Elizabethan Fashion: Any Way You Slash It

A recent reader comment sent me on a journey to discover the history of the style you see below.  If you’re a regular around here, Lady Diana Cecil may look familiar to you (she’s the lady in the punchbowl).  When I first wrote about her, I had no idea what to call the cut-outs on her gown.  Now that I have been educated, I can confidently say they are called slashes, and their history is fantastic.

Lady Diana Cecil by William Larkin, (1614-18) (Ranger's House, Suffolk Collection)
Lady Diana Cecil by William Larkin, (1614-18) (Ranger’s House, Suffolk Collection)

According to popular legend, it all started with a chappie called Charles the Bold.  he was the Duke of Burgundy and in 1476 the Swiss beat his ass on the battlefield.  Ever enterprising, the Swiss looted Charles’s possessions and stumbled on an idea: why not turn the loser’s luxury fabrics into patches that could repair the soldiers’ uniforms?German mercenaries thought this a practical solution to fixing their military garb, and the French court swooned at their unwitting panache.  By the 1500s, slashing was seen all over Europe, brightening ensembles and adding relief to the density of ornate fabrics, as shown on the sleeves below.

Anne of Austria by Peter Paul Rubens
Anne of Austria by Peter Paul Rubens (1620-25)

Another possible origin of slashing describes soldiers cutting strategic lines in their leather tunics to improve maneuverability/breathability but it’s a much less colorful history than Charles’s story.  Whatever way the trend came about, slashing emerged from military fashion and was adopted by both men and women.  Pinking or dagging, which is to say cutting shapes and pulling the bottom fabric out to contrast with the top, was also popular but can you guess which country sported the most elaborate interpretation?  I would’ve said France, but it’s Germany.  A brief exploration of 16th century German portrait painters did not illuminate exactly what this would have looked like, but I did discover that Albrecht Dürer could moonlight as Jesus. In other words, if you happen to know of a good example of the German slash style, do send it my way.

Portrait of a Lady by a follower of  Francesco Salviati del Rossi
Portrait of a Lady by a follower of Francesco Salviati del Rossi

The lady above represents what I’m going to call the entry point into slashing. If you were a fan of subtle, you could go for a few slashes in the shoulder like her, but the style really runs the gamut. I’ve shown you sleeves, shoulders, and the fronts of gowns. That is just the beginning. Shoes and boots were given the knife to add color to otherwise simple designs, and anything that could be slashed was slashed.  The moral authority in Europe even called the peek-a-boo trend depraved. Fashionistas, however, knew there were few upgrades easier than cutting a hole and adding a stitch to keep it from tattering. Even Robert Dudley was a fan.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Attributed to Steven van der Meulen (1560-65)
Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Attributed to Steven van der Meulen (1560-65)

So what do all of you think of this style? Love it?  Trash it?  Willing to resurrect the 1980s style of wearing tights under ripped jeans?

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12 thoughts on “Elizabethan Fashion: Any Way You Slash It

    1. No 80s for you?! I’m forgetting that it’s the 90s that are back now. Maybe only cut-outs on bare skin then…

  1. I think they’re lovely when done subtly. This style was resurrected in the 1930s/40s ball gowns sans the underneath material, so the bare skin showed through. It is a rather sexy look and the draping and slashing is done in the same manner. I do have one question, if everything that could be slashed was slashed . . . what of cod-pieces? *tries to imagine what that would even look like*

    1. Clever, Lady M., bringing up cod-pieces. It would have to take a daring man, but maybe he would do it subtly as well? Thinking about it makes me laugh, so now I will have to look it up just in case 😉

  2. Wonderful post and have shared with friends as well as on the Facebook page for the book Grandma Harrington and the Queen’s Wardrobe by J (Johannes) Froebel-Parker.

  3. “German mercenaries thought this a practical solution to fixing their military garb, and the French court swooned at their unwitting panache.”

    Might this be the only instance in European history where the Germans did something practical (big surprise) that resulted in French love and admiration that rose to the level of panache? Perhaps the key term was “unwitting.” Great story.

  4. Hello Susan,
    Thank you so much for this particular piece. I have a gallery talk to give on Thursday evening at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the theme being Fashion. One of the works I’m including is Rubens’ A Portrait of Madame de Vicq, 1625. You asked for a “good example of the German slash style”, and Madame de Vicq’s ruff and slashes are almost identical to your Anne of Austria 1620-25, also by Rubens. Wonder how that happened. They were definitely all in Paris at the same time, that is Rubens, the de Vicqs and presumably Anne of Austria as she was wife to Louis xiii.
    Not sure how/if I can attach a file here, so I’ll send you an email with it.
    Thanks again, knowing quite a bit about art, but hardly anything on 17th century European court fashion, you helped me immensely.
    Julie

  5. Hello Susan,

    The full length portrait of Lady Diana Cecil in the Suffolk Collection is now at Kenwood House, London.

    I’m a volunteer at Kenwood House and I talk to visitors admiring the portrait of Diana Cecil and the near-identical portrait of her sister Anne. Very often, they ask about the “tears” in their dresses and I’ve never been able to explain them satisfactorily. A search led me to your fascinating web-site where I discovered that the correct term is “slashes”, not “tears”. Your background information on slashing is really interesting and I’ll feel much more confident talking about them now.

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Alan,

      How enjoyable it must be to be a volunteer at Kenwood House! I’m delighted my little blog could help you in answering a common question about slashes. I was curious, too, and had to hunt down an answer.

      Thanks for the update on the portrait’s new home.

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