Our website uses affiliate links. If you purchase items through our links, we make a small commission. Thank you!  

Welcome to Episode #169 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Portraits of ladies and gentlemen from the late 16th century show men and women adorned in all manner of finery, including everything from flowing gowns, to magnificent swords, and even those infamous Tudor ruff collars,but what exactly did it take to get into all those fine outfits? When Shakespeare surveyed his closet in the morning before he got dressed for the day, were there certain items he needed like an undershirt or socks? This week, we are diving into the world of early modern clothing to look at what Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and his female counterparts would have worn under their clothes. Our guest this week is Tudor clothier and historical costumer, Bess Chilver, who joins us to answer questions (some of which have been submitted by our members here at That Shakespeare Life), about what kind of underwear there would have been for people in turn of the 17th century England, including underwear, support garments, apparati needed for wigs, socks, and more.

Join the conversation below.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay | iHeartRadio

Bess Chilver is a professional costumer and historical tailor, specializing in 16th century Tudor clothing. Bess has attended the award winning Great Recreations of Tudor Life at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk England, where she created her own gentry gown for the year 1593 along with several other creations specific to the 16th century. She frequently partners with other historical costumers to test period patterns and  has been published extensively on the history of Tudor dress and costume.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Bess Chilver about :

  • When Shakespeare was at home, would he have had a closet or dresser that he kept his clothes in?
  • What was the standard underclothing for a man of Shakespeare’s station to use for daily wear?
  • One of the items most depictions of Shakespeare himself are known to include are what’s affectionately called “those poofy shorts.” What is that item of clothing called and what was used to make them poof out? 
  • … and more!

The video version of today’s show (complete with the period costumes Bess brings into the studio and shows on camera) is available just for patrons! Find it inside That Shakespeare Film Library on Patreon.

in his sleep he does little
harm, save to his bed-clothes about him


Alls Well That Ends Well (IV.3)

Woodcut Illustration of 16th Century Gardners. This kind of work would have used the nightshirt Bess Chilver shows in today’s interview. It was a garment of high practical value. This woodcut is taken from Thomas Hill’s The Gardner’s Labyrinth, published in 1594. This image is public domain. See the source and more images from this book here: Source

Underwear: Tudor Nightshirt

There were many different styles of nightshirts for men to sleep in, including a variation on cuffs and ties to reflect one’s station. This shirt was not only something to sleep in, but could be worn under your clothes as a linen undershirt similar to what men wear today. 

To the Tudor mind, the pores of your skin was where disease could enter the body, and thus exposing one’s skin to the elements was considered dangerous. This under layer of clothing, made of linen for all strati of society, would be the first layer against the skin protecting the wearer from the outer garments as well as exposure to the wind, weather, or other elements. Wool, leather, or other hard to clean materials were not used for this layer of clothing because you wanted to not only change this layer frequently, but you wanted to be able to wash it regularly. 

Clean clothes were looked upon as important to the overall healthy and hygeine of the Tudor period. Contrary to popular belief about the Tudors, they weren’t disinclined to hygeine. In fact, they were extremely focused upon being clean and protecting against disease, they just had not developed all the knowledge about viruses and bacteria that informed their choices. 

Related Episode You Might Enjoy

I could find in my heart to disgrace my man’s apparel,
and to cry like a woman; but I must comfort the weaker vessel, as
doublet and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat…


As You Like It (II.4)

Once thought to be a portrait of Elizabeth I, the subject is now debated, but the outfit demonstrates what a farthingale looks like when worn c.1600, this painting is called “the Portrait of a Lady”, and was completed around 1595-1605 Today’s historians believe it is likely Elizabeth Southwell, granddaughter of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, and the maid to Elizabeth I of England (The same Elizabeth Southwell who wrote the after death accounts of Elizabeth I) Some others believe it could also be of Frances or Margaret Howard, daughters of Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham. Unknown artist. Source

Underwear: Pair of Bodies

For their part, women’s underclothes were also inclusive of a linen layer to protect the skin but additionally focused on the visual appearance of their bodies outwardly. Thus, one of the main components of a woman’s underclothing was the pair of bodies, sometimes called a corset, and items like the farthingale or hoop skirt. 

The first historical written reference to a separate undergarment for women is found in the wardrobe accounts of Mary Tudor. There, the records indicate Mary had 

“Item for making of one peire of bodies of crymsen satin| Item for making two pairs of bodies for petticoats of crymsen satin | Item for making a pair of bodies for a Verthingall of crymsen Grosgrain”

The fashion of using a “pair of bodies”, which clothing historians explain is another phrase for corsets, was a staple item for women in Elizabethan England.

