“The Fashion Is the Fashion:” An exploration of Costumes in “Much Ado About Nothing”

Much Ado About Nothing is about upper class people preparing for a wedding, which means fashion is a frequent topic of their conversation. Below I’ve provided a few costume references from the play with definitions from Shakespeare’s Lexicon by Alexander Schmidt.

Elizabethan Cap
Elizabethan Cap
  • Cap- A loose-fitting headdress, or soft brimless head-dress.
    1. “Hath not the world one man but he will wear his cap with suspicion?” (BENEDICK, I,I,)
    2. “Doth not my wit become me rarely? “It is not seen enough, you should wear it in your cap” (MARGARET/ BEATRICE, Act III, Scene iv).
A Fool or Jester's cap or Coxcomb
A Fool or Jester’s cap or Coxcomb
  • Coxcomb- The iconic fool or jester’s cap.
          1. DOGBERRY Let him write the prince’s officer coxcomb” (DOGBERRY, Act IV, Scene ii).
Drawing of a doublet, an Elizabethan leather jacket
Drawing of a doublet, an Elizabethan leather jacket
  • Doublet– A leather jacket worn outside one’s regular shirt.
        • And now will he lie ten nights awake, carving the fashion of a new doublet” (BENEDICK, Act II, Scene iii).


Authentic reproduction of of real doublet.


        • Jerkin– Long close-fitting jacket worn over or in the place of a doublet.
        • Codpiece (below)- cloth case or pocket worn by men at the front of breeches or hose. codpiece11
  • Seest thou not, I say, what a deformed thief this fashion is? how giddily a’ turns about all the hot bloods between fourteen and five-and-thirty? Sometimes fashioning them like Pharaoh’s soldiers in the reeky painting, sometime like god Bel’s priests in the old church-window, sometime like the shaven Hercules in the smirched worm-eaten tapestry, where his codpiece seems as massy as his club? (MARGARET, Act III, Scene iii).

Sometimes entire passages in Much Ado About Nothing refer to fashion, as in this example from Act III, Scene iii:

BORACCIO: Thou knowest that the fashion of a doublet, or a hat, or a cloak, is nothing to a man.

CONRAD: Yes, it is apparel.

BORACHIO: I mean, the fashion.

CONRAD: Yes, the fashion is the fashion (Act III, Scene iii).

This passage tells a lot about Boraccio’s motivations, and also shows a lot about the role of fashion in the Elizabethan period. “Fashion” in this case refers not only to the clothing, (its fine craftsmanship and contemporary style), but also to its wealth. Back in the Elizabethan era, people showed off their wealth and status with the clothes they wear; they literally wore their money on their backs. When Boracchio refers to fashion being nothing to a man, he means that a man of wealth and property has no reason to worry about buying fancy clothes. This betrays the reason Boraccio wants to work for Don John- money, and aspirations of becoming a wealthy gentleman. Act III, Scene iii.

Close Reading- Act III, Scene ii

DON PEDRO: There is no appearance of fancy in him, unless it be a fancy that he hath to strange disguises; as, to be a Dutchman today, a Frenchman to-morrow, or in the shape of two countries at once, as, a German from the waist downward, all slops, and a Spaniard from the hip upward, no doublet. Unless he have a fancy to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no fool for fancy, as you would have it appear he is (Act III, Scene ii).

In this passage, Don Pedro observes Benedick and mockingly tries to get Benedick to confess that he is in love. Benedick has fallen in love with Beatrice and it has changed his behavior completely- including his manner of dress, which Pedro singles out as a sign of love. This is not unlike a similar passage in As You Like It, where Rosaline tells Orlando that disorder in dress is one of the signs of love. To understand Don Pedro’s remarks, one must first look at some of the European fashions of the time.

Ferdinand Bol, c. 1640, "Portrait of Youth With A Sword."
Ferdinand Bol, c. 1640, “Portrait of Youth With A Sword.”

Image 1: The Dutch

Consider this picture of a Dutch courtier by Ferdinand Bol, c. 1640. Notice that though he looks rich, his outfit is fairly austere, no exaggerated codpiece, pants that cover and do not emphasize the shape of the man’s thigh or legs. This is the demure image of the Dutch aristocrat, which is why the liberal prince makes fun of him.

