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The most obvious characteristic of early 17th century dress on the Continent is the the persistence and growth in size and ornateness of the ruff. Once just a fancy edge on a shirt collar, the ruff in the 1610s and 1620s has become as large as a millstone and in need of wire supports to hold it in its proper position.
As the ruff grew in size and ornamentation, the rest of the clothing became more simple and elegant. If we can draw our attention away from the ruffs for a moment, we will notice clothing made from shiney, smooth silk satins and painters who revelled in the play of light on these fine fabrics. The drape of these glorious textiles was emphasized by the arrangement of the fabric into poufs over the hips.
The conical bodice of the Elizabethan period seems to have survived. But the French or “wheel” farthingale has be replaced with a softer mode of kirtling up the gown skirts to reveal petticotes decorated with rows of metalic braid. You can see this style in this detail from Dirck Hals’ “Banquet in a Renaissance Hall” at right.
Another style exists about the same time. Open-front jackets or gowns reveal brightly coloured brocade stomachers shaped in a low U over the abdomen. This style is best portrayed in Rubens’ portrait of himself and his first wife, Isabella Brant, the detail of which is shown at left. Even though Isabella wears a red petticote, she is not protraying the norm. In most of the other portraits of women wearing this style of dress, these ornate stomachers are usually the only bit of colour in an outfit the rest of which is shockingly black. The Dutch fondness for black in the 17th century is well documented. This stomacher seems to be the Dutchwoman’s outlet for panache in the 1620s. It is the staple worn in most of the portraits of the late teens and twenties. But it was not to cross out of the Low Countries and invade elsewhere.
In England, the supportase-held lace collar had been a staple of fashionable dress at the end of the Elizabethan period. However, the so-called “millstone” ruff was not worn. Two main trends can be observed. The extremes of the late Elizabethan period persisted in the form of the wheel (French) farthingale and long, almost impossibly-pointed bodice as seen in late portraits of Elizabeth I (shown at right as painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger in 1592). However it is more than likely that this extremes of fashion were worn at Court and on ocassions of high ceremony, but were not the typical dress of even the most fashionable nobles of England.
By the teens, it was apparent that this stiff style was moving out of favour and that a similar but less formal style was replacing it. Another painting by Gheeraerts of a lady from 1618 (shown at left) shows this softer style quite well. The bodice is still quite structured, varying from a shockingly low neckling to a high collar, but the gown skirts or petticotes have become softer and no longer appear to be worn with a farthingale. The ornate decoration of the Elizabethan period also seems to be subsiding. It is being replaced by the suptuous silks and minimal trim that so clearly mark the Stuart fashions to come.