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

Why dost thou
garter up thy arms o’ this fashion? dost make hose of


Alls Well That Ends Well (II.3)

Charles IX of France wearing padded hose, 1566, by François Clouet – 1. The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202. 2. Bilddatenbank KHM. Public Domain. Original Source

Underwear: Pair of Hose

Another personal item of clothing worn by men during Shakespeare’s lifetime was a set of hose. These were very similar to women’s panty hose we know today, but instead of sheer were designed to be thicker material, protective against the harsh English weather. The length of these hose (and the “poofy shorts” that were often paired with them) gradually lengethened overtime into the pants with socks we know today.

For all of Shakespeare’s lifetime and well into the 17th century, this style was popular for men. The hose worked like tights, often having feet in them, but they were open at the crotch (instead of having material extending up to the waist). This reality for tights is one reason for the development of the codpiece. By the 16th century, men separated their clothes into upper hose and nether hose.

Trunk hose were short and padded. If they were very short, a set of cannions would be worn with them (fitted hose that ran all the way to the thigh). Another kind of hose were called slops and these reached down to just below the knee (think of these as a kind of short yoga pants of the 16th century). Shakespeare mentions slops in Henry IV part II and Much Ado ABout Nothing. In H4P2, Falstaff says,

What said Master Dommelton
the satin for my short cloak and my slops?

Interestingly as this style developed, the Germans specifically came up with a kind of slops called Plunderhosen, and the identification of certain countries and their styles of men’s clothing comes up in Shakespeare’s reference to slops from Much Ado About Nothing, when Don Pedro says: 

There is no appearance of fancy in him, unless it be
a fancy that he hath to strange disguises; as, to be
a Dutchman today, a Frenchman to-morrow, or in the
shape of two countries at once, as, a German from
the waist downward, all slops, and a Spaniard from
the hip upward, no doublet.

When the hose are paired with what we think of today as “poofy shorts” (also commonly called “pumpkin pants”), this was a form of “pansied” hose–referring to the adding of panes of fabric– and these extended from the waist to the leg. You can already see the development of the word “pants” in English from this style. 


Have the latest updates sent right to your inbox every Monday, where you can start your week off with Shakespeare!
I’ll send you this diagram of The Globe Theater to welcome you.

In cypress chests my arras counterpoints,
Costly apparel, tents, and canopies,
Fine linen, Turkey cushions boss’d with pearl,


Taming of the Shrew (II.1)

English Chest c. 1490-1520. Oak. Overall: 69.6 x 127 x 41 cm (27 3/8 x 50 x 16 1/8 in.). Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Paul G. Ecker in memory of Dr. and Mrs. Enrique E. Ecker 1971.281. Not on display, but part of the Medieval Renaissance Collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art and available to view on their website. This image is in the public domain. Original Source

Underwear Storage: The Linen Chest

What we have in our homes today as a closet began as a linen chest. Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have kept their clothes in a wooden box, designed for the purpose. These would have been in the homes of 16th century people and each person would have had their own clothes. (Children may have sometimes shared with their parents). 

When William Shakespeare got dressed in the morning, he would have selected items from his linen chest. Either his wife, or a servant, would have helped the bard put his clothes on for the day, though as Bess points out today, it is possible to do it yourself (which Shakepeare could have also done, but it was common to have help.)

Want to see Shakespeare's Trip to London?

This historically illutrated map shows one possible path between London and Stratford Upon Avon that William Shakespeare could have travelled by foot to get from his home to his workplace in London. Using primary documents and quotes from Shakespeare's plays that reference specific inns and taverns along this path, the map pinpoints where the inns were located (including the one owned by the Davenant family, where it is believed Shakespeare frequently stopped when passing by.)

Newsletter subscribers get maps like this one regularly, sent to them completely free just to say thank you for being a subscriber. Want to get free artwork yourself? Use this form to sign up for weekly updates and get this guide to welcome you!

Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on Stitcher.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

We encourage you to join the That Shakespeare Life community on Facebook. It’s a community of fans of That Shakespeare Life and a meeting place of professional Shakespeareans and Shakespeare enthusiasts.

You can tell your friends on Twitter about your love of Shakespeare and our new podcast by simply clicking this link and sharing the tweet you’ll find at the other end.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life.