Domestic and Court Dress, 1665-1670

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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It was a man’s world in the 17th century, all the fun of extravagance in design or abrupt changes in style being in male costume. His was a material world of adventure, work-guilds and government, hardly an age of wisdom or spiritual activity in which man felt the need for mental stimulation from woman. Her proper function was simply to minister to his physical needs. The few women of brains and character but with no opportunity of using them to the public good immersed themselves in long correspondences or journals, furiously dashing down all the spiteful, spicy or wise ideas it would have done society the world of good to hear but which they had no power to express publicly. The miserably few adventurous ones, such as Christina, Queen of Sweden, or the Grande Mademoiselle, either became laughing-stocks or succumbed to male expediency. The nice Dutch groups show a certain equality of the sexes, with the laughing girls and entertaining men, but there is a self-conscious glumness about English and even French portraits, with the male figure always in the position of importance. This lack of initiative is obvious in women’s clothes up to the end of the century when a few strong-minded souls managed, by their persistence and example, to impress upon fashion a little more personality. Female dress hardly altered over fifty years except for the neck or waist line going up or down according to the moral climate of the time. After the stiff padded skirts and hard boned bodices with round ruffs or upturned lace collars went out of fashion, a beautiful simple line prevailed with a straight, higher waist and softly gathered skirts. The high lace collar, the Medici, now turned down over a square décolletage, could either be rolled back from the opening or worn fastened under the chin to cover the neck and shoulders. The wide breadth of the collar made an unbroken line from the neck to the sleeve and the female shoulder-line took the downward slope so illustrative of her character in the l7th century. The only variation in the style came when women turned up their skirts and fastened them on the hips to give a pannier effect and show different-coloured petticoats. In the more conservative countries, such as Holland, this style lasted well on into the century. The bodice was the first to show a real change about 1660, when the front was stiffened anew and carried lower than the waist into a sharp point. The diverging front seams were carried up from the point over the edge of the shoulders in a wide triangle which began to be decorated with graduated-size bows, after the male beribboned style. Later, with braid or embroidery up the seams, it gave the impression of a separate stomacher. The decoration down the front of the bodice was sometimes continued down the middle of the skirt and no doubt suggested the next evolution – the open-fronted dress over a contrasting-coloured petticoat. The continued popularity of the collar was due to the influence of Holland which, for a short time through wealth and political power (to say nothing of its numerous great painters who could project a gorgeous image of its culture), took the lead in setting the fashion after the power of Spain waned and the rest of Europe remained in the doldrums. The décolletage is the real clue to the changed spirit of the times. The respectable lady – nurse or even Grandmama – in our Plate II wears the simple yet becoming dress of every middle-class woman during the middle and later years of the 17th century and clings to the conservative collar which veils the square-cut opening of her dress and, clinging to the shoulders and upper arm, illustrates the typical silhouette of the period. Necklines had now become practically horizontal with even the shoulder showing and the outstanding beauties of the time did nothing to prevent their ample bosoms from swelling over the top. There were Mrs Grundys even at the jovial court of Charles II or the equally lax Versailles, such as the Duchess of Orleans (‘Lisolette’ of the prodigious journals) who veiled her ample shoulders in what was to be known as a ‘palatine’, after her first title, in the hope that her example would be followed by the lesser ladies of the court. It is from her effort that we get the delightful word ‘tippet’, which John Evelyn describes as the ‘winter palatine’, made from sable tails. The grand lady on the right of the picture, though Dutch, now wears the Universal style and would be equally fashionable in France or England but follows the more decorous example of the plump Duchess by wearing a thin gauze scarf pulled in, in the shape of a collar, over her wide, open neckline. What the dress lacked in complication was made up for in the extravagant sleeves, often put into the shoulder-line with cartridge pleats to make the stiff satin stand out in a short-rounded curve through which the chemise or under-sleeve billowed out in puffs and lace frills to be caught in with ribbons and bows. With the wide shape given by the horizontal neckline, the full sleeves and the rounded skirt, the hairstyle was kept suitably low and full over the ears. Parted in the middle with tiny tendrils on the temples, the hair gradually widened at the sides, over wire frames, while one or two curls could descend as love locks on to the shoulders. Small caps were worn by older women and, for out-of-doors, heads were covered by a hood-like shawl, often of black lace, which repeated the shawl or stole pulled tightly round the body to follow the sloping line of the shoulders. The complacent gentleman in the centre of his family is the clearest example we have of the fashion of the I 660′ s at its most extreme but without the French panache. The Dutch could afford the latest fashion but were slow to change, as we see from the high-crowned hat that had become démodé in England and France. Nevertheless, the style of dress must have continued well into the 1670’s for the less up-to-the-minute population, as can be seen from engravings, both Dutch and French, of the ordinary townsfolk. Children were grown-ups in miniature, the noble child being as stiffened with bones and backboards as the fashion demanded. The luckier lower classes, though still wearing the exact shape of their elders, were allowed a little more elbow room and breathing space. Boys up to the age of six still wore female skirts and, except when wearing a man’s befeathered beaver, are quite indistinguishable from their sisters. England apparently suffered from a patch of blind snobbery until the 18th century, ignoring in painting anyone or anything less than a Lord or his possessions. The Dutch, Flemish and even French, fortunately for posterity, enjoyed painting the everyday things, the towns and the people who lived and worked in them, and without the camera they have left a pretty good impression of the life of the times.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm