The clothing worn by Europeans during the seventeenth century was influenced by fashion trends—rapid changes in style influenced by trendsetters—as never before. During the course of the century garments went from restrictive to comfortable and back to restrictive again, and excessive ornament was both stripped away and added back to clothing for both men and women. While the very wealthy continued to determine the styles that were most popular, political preferences and the rise of the middle classes also began to have a significant influence on fashion.
From ornamentation to elegance
Fashions in the early seventeenth century continued the trends of the previous century: men’s doublets and women’s bodices were worn tight and stiffened with rigid stays or padding; women’s skirts were given full, rigid shapes with the help of farthingales, or hoops; and the garments of both sexes were laden with ornamentation, from jewelry to lace to the showiness of multiple contrasting fabrics. By the 1620s, however, styles began to change fairly dramatically. While the garments worn remained the same, such as the doublet, breeches, and hose for men and long gowns for women, the overall trend through the midcentury was toward softness and comfort. To allow for easier movement, waistlines on doublets and women’s bodices rose higher, and the padding on both doublets and bodices was removed. The starched ruffs and whisks that once encircled the neck were replaced with the softer, more comfortable falling and standing bands. Women’s sleeves began to rise, showing first the wrist and then the entire forearm. With the exception of petticoat breeches, men’s breeches lost their bagginess and became slimmer and easier to move in. People continued to value rich materials and exquisite design, but they set aside the rigid formality of earlier years and didn’t add ornament for ornament’s sake. Overall, the trend through the first sixty years of the century was toward looseness, comfort, and elegance.
These changes in fashion reflected the rising influence of France, with its freer sense of style, and the shrinking influence of Spain, with its stiff formality. French King Louis XIV (1638–1715), who ruled from 1643 to 1715, helped make France the leading fashion influence of the century. Louis believed that he could best lead his country by setting an example of style and taste in everything from architecture and furniture to food and fashion. He surrounded himself with a huge court of officers and advisers and held numerous lavish balls at which wealthy nobles competed to wear the most tasteful and elegant clothes. Louis’s palace at Versailles became the center for French fashion. At the same time, France became Europe’s leading producer of luxury goods. French cities led the production of silk, lace, and brocade, and they aggressively exported these materials to other countries, expanding their influence. France also exported its fashion in other ways as well such as through fashion publications.
Cavalier versus Roundhead
Though the preferred styles were simpler than in the sixteenth century, French fashions were still quite ornate. In fact, the French love of sumptuous fabrics and carefully chosen accessories led to a revival of fashion excess after about 1660. Stomachers stiffened and lengthened once more, and the overall profile of both men’s and women’s garments emphasized vertical lines that made wearers look tall and slim. For women tall hairstyles, high-heeled shoes, and long skirt extensions, called trains, all added to the effect. Ornament, in the form of decorated swords and baldrics, fancy lace collars, and high rolled boots, came back into style.
While the new lavish clothing styles were adopted by some, others rejected the excessive ornamentation in favor of more restrained styles. Throughout the century people’s clothing styles diverged along these artistic lines. But clothing styles during the seventeenth century were not merely about looks; a person’s choice of clothing also told the world about his or her religious or political positions.
Those who favored the new lavish clothing styles came to be known as Cavaliers, after those well-dressed soldiers who fought in support of the Catholic King Charles I in the English Civil War (1642–48). The Cavalier style soon was associated with a political position that favored the Catholic religion and a strong king. But not all followed this style or this political position. Another group, named after the Roundheads, who fought in support of Parliament, or the governing body in England, in the English Civil War, favored Protestant religions and wanted to give more political power to the people, especially by strengthening representative bodies like the English Parliament. The Roundheads soon developed a style sense of their own. They avoided the ornamentation and excess associated with Cavaliers, instead preferring more sober colors and less decorated fabrics. The most notable fashion innovation associated with the Roundheads was the introduction of the waistcoat and justaucorps as common men’s garments, replacing or worn over top of the doublet.