This is an image of a French courtier from the Valois Tapestry (1576). This man’s outfit is practically the opposite of the smart, modest Dutchman. His hose are tight-fitting, decorated with fine embroidery to draw the eye, and his hose show off the shape of his leg. This would be like wearing leather pants today- this outfit is all about flash and sex appeal.  Here is a sketch of German aristocrats from the late 16th century. The English liked to make fun of the baggy clothing of the Germans with their padded slops and their peascod belly doublets. These men look like their clothing is only designed to ward off Germany’s cold winters, rather than looking strong, sexy, or powerful.

Image #3: The Germans

German aristocrats from the late 16th century.
German aristocrats from the late 16th century.

To the right is a picture of German  slops, which, as the century wore on, got bigger,

flying canoe slops
flying canoe slops

and baggier. Going back to the passage quoted earlier, you’ll notice how the people that Pedro makes fun of are all foreigners, none of them are English or Italian. The English liked to make fun of the fashions in other countries, especially the Spanish and the French, (their political enemies). They made fun of the German and French for their slops in particular, probably because slops were so baggy; a man wearing them looked like he was concealing an erection. Pedro is implying Benedick has ‘something to hide,’ since he is thinking about Beatrice all day. Mercutio makes the same joke, when he makes fun of Romeo’s “French slop.”

Don Pedro’s comment about a doublet suggests that Benedick has been walking around with no jacket. This was considered a sign of madness and Ophelia uses it as evidence of Hamlet’s madness in Hamlet, Act II, Scene i: Notice how both passages shockingly refer to the unusual fashion of not keeping ones doublet in proper order. Once again, Pedro is subtly hinting to how Benedick must be in love based on his erratic behavior, which fits in with the stereotype of Spaniards as sex-crazed hot bloods. Spaniards did not Remember, Elizabethans had no heating systems to spare them from cold, so not wearing one’s doublet was very dangerous. Only a madman (and by extension, an unrequited lover), would engage in such self-destructive behavior. Thus, through Don Pedro’s subtle pokes at Benedick, the prince lets him know that he cannot hide his love for Beatrice; it has already manifest itself in his clothes.

As mentioned before, wealthy Elizabethans spent their money on clothes the way modern rich people spend money on yachts and home entertainment systems. Dukes and counts would buy tailor-made, beautifully embroidered clothes, and their outfits sometimes were as famous as the people who wore them.

This final quote from Act III, Scene IV illustrates this principle. The day of Hero’s wedding, her gentlewoman Margaret is comparing her gown to the famous dress of the Duchess of Milan:

By my troth, ‘s but a night-gown in respect of yours: cloth o’ gold, and cuts, and laced with silver, set with pearls, down sleeves, side sleeves, and skirts, round underborne with a bluish tinsel: but for a fine, quaint, graceful and excellent fashion, yours is worth ten on ‘t ( MARGARET, Much Ado, Act III, Scene iv).

Portrait of Christtine of Denmark, 1568
Portrait of Christtine of Denmark, 1568

Margaret refers to a famous gown worn by Christine of Denmark, a real noblewoman who was immortalized in this portrait: This is a portrait of Christtine of Denmark, Dutchess of Milan from 1521-1590. Notice that, just like Margaret’s description, the cloth is cut with gold, the sleeves and gown are adorned with gold, silver, and pearls, and the dress itself is mostly black (the most expensive color to produce back in the 1590s). These were all common fashions for the upper class in the 16th century. Notice also that the cloth on the sleeves is slashed, (cut open) to reveal the much more expensive silk embroidered with silver and gold. Pearls were a symbol of virginity to the Elizabethans, and at this point, Chistine had been widowed twice over, which is why she is clutching the tassel with the pearl around it, as a symbolic assertion of her chastity. The image was scanned from the Weiss Gallery catalogue: A Noble Visage, Early Portraiture, 1545 – 1660, London, 2001.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look at the material culture of Elizabethan England. If you would like more info on Elizabethan fashion, please leave a comment below

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