600 (following page). A style-conscious Spaniard, Isabella has complemented her ruff with spiky starched cuffs and even her dwarf (another must-have court accessory at the time) wears a scaled-down version.
Popular in the mid-17th century were the larger cartwheel ruffs, which were worn tilted forward to better show off the visage and to prevent you from inhaling a face full of lace. One of fairly impressive circumference is sported by the lady in Johannes Cornelisz. Verspronck’s portrait from the 1640s (opposite), which will be offered in the Sotheby’s Master Paintings sale on 29 January. The angle was achieved with the help of a supportasse or “underpropper,” made of stiffened, fabric-covered cardboard. Resting on the shoulders behind the head, it served to slant the ruff upward at the back and downward at the front.
(LEFT) ANTHONIE BLOCKLANDT VAN MONTFOORT’S PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG LADY WILL BE OFFERED IN JUNE AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK. (CENTER) FRANS POURBUS THE ELDER, PORTRAIT OF A GENTLEMAN, CIRCA 1620. ESTIMATE $30,000–50,000. (RIGHT) ANTHONIE BLOCKLANDT VAN MONTFOORT’S PORTRAIT OF A YOUNG LADY WILL BE OFFERED IN JUNE AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK.
Achieving the more diaphanous ruff styles required the very finest linen. A close look at the ruff in the Portrait of a Young Lady by Anthonie Blocklandt van Montfoort reveals how the flat linen has been looped into figure eights. For her cap, the same linen is shown in a single layer and you can see just how delicate and gauzy it is; it’s so transparent you can almost make out the lines of her ear beneath. But wafer-thin linen came with its own draw-backs. The more delicate the fabric, the more likely it was to droop when it came in contact with the elements. A wilted ruff was bad for anyone’s look.
While the ruff is harder to pull off today than in past centuries (believe me, I’ve tried), a few contemporary designers have revived it for the runway. Sarah Burton quite clearly had Tudor Britain on her mind when creating her Autumn/Winter 2013 collection for Alexander McQueen. Not only were the models wearing neat ruffs, but the bejewelled gold thread snoods – trending as hair-wear back in Henry VIII’s court – were pulled right over their faces. Other memorable recent adaptations: the British designer Gareth Pugh turned ruffs into black and white winglike expanses for Spring 2009 (below, right), and in 2000, Junya Watanabe reinterpreted the ruff for Comme des Garçons (above, right) as a voluminous cloud of concertinaed pleats that practically consumed the wearer.
The return of these colossal ruffs would have had Queen Elizabeth I turning in her grave. In 1580, the English monarch passed legislation condemning the adoption of “great and excessive” neckwear as indecent and immoral. The Queen would be far from amused by Comme des Garçons’ waist-length ruff, unless of course, she fancied one for herself. Naturally the Queen considered herself exempt from her own law and, her own taste being incontestable, continued wearing as wide a ruff as starch would sustain.
Jonquil O’Reilly is an Old Master Paintings specialist at Sotheby’s New York.