A Survey of Common Women’s Clothing 1660-1680

Dressing for Tangier…Or What To Wear To The Event In November

On the weekend of 3 November, I will attend an ECWSA event at Fort Mifflin near Philadelphia. But unlike the other ECWSA events I’ve attended at Fort Mifflin, this one isn’t exactly set in the English Civil War Period (1642-1649). It’s a Restoration Period event (1676 specifically but impressions from 1670-90 are welcome). The problem is that I don’t do Restoration.

Since I do English Civil War (mid-17thc) and Golden Age of Piracy (late 17thc), I have a general knowledge of what was worn in this time period. But I’ve never looked at it in depth. And I’ve never had any reason to study it closely enough to replicate garments for it.

So I decided to start early with a survey of genre art of the period in order to get a good picture in my head of the types of clothing worn by common women in this time period.

Looking at the plethora of genre paintings by Dutch masters such as Vermeer and De Hooch and Steen among others, I take note of the outfits worn by maids and their mistresses in the cities and also on rural women. But with all good clothing reconstruction, the first question we must ask is “What’s she got on under there?” You can’t build an outfit without the right foundation, so it’s important to know what common women in the 1660s and 1670s were wearing as underwear.

Luckily Antwerp painter Jan Siberechts was a little obsessed with rural women hitching up their skirts and crossing streams or doing work. See one of his typical subjects at left and another at right. You may click the one on the left for a better look. Each woman wears a tight, blue, front-laced bodice with shoulder straps over a loose, square sleeved shift. In the stream pictures, we can even see the hem of the shift under her petticote. She appears to be wearing only one.

Interestingly, her petticotes are trimmed with gold braid. This is not something we’d expect to find on a woman getting water from the stream or working in a market garden. These are not wealthy women but rural labourers who may not even own their own land. It is strange to see gold trim on their petticotes even though their petticotes are decidedly lower class — their mid-calf length indicates that the wearer does physical labour and doesn’t want to dirty the hems. There was a goodly trade in second-hand clothing at this time, but I don’t think that explains it. It just doesn’t make sense for rural working women to wear gold in any form — even if they could afford it, it would just get ruined. I believe the gown stripes on their garments are artistic additions made to “pretty them up.”

How do we know these women are wearing their underwear, you may ask. Surely people don’t walk around in their underwear no matter how intense the work they’re performing. Well, if we observe the other women in the pictures — the one to the left of the stream walker who is taking off her stockings in preparation of going into the stream, or the ones working elsewhere in the market garden (see picture at right) — we see them wearing jackets. So we can assume that the women wearing jackets are also wearing this bodice, petticote and shift outfit underneath.

But was it really acceptable for women to run around in their underwear? Genre paintings were intended to be slightly risqué and it may be that women never appeared in public so scantily dressed. However, we have accounts of men working in nothing but their shirts and breeches when we know this was not acceptable societally. This is much like today — it is okay for a man to take of his shirt if he’s doing heavy labour, but he is required to put it back on to go into a convenience store to get a bottle of water. Personally, I would not appear at a historical site wearing only this unless I were doing some very strenuous work.

Have you ever wished you could turn the subject of a painting around and see what the back of her outfit looks like? Well, Steen and De Hooch give us that opportunity in the paintings at left and right, Steen’s “Celebration at the Birth” and De Hooch’s “Courtyard”. The maid at the back of De Hooch’s “Courtyard” appears to be scrubbing a cooking vessel over a barrel and is not completely dressed — her sleeves are rolled up and her jacket is missing. She does, however, wear a partlet which would keep her from looking indecently exposed. Unlike the rural woman shown above, this maid is working in a courtyard in a city while her mistress and master are enjoying a drink elsewhere in the picture. So obviously she is presentable. Curiously, the bottom of the armscye of her bodice is square. This may indicate that the bodice is self-lined and the fabric cut from the armhole is tucked under rather than removed and discarded.

However, the maid with her back to the painter in Steen’s “Celebration at the Birth” is wearing a little more. She has full sleeves over her shift and she is wearing a partlet. She is in a posture that may indicate she just came in from the kitchen and she appears to be speaking to one of the other women in the room, perhaps receiving her instructions for the rest of the day. Her sleeves almost appear to continue under her bodice. There are seams visible from the bottom back corner of her armscye and slanting to her waist. No boning channels are visible, but the bodice is obviously very stiff.

These paintings always give me the feeling that the bodice and petticote are not separate garments but rather a top and bottom sewn together at the waist. I have found women wearing these garments in many different postures and I have never seen evidence for the top and bottom moving separately or anything showing at the waist which would be inevitable if the garments were not sewn together. Indeed, common women’s clothing consisting of a top and bottom joined by a waist seam dates to at least the early 15th century. And it is not unusual among common women for tops and bottoms not to match. It has been remarked up as early as the Elizabethan period in wills and inventories — worn out bodices and skirts could be replaced with new ones from a different dress that was a different colour. And perhaps since this dress is typically worn beneath a jacket, the lack of matching bodice and skirt didn’t matter.

Just yesterday, I saw something I’d never noticed before in De Hooch’s 1659 painting of a mother who’s preparing or just finished nursing her baby. I have used this painting many times to demonstrate the existence of front-lacing stays in this time period, but now I wonder if it doesn’t show something else entirely. If you trace the line of the grey petticote with your eye, you will see that it opens in exactly the same way as the bottom of the stays. What are the chances that it would lay so perfectly? What are the chances that the painter would think such an arrangement of fabric was artistic? And why on earth would you leave your petticote open at the front like that? Surely the opening would be on the side over when you wear your pocket…

You can click on the picture at left to see a larger version with more detail.

I believe what we are seeing here is a bodice sewn to skirts, not separate stays and a petticote. The way the skirts stand open are the way they would lie if this was one contiguous garment, not a separate top and bottom.

This arrangement of fitted bodice sewn to skirts, commonly called a kirtle or petticote bodice, is common among women in the previous century. We do not have surviving stays for common women this early in the period so it is possible that only courtiers were wearing them and both the wealthy merchants depicted in these paintings and their servants and rural counterparts were wearing kirtles.

Moving along, we see in the picture above one type of jacket worn over the underwear we’ve been discussing.

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