Through the Keyhole: A Peek into a 17th Century Lady’s Wardrobe

July 25, 2012

Rare Examples of Extant 17th Century Clothing

For most of us, paintings are as close as we get to seeing what 17th century fashion was like. They’re a wonderful medium, but like fashion magazines today, most professional portraits aren’t nessisarily the be-all end-all holy grail of fashion. We only see a lady’s best clothing, and usually only the outer layer. Lighting, paint aging, pigment fading, artistic liberties, and angles all affect how the clothing looks vs. what the clothing actually was.

The most famous evidence of the trickery of relying solely on paintings is our vision of the 17th century Puritans wearing black and white. There are so many paintings of 17th century ladies in black gowns with white collars that it must have been very common. The Spanish especially loved the color for its lustrous richness, so much so that heavy black velvet became a hallmark of Spanish wealth and influence.


Portrait of Jeronimo de Cevallos, 1613

Black was a common color; however, there’s a twist (isn’t there always?). Black was super-duper expensive to dye correctly. On any fabric other than leather, it was unstable and faded easily–usually to a horrible white-orange or bruised blue. Black was reserved for Sunday best and court clothing.

So if black wasn’t all that common everyday, why is it in so many paintings? Well, people generally wear their nicest clothes to have their portraits painted and if they use black fabric to make their nicest clothes, there are going to be a disproportionate number of paintings full of people wearing black. Think of your prom photos. Did everybody wear fluffy chiffon and match their date’s tuxedo everyday?

Finding extant clothing from 400 years ago is a genuine challenge, but there are a few pieces left. Thank heavens for museums (especially the V&A)! Here’s a collection of genuine items that have miraculously survived. Some of the artifacts are classic, a few strange, and many a surprise. So if 17th century ladies didn’t wear black all day everyday, what did they wear?

Inside the Wardrobe

Overgown, circa 1610-1615

O……. M…….G……..

The amazingness of this gown reduces me to blasphemous abbreviations! Look at how lovely, yet simple it is. The pleating and tabbed wings at the shoulders are heavenly! It is too bad there is no front photo so we can see how it closes. What you can see, however, is the beautiful hand-woven fabric from Italy and the decorative slashes that were punched by an English tailor. This beautiful wrapper has two small holes at the collar to attach a ruff and supportasse.

Ruff Edging, circa 1620-1629

Ruffs were worn until the 1620s. After that, the ruffs became looser and wider, eventually morphing into the gigantic collars the 17th century is known for. Ruffs came in all sizes and styles, some thin and flat, others cone-like and dense. This ruff is a reconstruction made to display the period lace.  Ruffs were generally made of linen and could be left plain or decorated with lace trim like this. It was made during the transitional period between the voluminous ruff and the draping collar.

Pickadil /Supportasse, circa 1600-1625

This tractor-seat-shaped item is actually called a  supportasse, though I’ve always heard them called pickadils (Supportasse is a French term, but if you mispronounce it, it sounds like it should be supporting something else! So, I’ll stick with pickadil). Ruffs, especially ornate large ones, needed support to stand up fashionably and frame the face. They are usually made of card covered in a pleasant fabric to match a dress. If you look at the picture of the overgown again, you can see that there is a pickadil attached to the collar. Pickadils were threaded onto gowns or robes through small holes in the back or tied in front if it needed to support a full-circle ruff. There is a street in London named after this 17th century contraption; you may have heard of it: it’s called Piccadilly!

Falling Collar, circa 1630

You really need to click on the picture to see just how huge this thing really is. It is 89 cm long and 32.5 cm wide. That’s over 1 yard long and a foot wide! This particular collar is actually a man’s collar. A woman’s collar would have a rounder fit about the neck. The squareness of this one makes it stand up and drape handsomely over a man’s doublet or coat (there is a lovely mannequin modelling the look in the archive). A woman would have worn hers over a bodice or jacket.


The Margaret Layton Jacket, circa 1600-1620

This jacket/bodice is possibly the most famous non-royal fashion artifact from the 17th century. It was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum along with a painting of Margaret Layton in which she wears this very piece!

