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Ruffs at the School of Historical Dress made by Jenny Tiramani and her Students.
Paper ruffs on display at the Shakespeare Heritage Trust in Stratford-on-Avon.
Rachel’s Reader’s Ticket for the National Archives in London.

This summer, before embarking on BGC’s study trip to Paris and its summer field school on the Greek island of Despotiko, I began my travels in England. Earlier in the year I had decided on the topic of my qualifying paper, which is a requirement that every BGC master’s student must fulfill before graduating, and chose to write it on the ruff, which is the starched, pleated collar that epitomizes the structured and sculptural elements of Elizabethan dress. My trip was funded in part by a grant from the BGC Travel and Research Fund, which allowed me to spend four days traveling to different archives throughout England, such as the Devon Archives, the archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the Kent Archives, and the National Archives at Kew. I was also able to visit a variety of different museums and historic sites, and even the School of Historic Dress.

When studying an object like the ruff it can be difficult to grasp its full history, as there are few surviving ruffs and the women who made them were not literate and did not have a public voice. Thus, much of the information we do have concerning the starch women and laundresses who made ruffs has been communicated to us by men who spoke of them from a place of misunderstanding and distain motivated by puritanism, although many men did still wear ruffs themselves. To better understand the ruff as an object, free from biases and anxieties related to class and gender, I would need to access archival materials such as court cases, shopping lists, bills, and permits, and to speak to scholars who have studied the ruff and its construction. After emailing with various libraries and archives and scanning through dozens of documents, I had four archives to visit and thirteen documents to view. About two weeks before my flight I spoke to Elena Kanagy-Loux at the Ratti Center, the textile center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who suggested that I contact Jenny Tiramani, one of my academic heroes, at the School of Historical Dress in London to see if there might be any workshops or programming at the school during my time in London. I sent an email, assuming that I wouldn’t hear back, but much to my surprise and extreme excitement I received an email from TIramani herself and a confirmed private visit to the School of Historical Dress.

First I went to the Cotehele House and Gardens in Cornwall and the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. Both places held many portraits of individuals wearing ruffs, including an example of a blue ruff, which is quite rare to see in portraiture due to the aging of pigments and the cleaning of the work over time. Next, at the Devon Archives, I was able to view a document recording a new year’s gift from King Charles I to Dorothy Speckhard, the starch woman of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne of Denmark, and Henrietta Maria. This document was originally at the archives in Somerset; however, there was construction being done on their building, so they kindly sent this document to Exeter for me. Over the course of this trip, I was continually surprised and extremely grateful for the kindness I was shown by the employees at these archives. Being in Exeter felt like a needed reset after finishing my final papers in New York, especially since it is one of my favorite places to visit. From Exeter, I traveled to London, where I would make my home base for the rest of the week, taking day trips from there to complete my research.

My first day trip took me to Stratford-upon-Avon. I was a big Shakespeare fan in high school, so I had always wanted to go. I visited the archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and viewed documents pertaining to the use of blue starch in ruffs, such as shopping lists and inventories. Through this visit, I connected with a PhD student who is also studying ruffs, and she has shared some great resources with me. The next day, I went to Maidstone to visit the Kent Archives, where I viewed legal documents pertaining to the theft of ruffs. Many of these documents are written partially in Latin, so transcribing them took a long time and a lot of coffee. However, this process of translating the documents was extremely rewarding, as I have not had to translate Latin since my first year of college, and so it felt good to use that knowledge again.

The next day, I woke early to meet Jenny Tiramani at the School of Historical Dress. I am so grateful to her for taking time out of her schedule to chat with me and show me many of her reconstructions of historical ruffs as well as different tools and techniques that were used to starch and pleat ruffs. I was also able to get a sneak peek at the updated color edition of Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion 4. Patterns of Fashion has been a really important resource for my research and so it was amazing to get a glimpse at the new edition and some of the updated content. Tiramani also does reconstructions of historical outfits for movie and theatre productions and had recently designed a costume (which I got to see!) for Jude Law’s upcoming film, Firebrand, which follows the life of Katherine Parr, sixth wife of Henry VIII. Meeting and speaking with Jenny Tiramani was one of the most enriching and interesting experiences of my academic career so far and I feel so lucky to have gotten that opportunity.

After visiting the School of Historic Dress, I made my final stop at the National Archives at Kew, where I viewed a document discussing the process of gaining a permit to produce starch. It was interesting to see that the crown created such a long and in-depth document solely to address the production of starch. It was kept in a huge box full of other documents and so I had to sort through the box until I found the papers with the title I was looking for. One paper that I pulled out smelled strongly of urine and created a multisensory archival experience for me. I appreciated being able to touch and smell things from the sixteenth century and imagine who wrote them and who has touched them since.

During my time in London, I also went to many museums, such as the Tate Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Wallace Collection. I didn’t expect how helpful visiting these museums would be, as I assumed that only the archives would be helpful to my research; however, viewing so many portraits featuring different styles of ruffs, as well as seeing such a range in the ages of wearers, was an important aspect of my studies.

This research trip was such an eye-opening experience. I had never visited archives before, but now I better understand the process of accessing archives and how to incorporate archival documents into my research. I also met a lot of helpful people on my trip and am so grateful for the kindness that I was shown by the archivists, scholars, and librarians that I met with. I know that my research will be stronger because of the archives I was able to access, the museums that I visited, and the people I met.
Rachel Salem-Wiseman is a second-year BGC MA student.