The most extreme Roundheads were the Puritans, a strict religious sect that held strong ideas about avoiding excess in personal display. Puritans favored black clothes, simple fasteners, and clean lines. Being a Roundhead or a Puritan did not mean that one did not care about fashion, however. Roundheads valued rich if not ornate materials, and the richer followers of this style hired skilled tailors to give their garments a fine cut and finish. The split in fashion sense between the Cavaliers, who were most numerous in the Catholic countries of France, Spain, and Italy, and among Catholic sympathizers in England, and the Roundheads, who lived in the more heavily Protestant countries of England, Scotland, Germany, and Flanders (present-day Holland and Belgium), was one of the major fashion facts of the century.
Quickly changing fashions
The powerful influence of French fashion and the conflicting attractions of the Cavalier and Roundhead styles contributed to a quickening of the pace of change in the world of fashion. Another factor was the rising power of the middle class. Throughout the European countries shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, and other skilled workers gained access to greater wealth and were able to afford moreexpensive clothes. They soon mimicked the styles of the nobles, and the nobles in turn developed new clothing customs to set themselves apart. Styles changed much more quickly. One fashion historian marked seven changes in sleeve style in a two-year span. It became harder and harder to keep up with the latest fashions. Rulers made laws, called sumptuary laws, in order to keep “common” people from wearing the clothes favored by the wealthy, but these laws were ineffective and difficult to enforce. The poorer people remained outside the fashion loop, and continued to wear simplified versions of the garments of the wealthy in everyday fabrics such as wool and cotton.
Fashion history: dressing to impress in the 17th century
What did women wear in the past? For fashionistas in the 17th century, London was the place to look for the latest styles and trends. But, says Tim Reinke-Williams, make a fashion faux pas and you’d soon attract scorn – and you might even get driven out of town
The clothes people wear matter a great deal in the 21st century. Choosing an outfit for a job interview or a first date requires careful thought and preparation. In Tudor and Stuart England, dress was important too, and the daily lives of ordinary women were affected by what they chose to wear – especially in London, which by 1700 was the largest city in Europe
In 1616, Thomas Tuke published a pamphlet called A Treatise Against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women, in which he complained that “once a yeere at least” an Englishwoman “would faine see London, tho’ when she comes there, she have nothing to doe, but to learn a new fashion”. Although hostile to those who lavished too much time on their appearance, Tuke’s comments about women coming to the capital in order to view the latest trends were accurate.
A major attraction of London was the range of shopping opportunities. By Queen Elizabeth’s reign in the second half of the 16th century, merchants were importing a wide range of different fabrics, dyes and textiles which meant that clothes were becoming more diverse and colourful. Most of this linen and lace came from Italy and the Low Countries, but by the end of the 17th century more exotic commodities such as East Indian chintz and calicos were available too.
Women thus had a selection of fabrics to choose from, and were able to purchase a range of accessories as well. These were both decorative and practical. Muffs not only kept hands warm, but functioned as substitute handbags to store handkerchiefs, money and scent. Face masks and hoods were popular too, enabling women to move around the busy city without being recognised. Many women personalised their clothes by adding laces, ribbons and flowers, or by embroidering designs and patterns.
Clothes could be purchased from many different places. Wealthy women, such as the wives of London citizens, shopped at the Royal Exchange and the New Exchange, but tailors, shoemakers, embroiders, glove-makers and milliners could be found throughout the City and in neighbouring Westminster.
Yet even law-abiding women did not have to purchase all the clothes they acquired. Growing numbers of women worked as domestic servants, and were given work clothes by their employers. For example, one Mrs Wynnington made a gown for her servant, Anne Fenton, which was to be paid for out of her wages. Young people gave and received clothes as gifts when courting, elderly women left items of clothing and textiles to female relatives and friends in their wills, and poor women received donations of clothes via their parish if they were eligible for poor relief.
Laced up to the neck
London women were thought to be more fashion-conscious and better-dressed than their sisters in the provinces, and when visiting were said to “take all their best apparel with them” so “that their friends in the Country, may see all their bravery”.
Travellers from other countries also commented favourably on the dress of metropolitan women. In 1562 the Italian Alessandra Magno observed that women wore “dresses laced up to the neck, which make them appear very graceful” and in 1592 Duke Frederick of Wirtemberg thought they were “magnificently apparelled”, perhaps because some of the women he saw wore “gowns after the old German fashion”. In 1662 the Dutchman William Schellinks went walking in Hyde Park and afterwards wrote how “one can see here the most beautiful ladies’ dresses”.
