English Women’s Dress, 1639-1643


History of Costume III 1500-1660

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Wenceslaus Hollar was a refugee from Bohemia in the Thirty Years War. In the years before the Civil War he Hollar produced a precise record of the people of London, and of Germany and the Netherlands, so we have a comparison between the clothes worn. Nowhere else, perhaps, was society so mixed as in England. Education was the means of lifting a man of humble origin into a higher social class. The special look of the people was influenced by religion. The English were truly pious through a century of free bible-study. The Civil War was not a revolution over conditions for the poor but a political upheaval for religious freedom. The townsfolk of London were for Parliament and Parliament was predominantly Puritan. Life in Holland and England had similarities, and our close religious and trade associations led to some of its neighbours’ costume details. The collar and hat became popular and important to those of non-conformist religious sects. The hat with a tall conical crown and wide brim became a badge of Dissenters. Like the bonnet the collar had been modest wear of working woman who wrapped a kerchief round her shoulders and neck. In the democratizing of the Puritan phase the modest neckwear was found to be appropriate. Found to be becoming it had to be devised for the neckline in fashionable clothes so the wide Dutch collar was used as a model. English women’s clothes got looser in the 1620s and were the first in Europe to jettison the long-pointed stomacher in favour of a short round waistline. The hard front persisted among the wealthy middle class, corresponding to the rich conservative burghers in Holland. Short jackets, very like men’s doublets with tabbed skirts or a little flare, took the place of the old tight bodice. When these did not meet in front they either laced across or were hooked to the sides of the stomacher. A whole gown of jacket or bodice and skirt went by the charming name of kirtle, the skirt was known as a half-kirtle and the jacket alone was a jump. The kirtle could still open down the front over a brocade or contrasting petticoat. The Dutch had taken to looping the skirt fronts to the back in a bustle showing a handsome underskirt, but as clothes were costly the front was protected by one of the new aprons. The bustle effect proved popular in the Netherlands by looping the skirt in many ways. The little maid pulled up her skirt to protect its edge and wore iron pattens to save her shoes from the mud of the ill-kept street. Hollar’ s engravings do more than tell us about the details of dress worn at that time; they are also an indication of climate. The heavy wraps, hoods and muffs show there was a greater contrast in weather than we have now. Historical records also tell us that the winters in Europe grew progressively worse until the Great Freeze, when even the Thames froze for weeks. Even the fan was fur-edged, but the mask was not for protection against the cold: introduced from the Continent it was first worn as a sign that a respectable woman did not wish to be recognized. When its full potential was realized it became part of the make-up of quite a different kind of woman.

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Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm