A constant challenge for women in lesser-known re-enactment periods is what to wear. Although there is a good deal of portraiture for the period, hardly any extant garments exist, and this makes knowing exactly what was worn difficult. The Tudor/Elizabethan Patterns of Fashion by Janet Arnold stops abruptly in 1620 and the next volume doesn’t begin until 1660, ignoring almost entirely the period of the 30 Years War and the English Civil Wars. Add to this the even more scant information on common people’s clothing, and you can see the problem.
However, thanks to a plethora of exacting Dutch artists who preferred to paint street scenes and use common people as their subjects, we have a resource for clothing research if we will undertake to study it. Also, the shapes of the upper class garments of the early part of the century seem to persist in the lower class garments of the mid- to late century. We can therefore make educated guesses about how the garments were constructed.
Nowhere is this costume “trickle down” more obvious than in “Brothel Scene” by Frans van Mieris. Although this picture is dated circa 1658, the jacket worn by the woman in the painting is of the same cut as those in the Victoria and Albert Museum which date to 1610s. Indeed, these jackets even close the same way with ribbons down the front. By the 1620s, the upper class jackets were changing: their waistlines were becoming higher and their front ribbons were removed and replaced with metal hooks and eyes. Yet in the 1660s, common people were still wearing the old style.
This is not a single odd instance. More examples exist. Netscher’s “The Lacemaker”, dated 1662, also wears this style of jacket. Vermeer’s “Kitchen Maid” (circa 1660), Gabriel Metsu’s “Lady Reading a Letter” (or rather, her maid) in 1662-65, and two of Pieter de Hooch’s “Three Women and a Man in a Courtyard” (1663-65) seem to share the same tailor. The interesting thing is that both the lady and one of her maids in de Hooch’s work wear the same cut of jacket, in fabric of qualities befitting each one’s station, of course.
Women’s shirts or shifts in this period don’t seem to differ significantly from men’s shirts. In the following pictures, you will see collars, sometimes edged with lace, and front opening that disappear inside the bodice. Some, as worn by the mother in Metsu’s “The Sick Child” (1660s) and the old woman in Van Ostade’s “Peasants in an Interior” (1661), are worn modestly closed. Others, as in Knupfer’s “Brothel Scene” (1650) and Rubens’ “Cimon and Pero” (1630), are scandalously open, exposing the breasts. In either case, it’s easy to see that the shift of this period wasn’t of the chemise type popular in Italy, but rather a collared shirt. Extant shifts in the Museum of London, Museum of Costume in Bath, and the V&A bear this out.
In those pictures shown above in which the women are not wearing jackets, we can glimpse what mid-17th century bodices looked like. The only extant bodice of which I know is the cream damask basque bodice dated 1635 residing in the London Museum that is shown in Nora Waugh’s Cut of Women’s Clothes and Corsets and Crinolines. It is not a corset per se but a boned bodice. However its fashionably high waist marks it as something not worn by the lower classes. Indeed, we seem to find no reflection of the high-waisted bodices of the upper class in common people’s wear in this century. Additionally, the stomacher that is integral to this extant bodice is relatively unseen in period paintings of common women.
Because of the decadent nature of the picture, Knupfer’s “Brothel Scene” shows us three under-bodices and how they were worn. Two women have breasts wholly exposed. The third (playing an instrument) seems barely contained herself. It would appear that the common woman’s under-bodice was a laced band around the ribs, reaching to just under the bust, and supported by shoulder straps. It seems that the only thing keeping the breasts secure in this arrangement is the shirt. We can see the tightly-tucked shirt doing its job better in Van De Velde’s “The Hut” and Rubens’ “Rainbow Landscape”.
Although she wears a coloured opaque partlet, Gerard ter Borch’s “Seated Girl in Peasant Costume” also demonstrates an example of this under-the-bust bodice. From the position of her bust, we can surmise that some unseen garment is pushing her breasts upward. And yet her figure is flat and control just below her bustline. This indicates a cinching garment of the type seen best in the brothel pictures.
Two main styles of shoes appear to be worn by common women: mules and latchet shoes. Latchet shoes resemble in all ways the shoes of the same name worn by men. Mules are backless shoes with leather vamp set into a wooden sole.
Coloured stockings seem to have been very popular. Indeed, many of the common women and servants are depicted wearing red stockings.
Netscher’s “Lacemaker” wears an unusual cap embroidered with patterns not unlike those on the jackets in the V&A dated 1610. Although in the late 16th century coifs were often elaborately embroidered, this is the only picture from this period that I have seen wherein the cap was not pure white and unadorned.
This arrangement in which the linen is rolled at the sides and tied under the chin seems to be invariably worn with a jacket trimmed in fur.
The women in the pictures above could be mistake for 15th century women by their headdress, but there is no doubt that we are looking at mid-17th century common women. This turban-like arrangement of linen seems to be the province of country bumpkins and underworld characters. “The Procuress” wears her headlinen like this. So does the girl entertaining at an inn in “The Concert” and the country girl in Berchem’s “Landscape”.
As the century wears on, covering one’s head with linen appears to be a habit maintained exclusively by the lower classes. In Pieter de Hooch’s “Three Women and a Man in a Courtyard” (1663-65), although the two servants cover their hair, the lady seated with the man does not. In many of Vermeer’s paintings of servants interacting with their mistresses, the lady wears her hair elaborately styled but not covered in any way while the servants maintain their linen caps. It is interesting to note that the uncapped lady and the working woman in de Hooch’s “Courtyard” have the same silhouette to their hair even though one is capped and one is not.
In other paintings, the wearing of linen caps does not seem to be a class distinction but one of age or perhaps marital status. In Jacob Jordaen’s “As The Old Sing, So Pipe the Young”, the old woman swaths her head in linen, yet the young woman with the child on her lap wears an elaborate hairstyle and no cap. In Jan Steen’s “Prayer Before the Meal” the well-dressed lady with her back to us wears no cap. The standing servant girl and the mother across the table, however, do. One can deduce that caps were becoming unfashionable by the late 1660s and that only older women and servants continued to wear them at that date.