Wearing appropriate clothes for the occasion was very important. Working women needed to have a set of practical informal clothes for everyday wear, but would have aspired to have particular items and outfits to wear on special occasions. In 1660 Elizabeth Pepys, the wife of the famous diarist Samuel, changed her clothes before she went to see her husband and their friend at The Miter, a tavern in Wood Street. In May 1684 Joan Kirk refused to go and visit her husband’s cousin because she believed she lacked clothes which would be “good enough to go a visiting”. Her husband, Edward, only managed to persuade her to come with him after Joan borrowed a hood and scarf from another woman.
People noticed if women wore anything unusual or distinctive. When Elizabeth Hazard went out in “her best apparel” her neighbours were quick to take notice and asked her where she was going. Women also dressed well if they had to appear in court and were keen to create a good impression. Christian Stappleton wore a cloak and taffeta gown when she gave evidence on behalf of her mistress, Jane Hope – although it was alleged that Jane had loaned the clothes to Christian.
One of the main reasons young single women wanted to dress well was to attract the attention of suitors and potential husbands. When Rebecca Langford left Norbury in Staffordshire she was deemed to be “somewhat bare in apparel”, but when she returned from London it was noted that she was “very well apparelled and brought with her a very proper man”.
In the 1670s Hannah Woolley wrote an advice book for young women wishing to become the companions of gentlewomen, in which she commented that there was “a kind of privilege in youth for wearing fashionable clothes” and that dressing well would “add more beauty”.
Up to a point Woolley was correct: in all likelihood young women were more obsessed with keeping up with the latest fashions. But dress mattered to older women too as it reflected their status and authority. Married women wore distinctive scarves and hoods, and when Francis Barnham became sheriff in 1570 his wife, Alice, had her portrait painted in which she wore a fur-trimmed velvet gown to show off her ascent in London society.
Dressing well also helped women to find paid employment. The women who worked in the shops in the Exchange were deemed to be well dressed, and Elizabeth James took on one young woman as a servant because she was “a pretty young wench, and handsomely apparelled”.
In 1659 Goody Marstone was given 12 shillings by the vestry of the parish of St Benet Paul’s Wharf so that she could provide clothes for the orphaned daughter of her friend Goody Tessy to help the girl to get a place as a domestic servant. Evidently the vestrymen thought this would be a worthwhile investment, ensuring that in the long run there would be one less poor woman for them to provide for.
The fashion police
During the 17th century, particular decades witnessed fashion crazes. In the 1610s women wore doublets and broad-brimmed hats, both of which were considered to be very masculine items of clothing. In the 1690s, complex top-knot hairstyles, incorporating large quantities of ribbons, were all the rage.
Moralists were quick to condemn these trends. On 22 February 1619 John Williams preached a sermon before King James I on abuses of apparel and in the 1690s many ballads, the pop songs of the age, condemned the fashion for top-knots, arguing that young women would turn to prostitution in order to afford the new hairstyle.
Legal records reveal that London prostitutes at the upper end of the vice trade, the early modern equivalent of escorts, were well dressed. These women were given specific outfits in order to attract clients, and many received clothes as payment in kind for their services. One Elizabethan bawd, Mistress Hibbens, had “divers suits of apparels” including “silk gowns of several colours” which were worn by the girls who worked for her.
Women in early modern London therefore had a wide range of clothes to choose from, and various means to acquire them. This gave rise to both opportunities and problems. The medieval sumptuary laws had placed more limits on the dress of men than women, and when this legislation was abolished in 1604 women faced no legal restrictions on what they could wear. However, going out in costly apparel which was deemed to be above one’s station, or revealing too much cleavage, risked the wearer being subject to abuse from moralists, clergymen and neighbours of both sexes.
In the 16th and 17th centuries – as in the 21st – clothes offered opportunities for women to empower themselves and create individual identities. But choosing what to wear was a difficult business, and making a fashion faux pas could have disastrous consequences.