Women's Medieval and Renaissance Fashion
The Middle Ages (1100-1450) - For most of the Middle Ages, the silhouette for women was all about showing the outlines of the body in a tightly fitted bodice, accented with a girdle (which we now call a belt), slung low on the hips for a long-waisted look. The girdle was a practical fashion accessory, as women could hang their purses and keys from it, but it could also be a way to show off your wealth with lots of precious metals and jewels. The standard outfit for women was a long, form-fitting dress called a kirtle, often with a looser, open-sided tunic called a surcoat on top. The kirtle could have either tight, fitted sleeves or wide bell-shaped sleeves, and the fancier versions were often trimmed in fur, jewels and gold. Sumptuary laws were passed throughout the medieval period to try to prevent non-nobles from wearing the finest goods, but they had little effect.
Women were rarely seen without some kind of head covering, usually a wimple or veil. Nobles and royalty often topped this with a coronet, a narrow circlet crown of gold or jewels strung together. Cone-shaped hats and double-pointed hats were also popular.
When extra warmth was needed, women wore long cloaks (also known as mantles), often with hoods for protecting their heads from the elements.
The Renaissance (1450-1650) - The first article of clothing a Renaissance woman would put on was a long, loose-fitting shirt called a chemise, usually white to beige in color, depending on what a woman could afford. Married and conservative women usually wore it buttoned or tied up at the neck, while single ladies could leave it open. Over the chemise, women wore lace-up bodices, the predecessor of corsets. Peasants who had to handle their own business wore bodices that laced up in the front, while noble women could afford to hire a servant to lace theirs up the back. The bodices could be worn like a vest, letting the chemise sleeves show, or could have different detachable sleeves laced onto the armholes to change up the look. Sleeve styles changed over the decades, but the "slashed and puffed" look (where the upper layer was sliced to let the under layer show through) remained pretty steadily popular throughout the Renaissance.
On the bottom half, women wore at least two skirts, or petticoats, for both warmth and fashion purposes. Peasants might tuck the hem of the top skirt up into their belts to keep them cleaner while they worked. Middle and upper class women might add a farthingale - a stiff hooped petticoat - underneath for the most fashionable look. On top of everything, a woman - especially one with plenty of money - would add a gown made of finer materials, often with a split skirt, so an elaborately decorated petticoat underneath could show through.
Women over age 13 were required by law to wear a hat in public. Just about everyone had a white cotton or linen cap called a biggins or coif that covered their hair, but the fancier folk also wore a variety of styles. Anne Boleyn made French hoods (a curved tiara-like headpiece with attached veil) popular in England. Wide-brimmed capitano hats were popular in Spain. Women also wore small-brimmed berets and soft toques, just like the men. The starched white ruffled collar became a staple of fashion starting in the mid-1500s.