October 22, 2014

Closet Histories #3 : The Baroque

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, she had left no heir of her own to take up the crown. Instead our old friend Mary Queen of Scot's son, then King James XI of Scotland, ascended to the English throne as James I. James' rule is known as the Jacobean era of English history, and his relatively stable reign lasted until his death in 1625. Though it seems James was liked well enough by his subjects, he often fell out with parliament. James' son, Charles I, had even more trouble with parliament, trouble that lead to the English Civil War. The tensions between the king and parliament soon became a battle between royalists and parliamentarians that ended with Charles' execution and soon after the short reign of Oliver Cromwell. As far as fashion is concerned, both the puritan movement and Oliver Cromwell were a super downer but we will talk about them separately. Luckily, when Charles II was welcomed back to England to take the throne in 1660, he brought back with him a taste for french extravagance!

Today we will be looking at English fashion in the first half of the baroque from around 1600 to the 1660's. I will be covering continental fashion and the rest of the century at a later date.

The foundation of a ladies ensemble had not significantly changed in hundreds of years and still consisted of a linen chemise. To achieve the bodice silhouette, like the gowns of the Renaissance many decades before, some gowns had the stiffening (carboard, resin, boning) directly built into the bodice; others were made to be worn over a stiff under-bodice or stays. Lets start by looking at some wonderful full length portraits from the 1615's-1620's.

Fig. 1                                                       Fig. 2                                                              Fig. 3
Our lovely English ladies are all wearing ensembles that still show the influence of Elizabethan fashion. Ruffs were still in style, though their form began to change and settle into lace collars. The higher waistline is the most significant difference from the fashion just a decade before, though the trend was a bit short lived. Rich fabrics like velvet, brocade and embroidered silks were still favored, as was expensive lace. Two of the ladies above have ostrich feather hand fans hanging at their waists and all three have large lace cuffs at the end of their sleeves. Fig. 3 shows the addition of large hanging over-sleeves, another trend hanging on from Elizabeth's reign.

Fig. 4                                                          Fig. 5                                                            Fig. 6
 This next set of portraits date from the 1630's during Charles I's reign. Notice the complete change in style! The gowns are of a plain, but still luxurious silk satin fabric in a rich solid color. The neck lines have widened more still and the ruff has finally disappeared, transforming into only white linen or lace collars. The waistlines are still raised and the sleeves have become much fuller. The baroque style has certainly arrived and pushed out all of what we would have called Elizabethan in style. Larger ringlet curled hairstyles and a looser general attitude have replaced the more formal and ridged styles from the previous century.

Fig. 7                                               Fig. 8                                                                   Fig. 9
 Further into the century in the 1640's the waist finally began to lower back down, even as styles remained somewhat looser. The luxurious silk satin remains, as does the fashion for wide lace collars and lower and wider necklines. The billowy loose sleeves become even fuller and hair is worn longer and looser. Bodices begin to assume a more conical shape again as the waist lowers back towards the natural waistline.

Fig. 10                                                   Fig. 11                                                              Fig. 12
In the 1650's we see the conical bodice has definitely returned and the front waist point has dropped to be rather long in front. The gowns above still show large sleeves, though fig. 12 has a more shaped sleeve and a distinct cuff. Ribbons, white and metallic lace, and pearls are the most popular accents to the still prevailing silk satin. The neckline has widened so much as to be just off the shoulder (scandalous bare shoulders!).

Fig. 13                                                        Fig. 14                                                      Fig. 15
 The style remains much the same into the 1660's, the basics of the look well established. Satin? -check, full off the shoulder sleeves? -check, conical pointed bodice? -check, center part with ringlets? -check!
Fig. 16
This is the style most are familiar with when they think of baroque era fashion and the reign of Charles II. The full linen chemise is highly visible as part of the sleeve and at the neckline. The whole look has a romantic loose quality except for the clear conical definition of the bodice waist. Though embellishment was still popular, many portraits are more sparing like the one above.

Though I have focused here on English portraits, different styles were popular on the European continent. I will be covering the different styles seen in France, Spain and the Netherlands next time, as their exuberance certainly bears mentioning. Remember, while England was busy at war with itself, the Sun King Louis XIV reigned in France! More, lots more, on the baroque coming soon!

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!

Thanks for reading! 


  1. Marvelous look at this era. There really was a stop-you-in-your tracks striking difference between the early 1615-ish looks and those towards the middle of the century. Both are beautiful, but the later ones really do seem (for their day) striking more modern and I can't help but think that most ladies must have loved the freedom of bare(r) shoulders and somewhat less constrictive garments all around.

    ♥ Jessica

    1. Thank you Jessica! I feel the same way, the look by the mid-17th century is so different from the look just twenty years before! crazy how fast fashions change!

  2. I can't say these are my favourite styles, but I absolutely adore the way the silk fabrics are painted by the artists! As a child I remember adoring the shiny, decadent glow of them :)


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