Customs of Female Peasantry

The Pirate King's Notes on the life of Female Commoners
 and Peasantry during the European Renaissance

Women of the lower classes worked hard and had little or no real education. Her highest ambitions in life were to marry well and bear healthy children.

The average peasant woman bore approximately seven children, two or three of which would die before reaching two years of age. Because she worked as hard as her husband, her clothes were made to be strong and warm.

A peasant woman wore a long-sleeved shift under everything. She wore at least two skirts over that, with the upper skirt, usually newer than the underskirt, tucked up out of the dirt. The primary reason for wearing several skirts was that two or more skirts were better insulation than one. Remember that there was no central heating in a peasants shack, and much of their time was spent outside anyway.

She had an apron on over the skirts to keep them clean if she was doing some work, which was most of the time. She wore a tight-fitting, scoop or square necked bodice or vest, which usually came to a point in front. The bodice would usually be laced in the front because lacings in the back required a servant, or compliant husband, in order to get dressed in the morning. It had removable sleeves which were worn or not, depending on the weather.

All women over the age of thirteen had their hair covered by some sort of headgear. Ladies of the Court wore several hair coverings at once. Women of the lower classes may wear as many as their character could afford or as little as a snood, but all women are required to wear a hat. The reason hats were so prevalent,~was that people believed that bathing was unhealthy, in fact dangerous. It was common for Nobility to have lice, and likely that peasants did. Wearing a hat kept lice out of your hair if you didn't already have them, and out of your food if you did. The hair itself was usually braided or bundled up out of the way. Participants will not be allowed to wear sun-glasses or any non-period accessory. The only acception to this rule is the sunhat. Although they are not remotely period, sunhats are acceptable headgear. If you want to brave the sunshine, period hats are preferred.

Lower class women sometimes, but not always, wore knee-length cloth hosen held up by garter ties and, if she was lucky, wore some kind of shoes.

She had a belt pouch and carried a small eating knife. She had a basket to carry things gathered in the fields or bought at morning market. In cold weather, she would have a cape or shawl wrapped around her.

FABRIC COLORS

Clothing would be made of rough fabric such as wool and cotton. She would not wear taffeta, satin, silk, brocade, velvet or lace, unless she was weaver or lace maker. Colors would tend to be earth tones with a few accents of brighter color. It was unlawful for peasants to wear purple fabric of any shade. Only the royal family was allowed the wear that color. Black dye was rare and very expensive, it was therefore, worn only on very formal occasions and only the richest of the Nobility could afford to wear black even then. The custom of being buried in black and wearing black at funerals may have stemmed from this.

White fabric would not remain white for very long under the conditions it would be subjected to. If you want to wear "white", use unbleached muslin to give that worn look. Indigo blue was one of the only dyes grown in England. This made blue fabric cheap and readily available. Anyone of high birth, status or ambition avoided that shade because peasants wore it frequently. This does not mean that all peasants should wear blue, in fact we are trying to avoid having everyone wear the same color! Any color fabric, excepting purple, is good as long as it is muted or looks like its seen a lot of use. Fabrics which are printed, or even look printed are not to be used.

 

NOTES:

  • Printing on fabric had not yet been invented and therefore, should not be used in your costume. Designs which are woven into the fabric are acceptable as long as the design is not reminiscent of another period, i.e. plaid or paisley, etc. Remember, though, fabric which is woven into a design would be very expensive and would be worn by peasants (those who could afford it) on great occasions and only with great care. When choosing fabric, ask yourself if it could have been made in the sixteenth century, and if your character could afford it. If the answer to either question is no, or you are not certain, don't buy it.

  • If you are using 100% cotton fabric, such as muslin, remember to wash it in hot water and dry it on high temperature before you cut out your pattern. That way it will shrink as much as it is going to and will not have to be handled with special care come wash day!


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