Shedding Light on a Dark Era: Baroque, Cavalier, and Puritan Fashions

November 8, 2011

A Window into the Mysterious World of the 17th Century

One of the most over-looked time periods in European and budding American history is the Cavalier and Puritan era– the 17th Century– which is surprising considering it’s one of the most exciting centuries in modern history, both politically and fashionably! Europe in in the midst of religious upheaval, even more so than during the Tudor reign. There were civil wars, religious struggles, royal scandals, scientific and medical breakthroughs, the colonization of the New World, and struggles between parliaments and kings. It was a time of transition and conflict, reflected in the fashions of the era that varied as widely as the fashion trends of today. Sumptuousness played tug-of-war with modesty; for every bespangled lady in satin and jewels there was a demure lady with a high lace collar. Trends were mixed and old garments recycled to reflect the changing social scene: long Elizabethan corsets would be belted over with ribbon and ballooning sleeves would be tamed with lace rosettes and ties. The French dressed more vividly than the English, who preferred big, heavy shapes, while the Spanish and Dutch were a tad more subdued, but ever more eccentric!


During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, waistlines were low and deeply pointed. During the Baroque period, the waistline moved up from the hips to the natural waistline or above, clear up to the bust. The conical shapes of the Queen’s reign were replaced with a more natural one.   Sharp corners and stiff fabric gave way to curves and ruffles. The texture and drape of the fabrics involved in the dress became extremely important and tabs around the bottom of the bodice allowed interesting trims to be displayed, especially intricate, handmade lace and soft fur. The Dutch ladies especially adored fur in their chill climate, pairing it with silky satin for their housecoats (visible in some of Vermeer paintings).


For both men and women, the infamous ruff started the century standing out from the neck like a starched platter, growing to enormous proportions before loosening and draping into a collar. It was soon replaced with the equally infamous wide, lace-trimmed white collar for both men and women.


Puffed sleeves with cuffs that stopped short of the wrist  paired with the shawl-like collar, gave the shoulders a wide, almost drooping appearance. Gowns exposed wide swathes of shoulders and neck, prime display areas for jewelry!

The corset was just starting to become the premiere undergarment, along with stockings, bumrolls, and underskirts. The corset did not reach its full potential until the 18th Century. Clothes during the 17th Century were less restrictive than the fashion periods before and after it. Stays appeared, built directly into bodices for some support, but in general, the tight corsetry we associate with early fashions weren’t present in many Baroque dresses. The fashion was layers: collar over bodice over apron over dress over underskirt. Drawers and panties weren’t commonly worn except wadding for feminine hygiene purposes.


Early Baroque era shoes had high vamps and long square toes until the middle of the century when they gradually morphed into pointed toes as the 1680s rolled around.  High-heeled shoes came into fashion, some tottering to heights of over 6 inches! Slap heels, with a straight piece of wood that extended from the front shoe to form a platform under the heel, protected the wearer from sinking into the muddy soil when on outings. The platform made a loud, distinct slapping sound as the heel hit it, so you could often hear a noble woman coming long before you could see her.


Cavaliers and The Fanciers

Cavalier style can be described as a cross between Romanticism, Rococo, and the Renaissance. The Cavalier era introduced the idea of “controlled chaos.” Men would carefully craft their appearance to look completely spontaneous and artistic, using velvets and satins in bright colors like blue, pink, and yellow. The modern word “cavalier” owes it’s somewhat haughty, free-spirited, devil-may-care connotations to these fashionable  Royalists.

Fanciers were nobelmen who took sumptuousness to the extreme and were often more decorated and bejeweled than their female companions! The style fluctuated wildly beginning during the incredibly ornate reign of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, when men began to decorate themselves with ever fancier get-ups. Hose became important, coloring spindly legs bright hues under the wide balloons of satin breeches. The trend would progress among the upper class well into the 18th Century, with the sumptuousness and “heavy” qualities of the look culminating in the 1680s and 1690s. Huge mounds of ringlet-curled wigs and sleeve cuffs up to the elbow, as wide as a dinner plate, were the final stage of Fancier fashion.

