The Netherlandish Working Woman’s Outfit — Part 3

Reconstruction of the Skirts

RH209 – Netherlandish Common Woman
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Detail from Joachim Beuckelaer’s “Making Waffles”

One of the most notable features of Netherlandish Working Women’s clothing as seen in the works of Aertsen and Beuckelaer is big butts. Actually, I never thought of it until a friend pointed out that they all have prodigious asses. It’s been suggested that these women were wearing bum rolls or something similar under their skirts, but this is an unlikely accessory for a woman engaged in manual labour. Having made many dresses out of coat-weight wool, I feel confident that it’s all in the pleating method and the materials used. Of course having a sizable bum to go under it doesn’t hurt.

All the pictures of Netherlandish Working Women don’t show the attachment of their skirts terribly well, but from the few paintings that show the backs and sides of the skirts, we can see that the majority of pleats are concentrated at center back. The sides and front of the skirts appear to be almost smooth. Since I cut the 25″ width of fabric used for the bodice from one of my skirt widths, this pleases me. It means I really can get away with making an entire dress with only a little over two yards of fabric.


In this detail from Joachim Beuckelaer’s “Flight to Egypt” shown at left, we can see on two dresses how the pleats at center back do not carry around the sides of the skirts. The pleats appear to be rolled or stacked pleats, and indeed this method of pleating yields pleats that prop up and stick out as seen in the paintings.


Detail from another of Aertsen’s paintings entitled simply “Market Scene”


Detail of the Cook’s torso from Pieter Aertsen’s 1559 painting “The Cook in Front of the Stove”

Rolled pleats compressed to fill the center back and leave the sides of the skirts smooth. This pleat arrangement gives an effect similar to that seen in the artwork.

You might be asking yourself why, since I used so much information from the Shinrone Gown to construct the bodice, I didn’t use that information to construct the skirts. The reason is simple — the skirts shown in the paintings do not resemble the skirts of the Shinrone Gown. The skirts of the Shinrone Gown are running stitched from waist to hem at intervals that produce organ pipe pleats all around the gown skirts. This type of pleats are not apparent in the pictures of the Netherlandish gowns which appear to be pleated heavily at the center back and gathered or lightly pleated elsewhere.


A different detail from the same Aertsen’s “Market Scene”

Because of the use of aprons by these working women, we never see the full front of the garment. We don’t know where the pleats are, how heavily they’re arranged. All we know is that in the few pictures we have that show the skirts below the aprons, the front does not appear to be as heavily-pleated as the backs.

There is one thing of which we can be certain: the skirts directly below the laced section of the bodice must be pulled taut so it does not gap. Therefore there can be no pleating in that area. In my reconstruction, the piece I have left for the skirt front is only 35″ wide, so it is easy to gather from the edge of the bodice to the side seams without the bulk becoming overwhelming.

If you have a full width of fabric, it is also possible to cut the front skirts as a trapezoid with the top measurement equalling the front waist measurement and the bottom the full width. This would then require no pleating at all in front.

There must also be a opening at the center front of the skirts to allow the dress to slip over the shoulders. This can be accomplished by a 6″ slit closed by hooks or by adding a center front seam.

Detail of the Cook’s skirt hem from Pieter Aertsen’s 1550 painting “The Cook”
For months, I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to figure out the reasoning behind cutting a skirt higher in the front than in the back. Since this is a working woman’s garment, it doesn’t make sense that it’s just a fashionable element. So there must be a functional reason. One explanation that occured to me is that the hem that most often get dirty on a person who bends forward in her work is the front hem. This seemed reasonable. However I couldn’t wrap my brain around how to cut the hem to accomplish this effect. I’m trying to construct this dress using nothing but rectangles. Cutting a curved hem flew in face of this. Would a working woman really sacrifice that fabric and cut her hem in a way that made it more likely to ravel? Perhaps the top of the skirts were cut on the curve and the hem was really straight but only appeared curved because the top was.

I couldn’t make up my mind about any of these ideas, so I began my reconstruction. And guess what — it worked itself out. Tightly lacing the rectangular bodice makes the front tip upward at about the same angle that the skirts tip up in the pictures. Therefore rectangular skirts attached to this bodice will also tip up in front. Problem solved!

Please take notice of how the bodice tilts from front to back. The bottom was parallel with the floor until I began lacing. Then it settled upward. I was about to try to correct this when I remembered the uneven skirts phenomenon.


Detail of one of the female crowdmembers from the Braunschweig Monogrammist’s 1545 painting “Ecce Homo”


Detail of the background figures from Pieter Aertsen’s 1560 painting “The Peasants by the Hearth”


The bodice completely sewn and laced up. The skirts pinned into place.

Reconstruction of the Accessories

Let’s start from the inside and work our way out. The first element we have to examine is the smock worn under the dress. In a few paintings, (like Aersten’s “Christ and the Adultress” from 1559, detail shown at left) the partlets are missing and a round neck can plainly be seen. Sometimes we can even make out a medium to low round neck showing through the partlet opening.

When women aren’t wearing pin-on sleeves, their smock sleeves are apparent. They are often pushed up or rolled to above the elbows, but no cuffs are in evidence. They appear to be constructed of simple rectangles as were most smock sleeves. The ends appear simply finished.

By virtue of the stress wrinkles and tightness observed in the partlets, we can assume they are tied rather than pinned on. Pinned partlets show stress at the pinning point. These show stress more evenly distributed across the garment. Although we have no glimpses of ties, we also have no evidence of pins and ties seems a more functional option for a woman involved in physical labour.

Next is hairdressing and headdresses. The women in the top two paintings on this page appear to have ribbons wrapped around rolls of hair and those rolls wrapped around the back of the head in a configuration normally termed “hair taping”. The bulk of the hair is concentrated at the back of the head where it can easily be covered by a cap of the type shown in Beuckelaer’s “Market Woman with Fruit”, detail from which is shown at left.

This cap does not appear to be the entire headdress of the market women. A structured veil, sometimes called a Flemish [sic] Hood, is worn over it as in the detail at right from one of Beuckelaer’s Market Scenes.

In addition to smocks, partlets and headdresses, the Netherlandish working women appear to be wearing pin-on sleeves, soft fabric stomachers, and aprons. The aprons are not gathered or pleated to a band like other aprons in this time period but rather appear to be simple rectangles of cloth, more often coloured than white, tucked into a string around to waist.

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© 2007 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 and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.