Dawn's Costume Guide

Clothing of Lower-class Men in 16th Century Flemish Art.


The Flemish market paintings of the 16th century offer rich sources of visual information on the ordinary clothing of the lower working class people of the time. While women far outnumber men in these paintings, enough examples exist to generate a reasonably thorough idea of what working men wore in the mid to late 1500's in the low countries. These pictures, while often unflattering to men of the time, are none the less clear when it comes to their clothing.

After examining many paintings, engravings and woodcuts I've noticed that there are three distinct types of lower-class people depicted. At the lowest end of the economic scale, as depicted by their clothing, are the farmers and country laborers. In these images men and women are shown barefoot, often in ragged clothing that has a noticeably looser fit. [see image at left] They are shown working in rural settings, or posed with agricultural tools or animals.

At the other end of the scale is the more well-off urban dweller. These men and women are depicted in city scenes, at leisure in a tavern or at a feast. Their clothing is neat, more fitted to the body, with a more fashionable cut. Men and women wear shoes, the men may have nether-stockings in addition to hose, and both sexes may wear small ruffs, or collars. Men sport fashionable caps, while the women may wear starched caps. I believe these scenes represent a serving-class which receives pay for household or shop work.

Between these two groups lies the majority of representations of the Flemish market. In general these scenes depict a town market day and show one or more women sitting with baskets of fruit, vegetables and nuts, sometimes with her children. When the painting includes men, they are shown with poultry, fish, or livestock. Men are also often included as a lusty companion, frequently with his hand on the woman's breast, or in some other suggestive pose. The people in these scenes are probably villagers who have come to the city to sell their goods. They represent the common, rural countryfolk who are the backbone of the local economy.

Men in the market scene wear a variety of clothing articles common to all three groups. They wear hose, low shoes, white shirts without ruffs (though there may be a ruffled collar), and some combination of jerkin, doublet, or lose coat. Most of these men wear a hat of some kind, though they are occasionally seen bareheaded.

Because men of this social class are shown while working, we are able to see the various layers of clothing they wear, and in some paintings the seams and fastenings are even visible. This makes reproduction of these garments much easier to figure out, and much less reliant on guesswork.


All the lower-class men wear hose, with rare exceptions. I have seen a few men depicted as bare legged, men who are too poor to afford hose, though in most cases even beggars have patched and ragged hose. Very late in the century pants come more into fashion and a few market men appear with ragged pant legs. The vast majority of men are still wearing hose, either the 'pair of legs' kind, or the 'sewn in the crotch' kind, both styles tied to a vest or jerkin with points. They may have also been worn tied to a belt or drawstring, as men are often painted in only shirt and hose, in this case there is nothing to tie the hose to in order to keep them up.

This man wears white, probably bias-cut linen hose and low shoes. You can see the seams up the back of his legs.


Footwear on lower-class men of this period falls into four categories, the first of which isn't footwear at all, it's bare feet. Beggars, cripples, and farm laborers are depicted barefoot. The next group, often seen in paintings like "Peasant Dance" shows a kind of low, sturdy, thick shoe. This may have a wooden base and a leather upper, or be entirely constructed of leather with several layers used as a thick sole. This is a working man's shoe. Better off working-class men seem to wear a finer, more delicate slipper-like shoe as shown in the painting "Merry Company." A small percentage of men are shown wearing boots. Unlike the tall well-fitting boots of the nobility, these are looser, and somewhat crudely constructed. Or they are at least drawn that way.

Detail from Merry Company. Man at left wears low, flat slipper-like shoe with strap, at right low shoe without strap.


Unlike shirts shown in portraits of the upper class and nobility during this period, the shirts worn by working class men are very simple in design. They often do not have collars, are not constructed with gathering or ruffles, do not have cuffs, and many appear to have no front opening. These shirts are cut large and lose. They hang to the thigh, knee, or below. The neck opening is wide and round, and it is very possible these shirts are meant to be pulled on over the head much like a modern t-shirt. From various paintings I have found that shoulder, sleeve, and side seams were used in construction. I found one example of a shirt which may have a small slit from the center neck in the front, which closes with a tie.

Look at the men in white shirts in this close-up image. The man in the strange bent over position at right has straight sleeves rolled up to the elbow, a large round neckline on his shirt, which is tucked into his hose at the waist. The man behind him holding onto the post wears his shirt untucked, with sleeves down to his wrists. He also wears a narrow belt with a red pouch. There is a small slit in the side seam of his shirt.

