A ruff is an item of clothing worn in Western, Central, Northern Europe and in Spanish America from the mid-16th century to the mid-17th century. The round and flat variation is often called a millstone collar after its resemblance to millstones for grinding grain.
The ruff, which was worn by men, women and children, evolved from the small fabric ruffle at the neck of the shirt or chemise. Ruffs served as changeable pieces of cloth that could themselves be laundered separately while keeping the wearer's doublet or gown from becoming soiled at the neckline. The stiffness of the garment forced upright posture, and their impracticality led them to become a symbol of wealth and status.
Ruffs were primarily made from linen cambric, stiffened with starch imported from the Low Countries. Later ruffs were sometimes made entirely from lace, an expensive embellishment developed in the early sixteenth century.
The size of the ruff increased as the century went on. "Ten yards is enough for the ruffs of the neck and hand" for a New Year's gift made by her ladies for Elizabeth I of England in 1565, but the adoption of starch allowed ruffs to be made wider without losing their shape. Later ruffs were separate garments that could be washed, starched, and set into elaborate figure-of-eight folds by the use of heated, cone-shaped goffering irons.
Ruffs were often coloured during starching, with vegetable dyes giving the ruff a yellow, pink or mauve tint. A pale blue colour could also be obtained via the use of smalt, although Elizabeth I took against this colour and issued a royal prerogative: "Her Majesty's pleasure is that no blue starch shall be used or worn by any of her Majesty's subjects, since blue was the colour of the flag of Scotland ..." At their most extreme, "cartwheel ruffs" were a foot or more wide; these cartwheel ruffs required a wire frame called a supportasse or underpropper to hold them at the fashionable angle.
By the start of the seventeenth century, ruffs were falling out of fashion in Western Europe, in favour of wing collars and falling bands. The fashion lingered longer in the Dutch Republic, where ruffs can be seen in portraits well into the seventeenth century, and farther east. The ruff remained part of the ceremonial dress of city councillors (Senatoren) in the cities of the Hanseatic league and of Lutheran clergy in Denmark, Norway, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland.
The ruff was banned by Philip IV of Spain.
Ruffs remain part of the formal attire of bishops and ministers in the Church of Denmark and the Church of the Faroe Islands and are generally worn for services. The Church of Norway removed the ruff from its clergy uniform in 1980, although some conservative ministers, such as Børre Knudsen, continued to wear them. Ruffs are optional for boy sopranos in Anglican church choirs.