Example of a ruff (plooikraag), Holland. c. 1615-1635 Example of a ruff (plooikraag), Holland. c. 1615-1635 Courtesy Rijksmuseum Amsterdam acc. no. BK-NM-13112.

A ruff, or neck-ruff, was a fashionable garment worn in Western Europe from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. They were worn by urban men, women and children. Ruffs were often embellished with lace (bobbin laceembroidered lace), embroidery or a combination of these forms. The lace, and the full ruff, were sometimes also known as a piccadill. The garment is probably of Spanish origin.

The earliest forms of ruffs derived from the decoration, in the form of a long, very narrow length of gathered or pleated linen (such as a fine cambric, Holland or lawn), along the top edge of a shirt or chemise’s neckband. Over time, the pleats/gathers became more formalised and were goffered or worked into open, tubular folds, sometimes in the form of figures-of-eight. The individual folds were known as sets and were formed by moulding the cloth into shape using a series of ‘setting’ sticks. At this point, the width of these bands was relatively narrow. They were often only decorated by a narrow, buttonhole stitch edging worked in black or coloured thread. Sometimes two pleated ruffs were placed on top of each other to give extra height.

Up until the mid-1560's, ruffs were part of the main garment, but then they became separate items of clothing that were pinned or tied to a shirt or chemise. This change took place partially due to a desire to show off a person’s wealth and status, but also to technological changes in the form of the introduction of starch in c. 1560. The use of starch meant that ruffs could become bigger as they were, to a certain extent, self-supporting due to their stiffness. As the ruff became even larger, however, it was also necessary to use supportasses (also known as underproppers, piccadills, rebatos or whisks) in the form of a metal wire frame or a thick card at the back of the neck to hold it in place, especially as up to five metres of cloth could be used to make some of the larger forms of ruffs. The more expensive and higher status versions were further decorated along the outer edge with lace, gold and silver thread, spangles and sometimes with embroidery with silk.

The necessity to use starch also meant that the men and women wearing a ruff had to be very careful not to ge wet, and certainly not walk in the rain.

Ruffs again came into fashion in the early nineteenth century with the rising popularity of romantic, historical clothing, as for instance in imitation of the dress of Mary Queen of Scots.

Ruffs remained in use by some traditional segments of society until the late twentieth century. For example, some Protestant and Lutheran clergy in parts of Scandinavia still wear a ruff as part of their liturgical garments. Neck ruffs were often worn with matching hand ruffs worn at the sleeve cuffs.

In the Netherlands, where the ruff remained popular well into the seventeenth century, the garment was known as a molensteenkraag (millstone collar), plooikraag, pijpkraag or lubbenkraag.

See also: Elizabeth Wriothesley; Family portrait of Cornelis de Vos; Portrait of Margaret Graham, Lady Napier; Portrait of a Young Girl


Rijksmuseum Amsterdam online catalogue (retrieved 12 August 2020).


Last modified on Wednesday, 12 August 2020 10:37
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