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Elizabethan Dress, Wealth, & Furnishings

Influences on Furniture Making

A number of home grown influences played their part in the shaping of the Elizabethan furniture tradition, from the dress and fashion of the era to changes in wealth levels and distribution.

Elizabethan Dress

Costume and women's dress had its effect on the form of furniture in the Elizabethan age. In a work on English costume and clothing there is a description in detail of the attiring of Queen Elizabeth, and after the great farthingale or hoop has been adjusted, and when she has chosen an undergown, "she then puts on several linen petticoats, one over another, to give the required fulness to her figure ; and then comes the stiffly embroidered undergown. . . . With great care she seats herself on a broad chair. ...".

Elizabethan Era Dress - Farthingale Hoop.

Those last words are quite significant, for they mark very clearly the influence of the dress designer and tailor on the work of the furniture maker. At the close of the Elizabethan period, and mostly associated with the later time of Jacobean furniture, the Farthingale chair appears, the first single chair for the spread and volume of that extravagantly ridiculous garment. The farthingale, it appears, cannot be disturbed by arms, so the arms have to go, and the chair becomes a mere perch for the imitator of the bird of paradise. A stool would have been more acceptable still to a lady done in such dress, for there would be no back to be considered and avoided when the lady sat down.

Farthingale Chair
Farthingale Chair.

Increase in Wealth & Effect on Furnishings

The Elizabethan period was remarkable for the rapid growth of commerce and trade and consequent increase of national wealth. Many of the adventures of the great sailors were profit-oriented as well as romantic, and the merchants prospered, the gentler arts flourished, and life was richer and altogether more varied by the close of the sixteenth century ; and this new wealth of comfort was not exclusive. The Court and the aristocracy proclaimed the changes in a flowery outburst of magnificent costume, but the merchants and traders were less spectacular and more practical in their manner of expressing prosperity.

A quoted description from 1570 in Thomas Wright's The Homes of Other Days deals with the furnishing of a wealthy alderman's hall, and mention is made of "two tables with carpets (i.e. table covers), three forms, one dozen cushions, half a dozen green cushions, one chair, and one little chair."

Comfort in the home had been reborn, and while the gentlemen adventurers with their fine manners and high courage and the over dressed courtiers and the wonderful Queen pose and strut down to posterity, humbler folk were founding the tradition that has culminated in the deeply sprung, perfectly upholstered easy chairs of the twentieth century.

X Frame Chair
X Frame Chair.

In a more magnificent way attention was given to the development of comfort in the palace, and an exotic flourish of luxurious furnishings marks the closing years of the sixteenth century in England. The X shaped chair, as seen in our Elizabethan chairs section, acquired a new dignity, and generously cushioned, upholstered in velvet, trimmed with fringes and tassels, it was companioned by an early form of settee, and perhaps an upholstered stool; but such articles were extremely rare, and, like the famous examples from Knole Park, are not representative of the general furnishing standards of the Elizabethan period.

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