A Brief Diversion

Playing Virtual Dress-up

I’ve been working on an early 17th century outfit for about 2 months now, but I’ve hit a slight financial roadblock, halting all the dress-up fun in its tracks. While I love Countess Elizabeth Vernon, I don’t have the moxy to go parading around in my incomplete costume just yet…

“Portrait of Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southhampton” by an unknown artist, circa 1590

What’s a girl to do when she’s an only half-dressed? Play dress-up for free, of course! Since parading around in half-costume is kind of unseemly (and uncomfortable, since I’m still working on procuring shoes), I went back to my pre-college addiction to virtual paper dolls, specifically the Tudor Scene Maker by Azalea’s Dolls:


This thing is darn impressive! It has options for everything from sleeve types to ruffs to the color of the flowers on the overskirt! You can be as historically accurate or inaccurate as you please:


Queen Elizabeth I versus Kyana, Queen of Stardust!

The virtual paper doll generator is based on the show The Tudors, but the doll maker is surprisingly historically accurate and offers lots of variations for both ladies and lords! Having difficulty getting real-world gents to wear trunk hose (those puffy pantaloons made of fabric strips)? Dress up a virtual baron instead!


He’s sexy and he knows it. He just likes to mask his enthusiasm for trunk hose behind a wall of contempt.

The best part, however, if that I can “dress up” in as many outfits as I can dream up without having to buy fabric, patterns, or anything else. The miser in me is beyond happy! I can finally make my sister that Elizabethan gown she’s always wanted…


Late 16th century glitz for her, awesome 17th century blackwork for me!

If you’re more interested in fantasy, there are plenty of other awesome dress-ups out there. If you’re a big Lord of the Rings fan like me, you can design clothes for some jolly Hobbits:


or tailor a few outfits for a LOTR dwarf or two, complete with sexy beards for the ladies!


Sorry for the “fluff” post. More fabric-and-thread costumes are in the works, but for now, I’m going to have fun with these. :)

Pinching your Nose, Helping Your Eyes: Pince Nez from the 15th-19th Century

I Can See You More Clearly Through the Glass
than Through the Air

So you costume in the Renaissance, but without your glasses, everything looks like you’re riding a runaway Tilt-a-Whirl. Congratulations! You and Henry VIII have something in common!

I do not know if that’s a compliment or not…

Besides being one of the most famous divorcees of all time, Henry VIII was exceptionally near-sighted. This is a problem for a king who likes to engage in numerous outdoor activities like archery or in Henry’s case, jousting. In fact, Henry VIII received this helmet as a gift from Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1514:

The Horned Helmet of Henry VIII, circa 1514

It is not exactly the most flattering helmet (in fact, many believe it was worn by the court fool, Will Somers), but it’s fascinating for one fact: the golden hinged glasses perched on the prominent nose. Whether this was good ol’ Max poking some major fun at Henry’s well-known nearsightedness, or just a portrait of the king, we may never know. If you watch the video, you can see that in motion, the helmet is actually quite impressive looking. Though Henry’s opponents might have giggled behind their hands while Henry wasn’t looking, imaging seeing this glinting, silver face rocking towards you above a charging warhorse.

The helmet’s eyeglasses look decorative and not functional, but eyeglasses of this hinged type had been in use for over 200 years before this helmet was made and magnifiers made from crystal had been in use since ancient times. Fuzzy eyesight is nothing new, especially considering how much electric lights have improved out viewing environment. We no longer have to squint at embroidery or manuscripts by the meager light of a candle past dark, but we do wear our eyes out squinting at luminescent screens. Medieval glasses did not have temple-to-ear stems as ours do. They consisted of two round lenses held in bone, horn, leather, or metal frames that were hinged in the center like a fan.

“Wildunger Altar” Detail by Conrad von Soest, circa 1403

The BOA Museum’s replica of the Trig Lane Spectacles, circa 1430-40 (replica circa 1976)

Bone Eyeglass Frames, circa 1400-1500

They pinched onto the nose or were held to the face like a 19th century pair of opera glasses. Some enterprising eyeglass wearers tied strings around their ears to hold their spectacles in place:

Luis de Velasco II, Marqués de Salinas, circa 1607

Glasses became quite widespread during the 15th and 16th centuries. Bone frames were made from the leg bones of oxen, which were wide enough to allow a frame to be cut in one piece. Leather frames made for a lightweight pair of spectacles at a low price. If the leather frame wore out, the lenses could be put into a new frame inexpensively and without too much trouble at the local spectacle merchant’s shop.

“The Ill-Matched Lovers” from the studio of Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, late 15th century
Northern Europeans always enjoyed a good comical paintings with a touch of scandal. This work is no exception. While the young lady and older gentleman look at a selection of eyeglasses (ironically, of course!), the young husband and elderly wife get a little too cuddly in the background and he’s even so bold as to reach right into the money pot! Obviously the elderly man needs those spectacles quite badly. This was a popular motif, but what’s really fascinating is the box of glasses at hand. We do not think of spectacles as medieval/renaissance nor commonplace, yet here is a painting showing a good lot of eyeglasses ready for purchasing.

Eyeglasses with stems to sit on the ear were invented in the 18th century, but the simple, round-lens style without earstems remained popular into the early part 19th century until they evolved into reading glasses that hung from a chain pinned to the lapel, becoming the Victorian pince nez glasses we know and love.

Glasses 17th century

Spectacles and Carved Wood Case, circa 17th century

Spectacles and Mother of Pearl Case, circa 1685-1725
Another English king, James II, was rumored to have owned this fine pair of folding spectacles.

Pince Nez Glasses, circa 1900

More historical glasses info:

The Pince Nez Guide” – Multiple styles by date

Eyeglasses and Spectacles from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance” on Larsdatter – Super fantastic database from everything medieval and renaissance!

Chart of Heymann Collection Discovered at the Musée National de la Renaissance (The Eyeglass Cases, Part 1)” – Also, check out part 2!

How to Make Medieval Eyeglasses” – If you know how to weld, this guide tells you how to use an old pair of your own glasses to make a more period-correct pair. Eliminate the ear wires for 14th-17th century glasses.

Rivet Spectacles: The Earliest Style” – Lots of information on Medieval eyeglasses including a wonderful chart of known examples.

Recreation of Medieval Hinged Eyeglasses, made 2008
Made with wood, rivet, and twine with round glass lenses

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!