Mercutio: “…for tying his new shoes with old riband? and yet thou wilt tutor me from quarrelling!” (Romeo and Juliet)
Sandra Clark’s Shakespeare and Domestic Life: A Dictionary tells us that “a ribbon is a long narrow strip of fabric, used in this period for lacing shoes, garters, and bonnets, and as decoration for hats, sleeves, and so on.”
In the Elizabethan era, men’s hats were popular. The Elizabethan People by Henry Thew Stephenson tells us, “The place for the hat was frequently upon the head; but quite as often the hat was worn dangling down the back at the end of a brightly-coloured ribbon. It was worn in either place, either within or without doors. The hair was usually cut short, with, however, a love lock left long behind one or both of the ears. It was adorned with pretty bows of ribbon.”
We see ribbons on shoes appearing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when Bottom gives this command: “Not a word of me. All that I will tell you is that the duke hath dined. Get your apparel together, good strings to your beards, new ribbons to your pumps. Meet presently at the palace.” He is helping his friends prepare for the play they’ll put on for Theseus and Hippolyta.
In Ribbon History, Barbara Morris writes, “We do not find many intact textiles from this early time because often clothing was in fact burned to collect the precious metals. Interestingly, during the sixteenth century, the English Parliament tried to make the wearing of ribbons a right of only the nobility.” So again, ribbons fell victim to England’s sumptuary laws. She says that ribbons evolved from the silk trade, and that “Rayon, velvet, silk, and satin ribbon may be the most common types of fabric ribbon; but cotton, wool, and some modern synthetics can be processed in ribbon form.”
Today we might not think of ribbons as anything special, but in the 1600’s they were often considered a luxury.