Fashion history: dressing to impress in the 17th century
What did women wear in the past? For fashionistas in the 17th century, London was the place to look for the latest styles and trends. But, says Tim Reinke-Williams, make a fashion faux pas and you'd soon attract scorn – and you might even get driven out of town
The clothes people wear matter a great deal in the 21st century. Choosing an outfit for a job interview or a first date requires careful thought and preparation. In Tudor and Stuart England, dress was important too, and the daily lives of ordinary women were affected by what they chose to wear – especially in London, which by 1700 was the largest city in Europe.
In 1616, Thomas Tuke published a pamphlet called A Treatise Against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women, in which he complained that “once a yeere at least” an Englishwoman “would faine see London, tho’ when she comes there, she have nothing to doe, but to learn a new fashion”. Although hostile to those who lavished too much time on their appearance, Tuke’s comments about women coming to the capital in order to view the latest trends were accurate.
A major attraction of London was the range of shopping opportunities. By Queen Elizabeth I’s reign in the second half of the 16th century, merchants were importing a wide range of different fabrics, dyes and textiles which meant that clothes were becoming more diverse and colourful. Most of this linen and lace came from Italy and the Low Countries, but by the end of the 17th century more exotic commodities such as East Indian chintz and calicos were available too.
Women thus had a selection of fabrics to choose from, and were able to purchase a range of accessories as well. These were both decorative and practical. Muffs not only kept hands warm, but functioned as substitute handbags to store handkerchiefs, money and scent. Face masks and hoods were popular too, enabling women to move around the busy city without being recognised. Many women personalised their clothes by adding laces, ribbons and flowers, or by embroidering designs and patterns.
Clothes could be purchased from many different places. Wealthy women, such as the wives of London citizens, shopped at the Royal Exchange and the New Exchange, but tailors, shoemakers, embroiders, glove-makers and milliners could be found throughout the City and in neighbouring Westminster.
As the clothing industry developed, more ready-to-wear clothes became available at cheaper prices. But many women continued to make their own clothes or purchased second-hand ones, often from other women who were prominent in the trade. Many of these second-hand items would have been stolen, and shoplifting by women became a growing problem in the later decades of the 17th century.
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Yet even law-abiding women did not have to purchase all the clothes they acquired. Growing numbers of women worked as domestic servants, and were given work clothes by their employers. For example, one Mrs Wynnington made a gown for her servant, Anne Fenton, which was to be paid for out of her wages. Young people gave and received clothes as gifts when courting, elderly women left items of clothing and textiles to female relatives and friends in their wills, and poor women received donations of clothes via their parish if they were eligible for poor relief.
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Laced up to the neck
London women were thought to be more fashion-conscious and better-dressed than their sisters in the provinces, and when visiting were said to “take all their best apparel with them” so “that their friends in the Country, may see all their bravery”.
Travellers from other countries also commented favourably on the dress of metropolitan women. In 1562 the Italian Alessandra Magno observed that women wore “dresses laced up to the neck, which make them appear very graceful” and in 1592 Duke Frederick of Wirtemberg thought they were “magnificently apparelled”, perhaps because some of the women he saw wore “gowns after the old German fashion”. In 1662 the Dutchman William Schellinks went walking in Hyde Park and afterwards wrote how “one can see here the most beautiful ladies’ dresses”.
Wearing appropriate clothes for the occasion was very important. Working women needed to have a set of practical informal clothes for everyday wear, but would have aspired to have particular items and outfits to wear on special occasions. In 1660 Elizabeth Pepys, the wife of the famous diarist Samuel, changed her clothes before she went to see her husband and their friend at The Miter, a tavern in Wood Street. In May 1684 Joan Kirk refused to go and visit her husband’s cousin because she believed she lacked clothes which would be “good enough to go a visiting”. Her husband, Edward, only managed to persuade her to come with him after Joan borrowed a hood and scarf from another woman.
People noticed if women wore anything unusual or distinctive. When Elizabeth Hazard went out in “her best apparel” her neighbours were quick to take notice and asked her where she was going. Women also dressed well if they had to appear in court and were keen to create a good impression. Christian Stappleton wore a cloak and taffeta gown when she gave evidence on behalf of her mistress, Jane Hope – although it was alleged that Jane had loaned the clothes to Christian.
One of the main reasons young single women wanted to dress well was to attract the attention of suitors and potential husbands. When Rebecca Langford left Norbury in Staffordshire she was deemed to be “somewhat bare in apparel”, but when she returned from London it was noted that she was “very well apparelled and brought with her a very proper man”.