This man also wears a loose shirt with a large neck opening. His shirt is tucked into his dark brown hose, but he wears an apron to protect himself as he works.


Working men are often depicted wearing a sleeveless vest or jerkin. This jerkin may be short -cut above the natural waist, at about rib level or slightly higher, or it may be longer, as far down as thigh length. These jerkins are almost always straight cut, lose fitting, and plain. In many cases the jerkin was probably worn so the man would have something to tie his hose to in order to keep them up.


Two of the men in this farm scene wear loose gowns over their shirt and hose. The gown has long straight sleeves that are slightly full. The sleeves of the man at left seem to narrow at the wrist. Both gowns have full skirts which are pleated into the waistline of the body. The gown of the man at left (pulling on the rope) has fallen open in front and you can just see the bulge of the codpiece on his hose.


Woman with Vegetables. The man wears a narrow brimmed woven straw hat.

Peasant Dance. A low, rolled brim, round hat. The man has stuck a spoon into the side of it as an ornament.

This picture shows two men in the center in long tunics or coats that reach to the thigh, with long sleeves. They wear caps. The man on the right wears a short jacket and his shirt hangs out underneath. The little boy in the foreground also wears a flat cap. Two men standing in the left side of the picture wear (on left) a hip length tunic or coat, and (on right) a short jacket with shirt hanging out. They are wearing leggings with garters, and thick shoes.

Recreating peasant men's clothing from commercial patterns

Here are my comments on commercial patterns currently, or recently available that could be adapted to create the look of mid to late 16th century lower class men's clothing. Most of the clothing is really simple square shapes, but sometimes you just need a pattern to help you get the size right. I'll update this when I can, but patterns go out of print all the time, and I have no control over that.

McCall's 3789 The plain tunic in view C is almost perfect. I'd narrow the sleeves a bit, not much, just remove the flare and make them straight tubes. Also remove some of the flare fromt he sides of the shirt.

McCall's 4952 There is a vest pattern here that can be used for the jerkin, just cut it off at waist level or slightly higher.

McCall's 2339 Take one of the straight sleeved tunic patterns and make it thigh length for a shirt.

Butterick 4574 Has a vest pattern that can be shortened to waist length to make a jerkin. Remove the sleeve caps.

Butterick 5656 Includes pattern pieces for hose. You can modify the tunic by leaving off the collar and shoulder tabs, and cutting it at the waist (omitting darts) for a jerkin. You could possibly adapt it as a coat by adding additional fabric into the skirt, pleating in the fullness in the back and sides.

Simplicity 5152 Out of Print The tunic shirt is just about perfect as is. Make it in plain solid white linen or cotton with no embellishment. If you have the skill to do so, remove the front neck slit in favor of a larger neckline that can be pulled over the head.

Simplicity 8587 (1999) The man's shirt (view D) and vest work just as they are, though you should shorten the vest (jerkin) to waist length. The pants with leg wraps in view C aren't really right, but they will work with the look. You can improve the shirt by leaving out the slit in front and making the neck opening slightly larger so it pulls over your head. Be careful, a little bit of enlargement adds up fast on a neck opening.

Simplicity 5925 (2002) The vest in this pattern is simple and will work, shorten it to waist length for the best effect. I advise against using the shirt because it is so very wrong for this century. The pants might pass for venetians, but if you choose to wear them you are no longer representing the peasant class.

Simplicity 5574 (2003) Out of Print View B, based on styles of the early 16th century makes an acceptable overgown. Make it a size too large in very plain fabric with no trimming. Leave off the lace and buttons. The length should come to the knee, not above it. If you feel you can handle it, square off skirt pieces 21 and 22, lay them out on your fabric and cut one long rectangle and pleat that into the body instead of using the wedges. Make the body of View B without sleeves, skirts or collar for a nice jerkin.

The Green Pepper makes two styles of sportights for adults, #405 and #406. These patterns can be adapted to make renaissance hose. If you aren't comfortable working with stretch fabric, try to buy hose or tights from a ren-faire vendor. Green Pepper patterns can be bought at Joann's, though they might not be on display in the pattern area, I often see them in some corner of the fashion fabric section. They also have a website somewhere.

Period Patterns has several packages that include hose, #43, #58, and #101. I know that #101 (and possibly the others) is for 'period correct' bias cut (not stretch) hose and that it works. However, these patterns run about $25 apiece and never go on sale for 99 cents. A number of online vendors sell these patterns.

All text and artwork copyright 1990 - 2004 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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