The Puritans

Not everyone approved of these fashion flippantries, however. During the 17th Century, the Puritan religious movement swelled to bursting. These famously pious people believed that decorations of the mind, heart, and soul mattered more than the decoration of the body, but they weren’t fashion ignorant either. Instead, they created a fashion all their own!

Puritan men didn’t like all the hoopla that went into being a Cavalier dandy. What with all the bows, ruffles, plumes, and lace dangling off every man and woman at court, it was hard to tell who was a lady and who was a gentleman (especially with all the rumors about King James)! Instead, Puritan men opted for a simplified, more masculine palette and less ornamentation. Throughout the years, the Puritan quest for simplicity and modesty has been ironically over-simplified into a bland uniform of black and white, which is historically accurate, but all historically inaccurate at the same time.

How can that be? The answer is chemistry. Black, in fact, was expensive to dye and was difficult to maintain since the colorant available had the horrible habit of fading and spotting in the sun. Puritans preferred more somber colors (much like the Victorians did during the late 19th century) such as maroon, brown, navy, even dark greens and tawny neutrals that were much easier to maintain. The goal of the Puritans wasn’t to be boring, but to be modest and well-put together, much like business attire today. “American” Puritans were the most radical of the movement and were much more stringent in their fashion choices than their English and Dutch counterparts.

Unlike their Cavalier contemporaries, a Puritan didn’t rely on massive drapes of lace or tied, poofing sleeves to decorate their clothes. A good fit and quality materials mark a true Puritan outfit, especially if the Puritan was of rank. Since wealth was believed to be ordained by God, dressing to your station was still a requirement. Though Puritan ladies didn’t wear the gaudy bright colors and shoulder-baring styles, she would eagerly edge her cuffs and collars with lace and small bows. Non-radical Puritan colonists in the New World didn’t allow distance to freeze their fashion sense; they eagerly awaited ships bringing news of the latest fashions from their homelands.


Everyone– Cavalier, Puritan, man, woman, rich, and poor– embraced hats! Tall hats, floppy hats, small caps, veils– if it had a buckle or feathers covering the crown, all the better! Cavalier men wore their hair short and curly under their wide brimmed hats. Feathers, rosettes, buckles, and lace spilled over brims in colorful cascades!

Ladies also tucked their buns under tall, felt hats, much like their male counterparts. A demure housewife kept her hair out of the way with a little lace bonnet tied under her chin, and kept her skin from dappling in the sun with a headscarf or veil.

Hair was relatively short during the 17th Century compared to previous eras. Men’s hair reached their ears or shoulders while ladies put their hair half up and trimmed the underlayer to shoulder-length. The Puritan men were appalled that ladies’ haircuts were so similar to the men’s, so Puritan women were ordered to grow their hair long and keep it modestly hidden under a cap. Their effort to differentiate between the sexes by hair length was soon thwarted by the fashion for long, curly wigs that began to arise during the 1680s. By that time, Rococo was beginning to rise, sending opulence to a whole new level.

All of the pictures in this article are linked to to sites detailing each section, so feel free to click and explore!

The companion guide to practical Puritan costuming can be found here: Recreating the Fashions of the 1600s: THE FEAST!

UPDATE: April 17th, 2012

Just found this amazing picture in the Met!

Stylish! This painting is from the mid–late 1630s, so you can see how classy the 17th century could actually be. It’s not all Puritans and boring dresses! The little cap on the boy’s head is called a Pudding Cap or Pudding Head and was to protect the little tyke from injuring himself as he learned to toddle around.

4 Responses to “Shedding Light on a Dark Era: Baroque, Cavalier, and Puritan Fashions”

  1. sophie Says:

    Your blog is an endless source of informations! great job!

  2. Says:

    would it be possiböe to give names of paintings and their authors? would be great!

  3. mmcquown Says:

    I am happy to say that the 17th Century is well represented in the reenacting world.

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