Fashionable Dress 1660-1680

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History of Costume II 1660 to 1800

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The effeminacy and sloppiness of male fashions in the mid-17th century must, apparently, be accounted for by the visit of an obscure Dutch (or was it German?) dignitary to Versailles just at the time when Louis XIV had projected such an image of power and glamour of himself and his people that the rest of Europe was ready to fall over itself to appear like the French. Incredible as this may be, we have only to consider how costume had evolved over the previous years and the kind of spirit that existed in France at this time to realize how such absurdities as petticoat breeches became acceptable. It is now generally agreed that wars, in which men of all nations were so busily engaged in the early 17th century, had brought about a proper understanding of comfort in violent activity. There was a general loosening up from the bones and bombast of the early years: the doublet no longer fitted tightly to the body, and breeches became roomier and longer. When it was noticed that leg clothing added height and dignity to the figure and, incidentally, obscured what have ever been man’s least attractive members – knobbly knees – the doublets were shortened still further to add to the illusion of greater length of leg. The busy-ness of swordplay and jumping on and off horses probably accounts for the loosened jackets and the breeches being left free at the knee. Europe was experiencing a freedom of thought and action it had long been denied by poker-backed Spain and, as usual in history, the high that had been occupied in gaining that freedom, now, at a loose end, turned to exhibitionism and petty adventure. The new freedom showed itself for a brief exciting glimmer in Eno-land with the Cavaliers, but a hearty bible-and-sword thumping by the Puritans held it in leash for a good many more years. Swashbuckling was still the thing in France, where even the power of Rome sat lightly on the people, where romance dies hard and fine manners have always been of as great importance as morals. The paradoxical combination of a hard body and the silk and lace of its floppy covering is a sure indication of the reckless, devil-taunting character of the people currently. This attitude made for ready acceptance of a new fashion, the 1nore fantastic or provoking the better, and France, now the arbiter of taste in Europe, was able to promote any fandangle idea- and make the rest of the world like it. The fashionable world already wore straight long breeches decorated round the waist and he1ns and up the sides with loops of ribbon, and festooned stockings to fill the wide tops of boots cuffed with lace. Wide baggy breeches covered by the long skirts of jerkins were still worn in the backwoods of Germany or Holland. When the Rhinegrave of Salm made his appearance at Versailles in his probably regional costume, all dolled up for the occasion, the wild success of his visit was due, not to his presence, but to the potentialities the novelty-hungry court saw in his frilly breeches. Rhinegraves, as they came to be called, were petticoat breeches made from many yards of material gathered on to a band round the waist. They could be cut either like divided skirts, so full that the division was invisible, or as a full petticoat frill reaching to the knees over fitting trunk-hose. From a contemporary print of a shop of the period it appears as if the petticoat was sold attached to the trunk-hose. The French having rarely kept anything within the bounds of moderation, the fashion developed into something so monstrous that although the dashing originators could carry it off, the heavy Dutch or Germans looked most embarrassing in it, and only the most flippant Englishman subjected himself to such effeminacy, being quite ready to adopt the much seemlier fashion that followed it. The new idea must have endeared itself quickly to Louis himself, as the skirt effect was remarkably like the lower half of a Roman Emperor and fitted in most suitably with the image he was rather heavily putting across to his people and the rest of Europe. Pepys evidently had fun with his, remarking that it was possible to put both legs into one aperture without noticing any inconvenience. As a further risk to composure, but very dashing, the Rhinegraves were then lowered from the waist to the hips and the tops decorated in an extra frill-like effect with ribbon loops, as were the hems and sides, for as many as six or eight rows. The shirt billowed out over the top from under the doublet, now shortened to bolero length and with slit sleeves through which the shirt made another appearance. Lace frills, called cannons, fastened under the knees, filled in the undressed angle from the hem to the leg and con1pleted the maypole effect. Only the rich and influential could keep up with the high fashion, as the French aristocracy found to their cost when Louis XIV, having taken all power of government out of their hands, left them nothing to do but dance attendance upon himself and compete for his notice by the most extravagant appearance. John Evelyn’s sniffy remark at the sight of what he called ‘a fine silken thing, drest like a maypole’ gives us some idea of the general opinion in England of the new styles, but the first two figures in Plate I show what must have been quite a familiar sight in the City in the 1660’s. The sn1art man-about-town is in the latest style, from his round wig and large turned-down collar with the fullness pleated in the front, to the wide bows on his square-toed shoes. The clerk, or superior servant, at his side illustrates how the fashion was modified into son1ething less ludicrous for the man in the street. Our reliable gossip columnists, Pepys and Evelyn, smugly congratulate their king and this country on launching the face-saving style that replaced or covered the most embarrassing part of the costume. Charles II was certainly the first Englishman who sole1nnly, and thankfully perhaps, in 1666 donned the new garment, the Persian coat, and liking it so well even took wagers that he would never alter it. But the long coat had been seen on a few Frenchmen earlier in the decade. Louis XIV held it his duty, and thereby gathered to himself part of the glory of conquest, to appear on the battlefield with his widely engaged troops, and as by this tin1e soldiers wore what was tantamount to uniform he appeared in an officer’s loose coat, a mixture of the wide­ skirted jerkin and the peasant’s coat that had been worn over the past twenty or more years. A few favourite courtiers, as army officers, would have appeared thus clad at Versailles or the Louvre. With success assured and advancing years both king and court welcomed the more dignified mien the neat coat gave to the figure, but still wore it over th e petticoat breeches. The later design, called the Persian or Turkish coat from its likeness to the graceful garments seen on oriental dignitaries, differed from the military coat in that the doublet, now called a veste and bereft of its sleeves, was lengthened to form a long waistcoat which mercifully covered the breeches, and a coat of the same length took the place of the old jerkin or cloak. The whole had a loose tunic effect, but with no awkward hiatus to fill, or angle to soften, the cissy ribbons and lace frills were redundant and quickly became a laughable thing of the past.

Dimensions 38.1 × 25.5 cm