Portrait of Margaret Layton by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, circa 1620

If this isn’t a great opportunity to revisit the “portrait vs. reality” debate, nothing is! When you look at the bodice in the picture, you can tell that it is very much like the extant piece, but there are obvious differences. The pattern is enlarged in the painting and the flower colors and types vary. However, the artist did an amazing job. You can definitely see the resemblance between the two pieces! Here’s a tidbit from the archive record:

“The portrait of Margaret Layton, purchased with the bodice, is an intriguing example of early seventeenth-century English portraiture, as well as a unique example of a sitter shown wearing an extant garment. Comparison with the bodice shows that the artist has painted its distinguishing features with great care, undoubtedly reflecting the value that it held for the sitter. He has paid particular attention to its embroidery, reproducing in detail the individual motifs of birds, insects and flowers, while exercising a degree of artistic license in terms of their specific arrangement.”

“X-radiographs of the painting reveal that the artist produced two versions of the face. Beneath the visible likeness is an older-looking, slightly heavier image of Margaret Layton’s face. It would thus appear that the artist repainted her in a more youthful and idealized way, perhaps at her request, or that of her husband who was most likely to have commissioned and paid for the work. This alteration raises interesting questions, at present unanswerable, about the exact date of the painting and the occasion for which it was commissioned.”

 This bodice is beautiful. The embroidery is absolutely superb and took many many hours to complete. Amazingly, the Plimoth Plantation’s Historical Clothing and Textiles Department reproduced this jacket almost exactly, down to the materials, techniques, and smallest flower!


The Plimoth Jacket “Faith,” circa 2009

The curling vine and flower motif on the Margaret Layton Jacket was popular in Britain at the start of the 1600s.

Jacket, circa 1600-1625

Here is another jacket with a similar motif. It is looser fitting, but was made around the same time. This much simpler jacket would be worn to less formal occasions or during pregnancy.It is made from linen sewn with colored silk thread. I love the bows closing up the front. Ladies in the 17th century adored the jacket. It was their favorite accessory after lace. Many Dutch paintings in particular show ladies in all manner of jackets: house jackets, bed jackets, fur jackets, satin, jackets..really, if there was a place to wear one, a lady would wear a jacket!

Jacket, circa 1600-1625

This jacket is different. Obviously, it is simpler than the others, but it’s method of decor consists of silver cording woven into the fabric itself. It also has two holes at the back to support a Pickadil and ruff. Again, this jacket is much looser than most from the 17th century, but its simplicity and fit might mean that this was a house jacket and would not have been worn in public.

Bodice, circa 1630-1639

This may look like a jacket, but don’t be fooled! Until the Regency era, jackets closed all the way in front and bodices were open, quite the opposite of what we’re used to today! Well, the bodices weren’t open open. 17th century bodices would be closed with a stomacher that pinned in place, a practice that continued through the 18th century. This bodice would have been worn with a decorated stomacher, wide lace cuffs, and a ruff or collar. It has pinked edges inside the punched slashes. Stays may be worn under the bodice, but they were not tight or conical like the stays of the Renaissance or Rococo eras. Stays in the 17th century were shorter and less restricting, emphasizing the full, rounded female form so admired at the time.

Petticoat Panel, circa 1600

Multiple petticoats were the daily norm. Today, petticoat has come to mean an undergarment, usually Victorian, but petticoats were worn like skirts in the 17th century. A poor woman might wear only one or two petticoats, while a wealthy woman would wear many more! This decorative panel would have been sewn onto the topmost petticoat which would have shown through the split front of the dress.

Apron, circa 1580-1600

Aprons are a necessity for any lady of the 17th century. Everyone from bakers wives to courtiers wore them, though the rich wore them only around the house. Aprons were ankle-to-floor length and were usually made of linen. Decorated aprons like this one were not meant to be used for protective reasons. They were a wonderful opportunity to add pizzazz to an otherwise plain outfit and showed off the fine sewing skills of the ladies that wore them. This example in the V&A is decorated with cutwork (a.k.a. holes), so you can tell that it was meant as a showpiece, not a work piece!

Spanish Chopines, circa 1580-1620

Mules, circa 1600-1625

Chopines had become overwhelmingly gaudy by the end of the 16th century, but this Spanish pair recalls how the chopine began: as a way to elevate ladies’ skirts above the filthy streets. They are not shoes themselves, usually, but are overshoes for delicate slippers and mules. While I’d love to have some crazy-tall, fancy chopines, this simple green pair is my favorite pair.

Shoes in the 17th century saw the development of the heel instead of the traditional platform, but until 1620 or so, mules and chopines shared equal footing in the fashion world. After 1630, however, heels rapidly grew in popularity and height. Mules with wooden soles were standard house shoes for all classes.

