December 3, 2014

Closet Histories #3.4 : Later 17th Century

In my first post introducing the 17th century and the Baroque, I left off after reaching the 1660's. By that time, the relaxed style of off the shoulder gowns with large sleeves in simple but luxurious satins had taken a firm hold over the followers of fashion. Today we say goodbye to the 17th century (at least for now) by continuing our study of portraiture from the 1660's to the turn of the 18th century.

The standard styling mentioned above held on into the second half of the 17th century. The problem for us studying clothing through contemporary portraiture is that allegorical portraits were all the rage. Women painted in loose chemises, barely wrapped in a swathe of shining silk, don't exactly represent the actual clothing of the time. After all, one cannot simply wander around in her chemise and a scarf and retain her reputation as a lady. Most gowns of the time did have a structured bodice that was either itself stiffened, or as the age went on, increasingly a pair of stays worn underneath the bodice to support the shape. The stomacher began to return to fashion near the turn of the century as a decorative panel pinned to the front of the stays. The new style of gown forming at the end of the age was called a mantua, a gown cut in one (as opposed to a separate bodice and skirt) with the front skirt open to show off the underskirt. After all the relaxed fashion popular in the middle of the age, more structure and formality began to return to women's wardrobes.

Fig. 1                                                            Fig.2                                                           Fig.3
These lovely ladies all date from the mid to late 1660's. Again we see the standard silk gowns with wide off the shoulder necklines, large elbow length sleeves, and a stiff bodice. The chemise still shows at the neckline and forms part of the billowing sleeve. Fig. 1,  a portrait of Lady Burdett, is wearing a pink gown with a bit more embellishment showing how not all gowns were plain unadorned silk as many portraits would have us believe. The ladies above are also sporting some excellent crazy hairstyles. The hair was worn in curls, with the volume concentrated lower on the head at ear level. It looks rather ridiculous I must say! Again, like earlier in the century, all three ladies wear large drop pearl earrings and pearl necklaces.

Fig. 4                                                       Fig. 5                                                               Fig.6 
Hailing from the 1670's, our next set of ladies seem to be in-keeping with the styles set in place during the decade before. The necklines remain open and wide, the only structure is at the bodice through the waist, and everyone's sleeves end in a cloud of chemise. Sadly, I still think their hair looks quite silly.

Fig. 7                                                   Fig. 8                                                             Fig. 9
Into the 1680's, all three of these ladies share many traits but the one that most stands out to me are the jeweled clasps down the center front of their bodices. We have seen these clasps (pins? buttons?) before in the 17th century, as far back as the 1640's at least. The style is very prevalent and makes me wonder if the embellishment was a part of the gown or separate like jewelry. One assumes that each lady would own one set (or more than one if they were lucky) of the jeweled pins and would wear the same set with different gowns.

In fig. 5 we get our first real good look at a mantua. Here the unnamed countess is in full court dress to attend the coronation of James II. Her red velvet mantua is trimmed (or possibly lined) in ermine fur. With the gown she also wears a matching velvet and fur robe which is tied on at the shoulders with golden cords. The mantua's skirt is pulled back in front in swags with jeweled clips to show off her magnificent underskirt. The skirt looks to be of white silk with three rows of incredible golden lace. Her bodice clasps are graduated, with the top one being rather large. Her other accessories include wide lace cuffs, a long golden cord belt with large tassels, and the ever present pearl jewelry.

Interestingly, fig. 9, though wearing a gown of gold brocade, has blue silk sleeves. I haven't seen another gown like this example with completely different colored sleeves. She is painted with whom the National Portrait Gallery describes as a servant girl. This unnamed girl is also very well dressed, wearing an olive green mantua style dress with a lavender underskirt. The inclusion of black servants in English portraiture was a fad in the 17th and 18th centuries, as the UK website Revealing Histories describes "Between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it became fashionable among the British aristocracy to have black servants who were seen as markers of wealth, status and refinement." Though of course, the act of enslaving people is the exact opposite of a mark of refinement. History certainly is not always pretty, and even when trying to study clothing alone, the darker aspects of history cannot be ignored. People are never an accessory, they are people, no matter how those in the 17th century may have thought otherwise.

Fig. 10                                                        Fig. 11                                                        Fig. 12
As the century drew to a close in the 1690's, the silhouette popular at the end of the previous century had somewhat returned in the fashion for stiff conical bodices and larger bell shaped skirts. In fig. 10, Queen Mary II still wears a relaxed style of dress more similar to those from the middle of the century. The other two portraits are of Elizabeth Percy the Duchess of Somerset and again of Mary II. They both wear formal court dress mantuas in velvet with matching capes attached at the shoulder. Elizabeth wears hers with a metallic silk brocade underskirt with layers of lace ruffles, whereas Mary's underskirt has large jeweled medallions down the center front. Both ladies wear the bodice clasps/jewels I mentioned before, only they wear them along with others along the neckline and in Elizabeth's case along the front edge of her mantua's skirt. The embellishment and formality of these two ensembles suggests that court dress had become much more elaborate in comparison to the lingering relaxed styles perhaps more appropriate for day wear at home or in the country.

Fig. 14                                                      Fig. 15                                                         Fig. 16
The last of our relaxed looking ladies date from around the first decade of the 18th century. All are wearing very relaxed styles, though the neckline has begun to come in a bit either into a crossed over V, or into a more square shape. The amount of puff in the sleeves has also decreased a bit as well. We will take a closer look at early 18th century fashions next time as we dive into the 1700's!

All of the information for this post has been gathered from the textbook Survey of Historic Costume (5th edition) by Phyllis G. Tortora and Keith Eurbank, from the links above or my own knowledge. I want to share the resources I come across with all of you as much as possible. The portraits used to illustrate today's post are credited to either the museum where they reside (whenever possible) or the source where I found them, and are linked via their fig. # underneath. Again I repeat my disclaimer that I am not a historian, and if you have corrections or additions for this post, please begin the discussion in comments as I would love to learn more!

That was a long post, thank you so much for reading through to the very end :)


  1. Oooh, now I'm immensely curious, was there a specific name for that set of matching brooches/buttons/clasps that was used to help fasten up the front of those gorgeous dresses? I've noticed them myself in paintings from the era and always thought they were lovely, but it wasn't until you raised the point about if they were a part of the garment or a separate accessory that my interest in them really piqued. If you should ever happen to find out more about these beautiful adornments of yore, please don't hesitate to let me know (and I'll likewise do that same should I come across any info).

    ♥ Jessica

    1. I know I'd like a set, they would look great on a historically inspired little black dress! I have yet to ever come across an extant example of these pins but perhaps one day!

  2. Most museums categorize such jewels simply as "bodice ornaments." The Victoria and Albert Museum has a good selection. They could have pin backs, or could be quickly stitched on, depending on the needs of the wearer. I don't know if they have a particular name, but they are the forerunners of stomacher jewels of the 18th century.

    1. I don't remember seeing them on display at the V&A, then again if they are in the jewelry room I was probably too overwhelmed with sparkle to take particular notice of them! I still wonder if grand ladies had several sets or just one depending on how expensive they were, I assume someone somewhere knows due to old household/dress inventories. It makes more sense that they would be stitched on rather than pinned, no one wants to accidentally lose their jewels!


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