Dawn's Costume Guide

Decorating the Tudor Cap

The flat cap seems to have been a widespread fashion choice for gentlemen in Europe during the 16th century. There are numerous surviving portraits that document the ways in which it was worn and decorated. The cap appears to have been popular with men old and young throughout the century, and even coming into use by women, but it was worn and decorated differently over the years, eventually disapearing by the end of Elizabeth's reign.

Late in the 15th century the cap is made with a wide brim and a full soft crown, worn with the brim turned up and the fullness of the crown puffing up like a muffin. By 1502, as we see in a portrait of Prince Arthur the cap has a lower crown, and the wide brim is turned up in front and decorated with two buttons and a medallion. The medallion is probably pinned to the crown of the cap holding the brim up.

A painting of Henry Guilford from 1527 shows a similar style still worn some 25 years later, and an unknown sitter in Italy may have worn this style as late as 1540. (Portrait of an Unknown Man, Bartolommeo Veneto)

In 1521 Henry VIII was painted in a similar cap, again with a jewel pinned to the brim, but also with a row of gold ovals on either side of the cap. It is unclear to me if these are bullion knots or beads sewn on. Note the pairing of the gold ovals and the distinctive V shapes formed. They appear to look like tiny gold aglets.

About this time the styling begins to change and a new shape evoles, the one we know as the flat cap. The brim is narrower, lays more horizontal on the head, and the crown is less full. A 1525 portrait of Francis I of France, a contemporary of Henry, shows this hat heavy with jewels and a large feather across the brim. The hat appears to have been quite fashionable in France, as they appear in several portraits of Francis and his court. A 1535 image of French nobleman Charles de Cosse displays the medallion and small v-shaped beads or decorations on the brim. His feather is a small poof on one side.

While the jewelled decoration was popular in England and France, it does not appear to have been a universal fashion. Holbein's 1532 portrait of German George Gisze shows him sitting in a dark, completely undecorated cap. This strikes me as the local fashion, as it seems that a man who could sit for a portrait in fine clothes could also afford decoration on his hat if he chose.

In England and France the jewelled decoration seems to have developed simultaneously, no doubt by close relations between the two countries. By 1536 a number of similar portraits of king Henry VIII of England begin to be painted. It is evident that the styling of the cap has changed from that of Henry's youth, the most noticeable difference being the narrower brim. Additionally, the cap is now decorated across its brim with a symmetrical row of jewels, and has a curled feather on the front brim. The familiar wedding portrait of Henry VIII by Holbein shows him in a dark cap with jewelled pins alternating with pearl and gold decorations. This cap was either a favorite of the king, or was copied prolifically by artists of the time, as it appears in many of the images of Henry VIII. Also in the portraits of the king we see the cap is worn sometimes tilted at a slight angle. It appears to be preferred by Henry pulled down slightly on the right side, but this could also be a result of copying of previous portraits by the artists.

An Italian portrait from about 1540 shows a young man lounging in a dark cap with a feather, a large rectangular decoration, and many small pairs of gold beads or aglets that appear to be hanging from the underside of the brim.

Henry's son Edward suceeded to the throne in 1547, and in portraits of the boy king we see several things. In childhood pictures the hats are similar to those of his father, heavily decorated under the brim and sporting a feather. In one baby picture the cap is worn over a close fitting biggins, and if I was his nanny you'd be certain I would have pinned the cap to to keep it there. A portrait from about 1543 shows Edward in a jewelled cap that has notches in the brim corresponding to the placement of the jewels. (More likely, the jewels were placed where the notches fell).

In this side view of Edward you can clearly see that the decoration goes all the way around the brim, and is not just applied in the front. As Edward grows older, his cap is more rakishly tilted, and the feather reduced to a puff on the uptilted side.

This style of cap was worn later into the century, but it begins to be replaced by other styles. As late as 1571 Charles IX of France is shown in a cap of the same cut, but with markedly different decoration. The gold trim has moved to the top of the brim and to the soft crown. The brim is pulled down slightly to show the decoration, but the cap is still finished with a white feather.

Also during this century the cap appears on the heads of women, though certainly much less often than other styles of hairdressing. A 1566 portrait of Helen of Bavaria shows her in a cap heavily decorated with pairs of pearls and beads placed in a V alternating across the underside of the brim. She wears the cap over coifed and netted hair.

Hans Holbein made drawings of the Duchess of Richmond and Somerset sometime before 1543. She wears a dark hat adorned only with a feather, unusually the feather is also dark and not a white one as if often shown in portraits. Her hair is either short or gathered up and is worn under a coif. In the second illustration here the shape of the notched brim is much more visible where it has been re-drawn across the woman's chest. The artist experimented with decoration, apparently planning a jewelled 'R' on the brim. In another sketch ( an unknown woman, possibly Amelie, sister of Anne of Cleves) the cross shapes of the bead or aiglet trimming used on men's hats is clearly visible.

Finally , a picture of Isabella of Spain, about 1584, shows her wearing the cap with embroidered ribbon or trim as a band around the base of the crown. Her feather has moved to the back of the hat. Though not clearly visible in the portrait, her cap is very close to the one in the portrait of Francis II below.

Additional Portraits

A watercolor sketch by Holbein, "Une Femme du Peuple" (A Girl of the People, ie 'peasant girl') about 1528-31, showing a lower-class girl wearing some sort of hat that looks an awful lot like an early flat cap. Unfortunately the details have not been painted in. The brim appears to be notched, and there are bows at the notches.

Charles Brandon, about 1541. Male children are often portrayed in caps.

De Vos van Steenwijk, 1541. A respectable middle-aged man in a plain cap.

Katherine Parr, widow of Henry VIII, about 1545. She wears a black hat, unfortunately on a black background. You can see the shape defined by the gold trimming and the feather, though.

Francis II of France, as a boy, about 1554.

An unnamed portrait by 17th century artist David Teniers. A very plainly dressed man with a pipe, wearing a flat cap. After the turn of the century the cap appears rarely in paintings of the lower classes, such as this one.

Another unnamed painting by Teniers, of a woman and a child in a middle class music room. The child is wearing a plain cap, the woman wears a hairstyle of the period 1620-1640.

All text and artwork copyright 1990 - 2001 D. Duperault. NOTHING on this site may be reproduced or distributed by any means without my written permission. This information offered in good faith, and worth only what you paid for it.
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