French Peasant Dress 1640-1642


History of Costume III 1500-1660

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Peasants in England were overlooked by native painters and can only be seen in little woodcuts in the 17th century. French, Flemish and Dutch artists painted their peasantry. While mercenaries ravaged the land and pillaged the countryside conditions for the poor in France were not good. Festivities like harvest home were a triumph over adversity and participation in fairs was a respite from tension and opportunity to shop, have a tooth pulled or fortune told. Travelling musicians were ubiquitous and appear in all Dutch, Flemish or French pictures with hurdy-gurdy, fiddle or lute. Peasantry looked alike as war drove refugees from place to place and soldiers picked up ideas on campaign. Details of high fashion, like ruffs or head-dresses, were copied by working people and quickly discarded. Dress was of simple garments copied from those seen or bought at fairs. They were far from Paris high fashion but working-class clothes were an important link in the evolution of costume. Peasant costume was simple and easy. The working man, like the soldier, had worn the longer coat for decades – a doublet cum jerkin – which was elegant when worn by Louis XIV. Sleeves were attached at the arm-holes of jerkins or jackets as they later became in fashionable clothes. The working man disliked short garments – he never wore the short pumpkin-breeches of the late 16th or early 17th century. The soldiers’ baggy breeches became closer fitting; drawn in under the knee they were a prototype for late 1700’s menswear which stayed in fashion for another century. The fashion was for long straight breeches with the ends loose and cut the material in a fringe. Loose stockings – several pairs draped in swags to the knee – were another detail achieved with ill-fitting cloth hose. Cobblers were many and skilled and made the square-toed shoes with bow tie-ups to those that could pay or went bare-foot or bound rags round their feet. Weaving was done in the villages so stockings were knitted by women who could spin wool into thread and so could have warm covering for the winter. Women’s clothes are more indicative of things to come. In neither Flemish nor French paintings can the protruding stomachers or millstone ruffs of the high-class burgher woman be seen on servants or country­women, whose gowns might be those worn in the eighteenth century. Short jackets, with tabbed skirts like men’s jerkins, are the fore-runners of the matinee, but there is no precedent for the pinafore-dress except that as sleeves were made detachable for so many decades nothing could be simpler than to leave them off and wear the chemise like a blouse in hot weather. Even the wide cuffs of the 17th century made their first appearance as long turned-back sleeves. As lower-class Flemish or Dutch women were always bonneted, so French woman covered her head, winding a kerchief in turban style round as protection from sun in the fields or wearing a cap that had evolved from the hair-obscuring bonnets of the previous century. Neckwear is a characteristic detail of costume and easy to copy. The peasant once wore a ruff or frill, but now, in the 1640s, the wide collar stretching to the shoulders was even simpler to imitate. Plain collars in linen or lawn were normal in Holland but French women began to drape a kerchief round her neck and shoulders as a simple fichu.

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Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm