Recreating the Fashions of the 1600s: THE FEAST!
November 11, 2011
Dressing For the Feast
You’re an English Puritan (or maybe a Spanish explorer or a French settler). The year is 1621, or maybe it was 1619, in Newfoundland, wait…it was Plymouth or Virginia…and you are wearing a horrible black tube with a napkin draped over your head and a tablecloth around your neck.
The actual date and location of the original, European “Thanksgiving” in the Americas is up for debate, but one thing is for certain: it’s a day of feasting, gratefulness, and a rest from hard work. The most commonly taught version involves Native Americans helping the struggling Plymouth Puritans last through the winter by teaching them to farm native foods and catch fish. Whatever the truth is, by the 1660s, most of New England was serving up tasty dishes in community-wide merriments at the end of the harvest.
So, back to our story. You are a New England settler (probably), in the early 17th century and you are wearing a typical Puritan outfit on your way to eat tasty corn pudding. Unfortunately, your “typical Puritan outfit” was designed by greeting-card illustrators in the 1950s, so you are brutally cold and atrociously out of style! The flimsy black cotton dress barely hides your legs and your starched collar tries to keep you warm against the chill breeze, but is more of a hindrance than a help. The Puritan elders would surely flog you if they caught you so badly dressed! Fortunately, a kindly woman shoos you into her house, offering to get you some proper attire in exchange for some help in the kitchen.
The kindly woman opens one of her fine cedar chests, revealing an assortment of bright, gaudy gowns, quite the opposite of anything you’d expect to find in the wild, pious wood of the New World! They’re ruffly mounds of soft silks and cottons, all in bright, rich shades.
Baroque and Cavalier Court Fashions (1600-1680)
Fitted Neckline and Bodice
Loose, puff sleeves
Square or pointed toe shoes with wooden heels
Accessories: Hats, necklaces, rings, shoe rosettes, etc.
Many “Renaissance” gowns are actually are early Baroque gowns. You can easily convert a renaissance gown into a baroque one by removing your tight outer sleeves and tying your chemise into puffs with ribbons or adding lace cuffs and collar. The early 1600s feature a wide range of necklines and shapes because Elizabethan fashions lingered for a few years after the Queen’s death in 1603.
“Whoops!” the kindly woman says, quickly closing the lid. “Wrong trunk! Wouldn’t want you whipped for having slashed sleeves, would we!” She laughs nervously and opens another trunk. “Are you heading Jamestown way, dear?” she asks with a smile. “I have a few nice things that might be suitable.”
A “Vintage” Englishwoman (1610s-1640s):
Collar (If your dress lacks one)
Sturdy, high-vamp leather shoes
Hat or kerchief
The 1980s are both a godsend and a horrid curse for costumers on a time-crunched budget. On the one hand, the 1980s brought back fantastic silhouettes that had been lost to history, providing a range of pieces that only need minor tweaking to become period-appropriate, at least in looks. On the other hand, the 1980s usually cropped those styles off awkwardly at the knee. Lucky for us, 1600s fashions weren’t always one-piece dresses, but a bodice/skirt combo with hefty layers, so you can just add long skirts to your truncated 1980s dress and voilá! Magic.
Cloak or Muff
“That’s a bit gaudy for a Puritan,” you reply. She laughs and shakes her head.
“Not at home,” she says, “but for the good people of Plymouth, it may be a bit too much.” She closes the second trunk,walks over to the quilt-covered bed, and pulls out a large bundle. “See if any of these will fit.”
Puritan Pilgrim Outfit (1610-1630)
Bumroll, Apron, and Collar (optional)
Celebrate! Rejoice! If you are a Renaissance person, you probably already have much of the clothing you need to be a real Pilgrim this Thanksgiving! All the fancy collars and slim silhouettes in modern costumes came from the early 20th Century. Most Pilgrims and Puritans that came to the new world for freedom were not rich. They didn’t have it easy in the New World: their ship was crowded, the land completely different from their homeland, and they had spent long months hungry, cold, and sick. They were tough cookies with a no-nonsense wardrobe to match! They used natural dyes to color their clothes a variety of subdued colors and strove to spend more time working and praying that putting on fancy clothes. The infamous lace collars would probably been saved for going to Church since jewels and baubles would have just gotten in the way during daily chores.
Bodice, Skirt, and Chemise
Coif or Bonnet
Pretty but Functional: Apron and Collar
She leaves you alone to put on your fresh outfit, and after layering all the pieces, you sit on the bed to wait for her return. Time passes. She doesn’t return. A bit awkwardly (bumrolls take some getting used to!), you trundle out into the main room into the kitchen, holding your old outfit limply over your arm. She has a twig broom in her hand, sweeping while an iron cauldron steams over the embers. The broom frightens a mouse out of a corner. It dashes across the dirt floor, trying to escape a young kitten.
“Oh! There you are!” the kindly woman says. She puts aside the broom and looks you over with satisfaction. “Doesn’t that dress look so much nicer than that strange, thin sack! Such an improvement.” She stirs the cauldron with a wooden spoon. “I’m stewing some venison; would you like to take some with you? It’s rather rude to attend dinner without taking something yourself.”
She gives you a ceramic jar of stew (“just bring it home when you’re done”), wraps you in a shawl, and escorts you back to the road. The breeze is still chilly, but it’s hardly noticeable now through your thick skirts. The kindly woman gives you a wave as you head off towards town with the venison stew.
“Good bye, dear!” the kindly woman calls from behind. “Have a very merry, blessed day of thanksgiving!”
Because the 17th Century is one of the most overlooked eras in costume history, especially state-side, patterns are hard to come by. Judging by common knowledge, the penguin-Pilgrims came to the new world, killed some witches and then gave birth to a frilly, white-wigged George Washington with the Declaration of Independence held tight in his fist. In reality, the time between each on of those events amounts to a whole, mysteriously absent century(Plymouth Pilgrims landed in 1620, the Salem witch trials happened in 1692, and George Washington was born in 1732)! If you are adventurous enough to try sewing your own this pattern is one of the best I’ve found.
Tips and tricks:
If you just want to get into the spirit, but not dress up all the way, there are a variety of beautiful lace collars available that you can wear over a jewel-tone, long-sleeved shirt!
Upper-class shoes from this period had a wooden heel and long, squared-off pointed toes. Surprisingly, you can still find this funky silhouette in an unlikely place: cowboy-boot clogs! With their low, wooden heels, high vamp,various levels of decoration, and long toes, you can find a clog for almost any class of outfit.
Please, for the love of all that is good and right with the world, do not wear a cone-shaped hoopskirt with your 17th Century outfit! Use skirts or a roll underneath. If all else fails and your skirts are heavy enough to weight it down, you can escape using a short, fluffy petticoat to hold the skirt out away from hips, but keep the straight line of the skirt intact.
If all else fails and you must wear buy a “Pilgrim” costume, try this one. It appears to be at floor length, which at least feigns the prospect of fitting a few fluffing layers underneath.
Hairstyles for the Baroque period are easy! Just tuck your hair under a cap or put it half-up with some ribbons. If your hair is shoulder length, you’re right on target! If it’s longer, just put it half-up in a bun and curl the rest.
Some Pilgrims actually stayed in the Netherlands for while to escape England. They probably picked up many Dutch fashions from their Calvinist contemporaries while there, including the famous somber color palette, so the works of Vermeer, Rembrandt, and other 17th Century Dutch painters make wonderful references!
From some Thanksgiving Food inspiration, visit the amazing art website “Still Life, Quick Heart” to check out beautiful 17th Century still-life paintings!
Have a HAPPY THANKSGIVING!