Walking Shoe, circa 1640

This everyday walking shoe is made of leather and is much sturdier than its silk counterparts. A middle class woman would have worn these whenever she went out of the house. Shoes were prized and often passed down through generations until they fell to bits. It’s unbelievable how well preserved this shoe is! Most became horribly cracked and misshapen over the years, if they survived at all.


Coif, circa 1610

During the first half of the 17th century, ladies still wore coifs to cover their hair. This coif is the creme de la creme of coifs! It’s bursting with silver and gilt threads that would have glittered brilliantly when they were new! Be sure to click the picture to check out the museum page. There, you can zoom in and see just how heavily embroidered this masterpiece is! It’s splashed with shimmering spangles (sequins) as well, even on the handmade silver lace. The matching forehead cloth would have covered the front of a lady’s hair if the coif did not extend as far as she needed, for example, under a hat with a thin brim.

Felt Hat, circa 1600-1625

I’m going to end this tour with this hat. Why? Because…well…look at it! Is it not the most amazing hat you you have ever seen?! I have seen hundreds upon thousands of illustrations of these steeple-crowned hats but never knew there was a real one still floating around! Hats like this were popular for everybody– rich, poor, Puritan, Royalist, man, or woman. When it comes down to it, anyone in Britain might have worn this. Maybe a gentleman walking the streets of London, or a lady out for a stroll in the country, or an old woman who scolds everyone for being frivolous but secretly adores sweetmeats….anybody!

The world the the 17th century woman is a mystery to many people, even avid historians and costumers. The 1600s really are a skipped-over era in history even though so many wonderful, terrifying, and history-making things happened. We are extremely lucky that there are still pieces left from that time!

As with all my articles, all of the images in this article are either linked to larger versions, articles explaining them, or other fact-filled sites to help you explore, so please feel free to check them out!

6 Responses to “Through the Keyhole: A Peek into a 17th Century Lady’s Wardrobe”

  1. This is such an incredible article, with much insights and details. I am very interested in renaissance and 17th century “micro history” and clothing history and it’s true that it’s quite difficult to find examples of of every day life clothing, so thank you !

  2. Isis Says:

    The 17th century is oddly under-represented. I have a friend who has a theory that one reason is that the dominating European country during large periods of the century was a country who hasn’t made much noice before or since, namely Sweden. So perhaps the countries who has dominated Europe most of the time feel that teh 17th century is rather boring and, perhaps, slightly boring.

    I don’t know, it may be some truth in it, though as a Sweden it doesn’t explain why not Swedes interest themselves more for teh period. Plenty of war historians, but there are so many other interesting aspects, like the highly intelligent and cultural queen Kristina.

    I actually think that tehre are a lot more 17th century clothes preserved than we know about. I saw that you linked to that German article with extant examples- who would have known about them if not for that article? I have heard freinds alment that there aren’s any men’s clothes, when Sweden has a very large collection, and so on. I do wonder what more there are hidden away in little known museums.

    • Liz Says:

      You are very right! Surprisingly, there are many more 17th century men’s outfits than women’s. I think it is because fashions for men actually changed much faster during that century than ladies’ fashion. You are also correct about Swedish and Dutch culture dominating the period. The major European countries that had previously been in power like England and France were in upheaval. Spain is another 17th century fashion capital, but their museums aren’t as famous as some, so they get overlooked. I would speculate that there are many, many treasures hidden in small museums and private family collections that could really shed light on this special period in time. :)

  3. […] were beginning to prevail: the iconic black silks and velvets with wide lace ruffs and collars we’ve come to associate with “pilgrim fashions” of the 17th […]

  4. Morgan Says:

    Hello! I realize I’m several years late finding this blog, but it has been a fantastically helpful starting point for my current research project. Particularly, I’ve been looking into women’s jackets from this approximate time, and the photos you’ve provided are excellent. I admittedly never had much reason to give clothing of this period any particular thought, but recently I’ve been fascinated with the paintings representing this period and decided to look into the various layers not necessarily captured in a painting.

    That said, I would like to point out that the photo you have identified as the Margaret Layton jacket appears to be different from the jacket pictured on the V&A website, though the pattern is very similar and thus very interesting to me. Perhaps the museum webpages have changed over the last couple years.

    ( and

    Again, thanks for this very well written post!

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