In the 1670s Hannah Woolley wrote an advice book for young women wishing to become the companions of gentlewomen, in which she commented that there was “a kind of privilege in youth for wearing fashionable clothes” and that dressing well would “add more beauty”.
Up to a point Woolley was correct: in all likelihood young women were more obsessed with keeping up with the latest fashions. But dress mattered to older women too as it reflected their status and authority. Married women wore distinctive scarves and hoods, and when Francis Barnham became sheriff in 1570 his wife, Alice, had her portrait painted in which she wore a fur-trimmed velvet gown to show off her ascent in London society.
Dressing well also helped women to find paid employment. The women who worked in the shops in the Exchange were deemed to be well dressed, and Elizabeth James took on one young woman as a servant because she was “a pretty young wench, and handsomely apparelled”.
In 1659 Goody Marstone was given 12 shillings by the vestry of the parish of St Benet Paul’s Wharf so that she could provide clothes for the orphaned daughter of her friend Goody Tessy to help the girl to get a place as a domestic servant. Evidently the vestrymen thought this would be a worthwhile investment, ensuring that in the long run there would be one less poor woman for them to provide for.
The fashion police
During the 17th century, particular decades witnessed fashion crazes. In the 1610s women wore doublets and broad-brimmed hats, both of which were considered to be very masculine items of clothing. In the 1690s, complex top-knot hairstyles, incorporating large quantities of ribbons, were all the rage.
Moralists were quick to condemn these trends. On 22 February 1619 John Williams preached a sermon before King James I on abuses of apparel and in the 1690s many ballads, the pop songs of the age, condemned the fashion for top-knots, arguing that young women would turn to prostitution in order to afford the new hairstyle.
Legal records reveal that London prostitutes at the upper end of the vice trade, the early modern equivalent of escorts, were well dressed. These women were given specific outfits in order to attract clients, and many received clothes as payment in kind for their services. One Elizabethan bawd, Mistress Hibbens, had “divers suits of apparels” including “silk gowns of several colours” which were worn by the girls who worked for her.
Women in early modern London therefore had a wide range of clothes to choose from, and various means to acquire them. This gave rise to both opportunities and problems. The medieval sumptuary laws had placed more limits on the dress of men than women, and when this legislation was abolished in 1604 women faced no legal restrictions on what they could wear. However, going out in costly apparel which was deemed to be above one’s station, or revealing too much cleavage, risked the wearer being subject to abuse from moralists, clergymen and neighbours of both sexes.
Dress was important in the 16th and 17th centuries because it was supposed to reveal at a glance the social rank, gender and morality of the wearer. But in practice the clothes of noblewomen and the wives of wealthy citizens were not always significantly different from those of high‑class prostitutes. Cross-dressing was not unusual either. Before the Restoration, male actors played the female roles, and some women chose to wear men’s clothing, either to be fashionable, as a reflection of their sexuality, or because it enabled them to walk the city streets in disguise without being harassed by men.
In the 16th and 17th centuries – as in the 21st – clothes offered opportunities for women to empower themselves and create individual identities. But choosing what to wear was a difficult business, and making a fashion faux pas could have disastrous consequences.
Fashion blunders of the 17th century
Looking like a whore
Early modern women tried to strike a balance between being fashionable and attractive, but not showing too much flesh. In 1628 Catherine Baker was brought before the church courts for defaming Christian Nevell as a “button-smock whore”, an insult which suggests that Catherine thought Christian’s outfit was too revealing.
Wearing what you like
Jane Martindale wanted to move to the capital because she would have more freedom of choice in which clothes she could wear. Her brother Adam claimed that in their home county of Lancashire any woman who wore a fashionable hood, scarf or gown “would have beene accounted an ambitious foole”.
Plagued by the wrong outfit
In 1616 the playwright and pamphleteer Thomas Dekker wrote of how one “young handsome maid, in very good apparel” visited her sister in Kent, but was driven out of the town because the local people noticed her fashionable clothes and assumed that she had come from London where the plague was raging.
Getting carried away at the shops
In 1657 Margaret Harlakenden bought £120 worth of wedding clothes in London. Her father, Richard, was unhappy that his daughter had spent such a large sum, but he “paid the scores”. Weddings were opportunities for celebration and extravagance, and Richard knew he could not risk being seen to be a miser.
Dressing up and falling down
In 1665 Samuel Pepys described how “Mrs Jennings, one of the duchess’s maids dressed herself like an orange wench and went up and down and cried oranges – till falling down or by such accident… her fine shoes were discerned and she put to a great deal of shame”.
Dr Tim Reinke-Williams is a lecturer in history at the University of Northampton, specialising in early modern British history
This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine