Domestic and Court Dress Dress, 1665-1670

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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Before the new French styles became generally popular, rich Holland filled the gap left by waning Spanish influence on costume and manners. East Indian trade, which necessitated a strong navy and a vast merchant marine, had brought the Dutch to a peak of political and economic power in the mid-I7th century. The nature of their religion and the democracy of their social system, due to the purse strings being held by the merchant class, touched a sympathetic chord in the make-up of the people of Northern Europe. This was particularly so in England where the mainly dissenting merchant and professional families were beginning to form a large, well-to-do middle class to whom the comfortable and sober dress of the solid-looking people of the Netherlands was most acceptable. Though statistics show that the peasant and working classes far outnumbered the aristocracy and landed gentry in England at this time, their life seems to have had no interest for the native painters, and except for woodcuts and primitive engravings we have few records of the modes and manners of the ordinary people. True, we also lacked the painters. The Dutch and Flemish, on the other hand, were completely satisfied with themselves, a fact that their many inspired artists, such as Netscher or Ter Borch, spared no time or canvas to tell the rest of Europe. Even the French, with the Le Nain family, left us an image of every aspect of non-U daily life. The Dutch houses of this period give us a very favourable impression of an unostentatious but comfortable family background, with the very pictures that now tell us so much about them on the walls, and beautiful rugs and china that bear witness to the successful Eastern trade. London, after the fire, must have looked rather like the pictures by de Hooch with the new red brick houses replacing the picturesque but cramped black-and-white timbered buildings that had blazed so furiously from Pudding Lane to Pie Corner, and as our ties with Holland were very close during the 17th century there must have been a great deal in common between the lands of the Orange and the Rose. The way of life of the Dutch burghers appears to have been dignified and easy-going, with a lot of good eating and drinking and fun and games in the kitchen and taverns. Religious observance was evidently hardly repressive, with children playing tag round the columns in church which the dogs used for other purposes. Fine materials made their rich clothes, and their commodious cupboards were full of beautiful embroidered linen which was all produced either in the house or in some peasant’s cottage. The big estates in England had been self-supporting since Tudor times with their carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers and dairy workers to see to their external and physical needs while the women of the house busied themselves with the complicated preparation of wool or flax for the making of material for their own clothes and the household linen. In those pensionless, welfare-stateless days families, from pride, had to look after less fortunate members, and the extra hands of maiden aunts, cousins and widowed in-laws were even welcomed to man the spinning wheels and embroidery frames that were not merely, as is generally supposed, the means of passing otherwise tedious hours but the very necessary part of the household economy that is now provided for us commercially. The lace collars, ribbons and embroidery represented in the thousands of portraits and genre pictures of this period would add up to hundreds of miles of beautiful hand work – a staggering realization to those who have seen such inferior copies churned out at the pressure of a button. All the lace and embroidery were produced at this stage in the villages by peasant women, under the tutelage, certainly in France, of the nuns of the convents which had many great ladies retreating from a strenuous life at court or in society among their members. It was not only the rich or smart who wore these refinements; the peasant girl would use the same patterns for her pretty bonnet or wedding gown, a fact that can be proved by the lovely national costumes that have been handed down as heirlooms and are still worn in European countries on fete days. When high fashion borrowed some of the eccentricities or sensible lines of peasant clothes, as already pointed out, there was a gradual linking of styles by which the wide disparity of shape between the rich and fashionable and the workaday world was less apparent. The often rich but untitled merchant class were even daring to compete with the nobility, and the numerous ‘sumptuary laws’, forbidding the wearing of this collar or that material, ribbons or lace and a hundred and one petty items, show us how doggedly, but with decreasing success, the aristocracy clung to the privilege of distinction by dress. The Dutch style of woman’s dress shows very clearly the basic shape of the mid-I 7th century costume which remained the same in silhouette no matter in what material or however overloaded with trimming. To give the desired slope to the shoulders the front panel of the bodice was carried wide and low over the top of the arm to meet the back piece in a seam low on the shoulder-blade. The full sleeves were gathered in cartridge pleats, low on the shoulder-line and again into a wide cuff from which the chemise peeped in ruffles or a second cuff. The wide lace or lawn collar, covering or filling in the decolletage, is almost a symbol of the 17th century except in the useful little garment that the burgher’s good wife seems to have launched at this time but which was to become so important all through the following century – the matinee. These little coats or overblouses without any stiffening and hardly fitting to the figure must have been a boon to the plump and easy-going woman who otherwise had to support the torture of the whalebone, horsehair and lacing of the full-dress bodice. It is not to be wondered at that so many received visits in bed or in their dressing rooms – a very rare incidence of comfort overcoming fashion. Modest caps covered the little bun of hair drawn up at the back of the head and the side curls that, on party occasions, sprang out wide over the ears. Harking back to those jolly Dutch pictures, life was gay, we are happy to note, for the young then in spite of their miniature grown-up clothes. Little caps topped neat heads and the boys wore full-skirted breeches, like the men, but that didn’t stop them climbing trees, picking apples or bird-nesting. Little girls, even in leading-strings, or reins, which were fastened to their shoulders, could gird up their kirtles and play a pretty stroke of golf, even, apparently, in the house!

Additional information

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm