One of the most recognisable and iconic fashion statements of the 17th century surely is the cartwheel ruff. The fancier and bigger the better. I love the sculptural and slightly crazy qualities of a ruff. Here are ten of them, the maddest and craziests ones I could find.
Of course the large pleated white collar did not start off as the huge white cartwheel collar that we find in many 17th century Dutch portraits. It developed from a modest white collar, slightly ruffled for decoration, in the mid 16th century. In the second half of the 16th century it became increasingly popular.
In the early 17th century ruffs became part of the way wealthy people could show off who they were and how rich and powerful they were. The thinner and finer the linen used, the more money you would have spent on it. In England elaborate cutwork and later lace was added or incorporated into the designs. Some of these designs became really very complex. The incredibly fine fabric had to be pleated into hundreds and hundreds of pleats, starched and set into perfect cartwheel folds and kept clean. Some royal or highly aristocratic ruffs even had jewels attached to them, no doubt making the task of keeping them in shape even harder. Over the years some of the ruffs we see in portraits of the time really became extremely big and elaborate. One dreads to think how anyone could move about their daily business while wearing them. Surely you cannot even look down, look where you are going, eat or do much else with a thing like that around your neck!
Although to us they seem hugely impractical, it is obvious that they were very popular all over Europe. While Holland preffered the ‘modest’ undecorated version (but the bigger the richer!), England and Spain went mad for elaborate lace creations. Flanders took the happy medium and combined lace and linen, piled up into layers, making the collars look like huge wedding cakes. France left the ruff sometimes open at the front. All had their modest versions and their extreme and crazy creations. Soon after the height of ruff madness a more practical fashion for a flat collar (the fallen collar) appeared, often edged with elaborate lace.
The ruff, however, remains an intriguing part of 16th and 17th century fashion. It is not only interesting as a fashion item, or as part of a painted portrait, but to me it is also a beautiful sculptural object. The artists of the 17th century so often excelled in portraying how the light fell through the fine and near-transparent linen, how the pleats repeated endlessly, creating an hypnotic rythm. The incredibly bright white objects often stand out in a sober and mostly black and brown painting. The lace versions in Frans Pourbus the Younger’s court portraits play a huge role in displaying an overwhelming bombardment of riches. Jewels, embroidery, lace, silk, hair, it all sweeps the viewer off their feet in awe. Just as the court wanted it.
For a Dutch styled ruff one would need many meters of fine linen. The length ranged from 20-30 meters, which was then pleated tightly into hundreds of pleats. The portraits of Frans Hals or Cornelis Verspronck often show ruffs with approximately 200 pleats, but in Germany there still exists a ruff with no less than 530 pleats. There are very few authentic ruffs left in the world. I have so far found (via an online search) just three: One in Munchen, one in Amsterdam and one in Stockholm. I assume that most ruffs just crumbled into dust or the fabric has been re-used in later times.
Throughout this blog post are some of the maddest ruffs I could find in my image collection, just for fun.