The Renaissance period encompasses several centuries, so the focus in this article will be the Renaissance before Elizabeth (since we have Elizabethan fashion covered later)
The Renaissance is a historical era and cultural movement in Europe that spanned from the 14th to 17th centuries. The term Renaissance is a French word that means "rebirth". The Renaissance started in Italy and spread throughout Europe through the 14th through 17th centuries. While the period included great leaps in intellectual, educational and socio-political pursuits the period is probably best known for the artists and great thinkers of the time, which include Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, and Michelangelo.
Clothing and Style
Clothing played a large role in Renaissance society, as clothing in the Renaissance was all about defining and showing off one's social status. Germanic, Italian and French fashions heavily influenced the rest of Europe in the period. Clothing was one of the main ways that the wealthy displayed their wealth to the world, and so it was the wealthy that set the fashions and trends that were to be followed. Because of the great difference in wealth and class in Renaissance Europe there are several different fashions, ranging from what the wealthiest would wear to what peasants might wear. Because of the ever-changing times of the Renaissance, fashions also changed more rapidly in this era than in eras before it.
The wealthy displayed their wealth by wearing expensive fabrics such as silk, brocade, velvet, and cotton (Cotton was at this time in history kind of hard to come by in and was thus a 'wealthy' fabric). Furs were also popular among those who could afford them, and oftentimes furs were used by the wealthy as lining on the inside of their garments. Darker colors were the fashion as elaborate embroidery and jewels were often sewn into the fabrics, and dark colors were able to show those features off more. For the wealthy, style was much more important than function.
The lower classes wore much simpler garments than the wealthy, though often trying to imitate the style of the wealthy. Wide sleeved chemises and tight bodices were common. While many fashions stemmed from the upper class, one very popular and recognizable fashion, especially among commoners, was a fashion and technique called "slashing" and was created by the common class. Because clothing was such a status symbol, the ruling class at one time established a rule that only the wealthy could wear multiple colors of clothes, peasants and common people were only allowed to wear one color. People did not like this law as style was just as important to them as anyone, and to rebel against it people would take their shirts (for example) and slash long holes in them and wear them on top of a another shirt, puffing it out through the holes of the first. The technique ended up becoming a very popular Renaissance fashion.
Women's Clothes: Women's style was extravagant and multi-layered. A wealthy woman's attire would often have at least five layers (a skirt, underskirt, bodice, over-bodice or vest, hoop and collar are standard pieces to women's wear). While the early Renaissance period had women wearing fewer layers that consisted usually of kirtle (frock) and gown, by the mid 1500s the women's silhouette was stiff but puffed out and padded with layers. One reason for the layers was simply that layers was a status symbol. The more clothes you were wearing, the wealthier you probably were. One popular fashion was the "Spanish Farthingale" which was a long cone shaped hoop skirt that women would wear with a corset to complete the cone shape. The corset, or 'stay' as it was sometimes referred to, was a garment that was stiffened so that it cinched the waist in and flattened the breasts as part of the thin, cone shape. The era gave rise to the corset as fashion.
Examples of Women's fashions: http://www.costumes.org/history/greatwomen/10340_20.jpg - Earlier Renaissance gown http://www.costumes.org/history/renaissance/norris/book3plate26.jpg -- Spanish Farthingale http://www.costumes.org/history/greatwomen/10340_08.jpg
Men's Clothes: Like women's clothing in the Renaissance, men's clothing changed a few times with fashion. Men's fashions were centered around a "square" silhouette that was achieved by widening the shoulders on vests and coats and padding them. Padding was often made of horsehair. On their legs they wore padded breeches and hosiery with square toed shoes. Very wide sleeves are also an easily recognizable Renaissance fashion, and in men's clothes sleeves often had long vertical slashes down them with another layer of fabric puffing out through them to create the "slashing" technique and style.
Example of Men's Fashions: http://www.costumes.org/history/stibbert/188.jpg - Henry VIII, very square http://www.costumes.org/HISTORY/quicherat/HenriII.JPG - Square fashion http://www.costumes.org/history/stibbert/179.jpg -- puffed and slashed fashion
Headwear: No outfit was complete without headwear in the Renaissance. Women had a variety of headdresses, including the "Pointed Cone" style that played to the cone fashion for women, as well as lace trimmed veils and various headdress, such as the popular French Hood style. Some headdresses had a woman's usually long and braided hair completely concealed, while others allowed some or much of the hair to show along with the headwear. Men's headwear included wide brimmed hats to finish off their 'square' look.
Examples of Headwear: http://www.costumes.org/history/renaissance/boehn/1527sketchwoman.jpg - Women's English headdress http://www.costumes.org/history/renaissance/headresses/renlady3.gif -- Women's French Hood style http://www.costumes.org/HISTORY/renaissance/boehn/henry8th.jpg -- Henry VIII modeling a men's wide brimmed hat http://www.costumes.org/HISTORY/renaissance/boehn/holbeinautoport.jpg - Mens wide brimmed hat
All of the visual examples are pictures that I found on www.costumes.org.