Dressing Ye Part — Part One
Well, now that Bob’s Reign of Terror is over, you’re back to listening to my boring mental gymnastics about historical clothing. Bob will be back with another project. I promise you! He just has to wait for his thumbs to heal (and to forget how much he hates flat felling). *snicker*
Here’s the dilemma: I have been going to quite a few 16th and 17th century events where, while I dress properly for the time period, I don’t dress for what I really am — a merchant of fine fabrics and “fripperies”. So I have decided to make myself clothing that indicates not only my status but also my profession. This doesn’t necessarily mean “dressing down” since wool merchants were often quite wealthy in this time period. But it does mean dresing a bit differently from a camp follower or a gentleman’s wife.
Last year, I wrote an article exploring the clothing of common women from the 1660s through the 1680s. These ideas will be explored and expanded upon as I construct this outfit.
I begin with the foundation layer, often called a petticote bodys or kirtle in English. My inspiration is this picture (at right) of a scantily-clad common woman crossing a stream. It is called “The Wager” and it was painted in the 1660s by Jan Siberechts. Today it may be seen in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp, Belgium (or online at wga.hu).
Although she is clearly not fully dressed (it’s kind of an erotic painting, and a favourite subject of Mr. Siberechts), other paintings of the time period show this same petticote bodys worn either with a partlet and sleeves or under a jacket.
The maid with her back to the painter in Steen’s “Celebration at the Birth” (detail shown at left) is wearing a little more than our river-crosser. 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.
More evidence to support this idea is given in a painting by De Hooch of a mother about to nurse her infant (detail shown at right). 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…
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.
Another painting by De Hooch (“At the Linen Closet” painted in 1665, housed today in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam), shown at left, shows two household servants wearing fine jackets over their petticote bodys. One wears a roomy black jacket, lined with fur (much like the jacket of the nursing mother, above). The other wears a more fitted satin jacket.
My intention is to construct a petticote bodys and a jacket in the fashion of these ladies. In the next installment, I will show the petticotes I’m trimming with gold as well as the bodice I’ve constructed and attached to the petticote.
© 2009 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice, the author’s name and website, and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.