Echoes from Salem: Witchy Fashions of the 17th Century

October 30, 2012

From Witch Hats to Shoes and Beyond


So 1680, my pretty!

Whether you know it or not, you’re familiar with 17th century fashion. Our modern ideas of witch clothing trickled down to us from the 17th century, most notably from our fascination with the Salem witch trials of 1692. You see the 17th century all over the place this time of year! For example:

This little darling is a fairly classic, modern witch: pointed hat, “renaissance” dress, and criss-cross “corset” lacing. This polyester masterpiece bears little resemblance to anything we might normally consider historical, but the pieces are there; you just have to look!

The Dress

Our little purple witch is wearing a dress with a faux-stomacher front covered with silver rick-rack. In the 17th century, stomachers were an important part of a lady’s wardrobe. They held jacket-like bodices together and were often heavily decorated, especially with embroidery and gilt threads:

“Portrait of a Bride” by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, 1640

“Woman of the Stuyvesant Family” by an unknown artist, late 17th century (1670-1700)

The color black is also very 17th century. Black was the color of wealth, modesty, and respectable mourning, so it’s a bit surprising that the somber color was attached to witches. Most “witches” accused in the Salem trials and elsewhere were often of the lower classes and would not have been able to afford expensive black cloth. They would have worn something more along the lines of this:

“Woman Warming her Hands over a Brazier” by Maestro della Tela Jeans, late 17th century

“Peasant Interior” by the Le Nain Brothers, 1642

The criss-crossing rick-rack mimics the lacing pattern of a pair of stays. Here is a pair of 1660s stays with sleeves that shows the criss-cross front lacing modern costume manufacturers have come to consider standard:

Stays and Busk, circa 1660

These wouldn’t have been outerwear for wealthier women, but would have been under the bodice. A lower class woman would not have had such fancy stays. Instead, she would have worn a reed or leather pair of stays over a chemise and skirt.

The Apron

Another 17th century aspect of the modern purple witch dress is the apron. Aprons were universal in 16th, 17th, and 18th century fashion. Everyone wore them, even if they were wealthy and never cooked a meal in their life!

“Citizen’s Daughter” by Wenceslaus Hollar, circa 1643

It’s especially fitting that the girl wearing the purple witch outfit has an apron on because it was standard practice in the 1600s for a child under 6 to wear an apron constantly to protect their skirts.

The Hat

Nothing says “witch” like a tall, cone-shaped hat! It’s been a Halloween witches’ staple since the 19th century, especially during the Edwardian era when costume balls and Halloween parties became popular.

Antique Postcard Design

Girl Dressed in a Witch Costume, circa 1880-1905

The photo of the young lady above shows how the traditional Halloween witch morphed from a variety of influences. Her dress is very 18th century (complete with quilted petticoat and fichu), while she herself is very Victorian. In addition, there’s that ever-present pointed hat! The hat style is undeniably 17th century. The tall, conical shape is derived from the capotain: a felted hat popular with both men and women since Elizabethan times.

“Head of a Man with a Pointed Hat” by Adriaen Brouwer, circa 1630

These hats were worn by every level of society from rich to poor. These big, funny-shaped hats seem really comical to our modern eyes, but they were considered a common essential for protecting your face from the sun and, for women especially, a sign of modesty. One of the best examples of the conical capotain is in this spectacular painting by John Michael Wright:

“Portrait of Mrs. Salisbury and her Grandchildren Edward and Elizabeth” by John Michael Wright, 1675

Detail of the Fabulous Hat

This is a later 17th century painting from 1675, but the style of the hat is a few decades earlier, around 1650-1660. The woman in the painting is not a witch; she’s just an upper class grandmother posing with her rambunctious and brightly-dressed grandchildren on a cool autumn day. But there’s no denying that it is the perfect historical example of what we’ve come to consider the ultimate symbol of Halloween magic!

The Shoes

Lastly, we come to the other wicked essential everyone loves to wear. The young girl in the purple witch costume is wearing simple Mary Jane flats, but for the adults, there is an iconic witch accessory with pointy toes and exaggerated heels…”Witch Shoes!”

As soon as they’re mentioned, everyone knows exactly what you mean. Just do a search on Google or Etsy and you’ll discover thousands of options that vary widely, but generally boil down to black, pointed or square toed, buckled or laced, and…well…witchy! Some of the styles are Edwardian in shape with straps and lacing. More traditional witches’ shoes, however, are 17th and early 18th century-inspired.

English Leather Shoe, circa 1640-50

Women’s Silk Shoes, circa 1700

Now I say “inspired” because over the centuries, the iconic buckle shoe had gone through many changes, each time re-emerging more cartoonish each time:

17th Century:

Men’s Leather Shoes, circa 1660

19th Century:

Men’s Theatrical Shoes, circa 1870-1900

20th Century:

English Underground Platform Shoes, circa 1974

21st Century:

Spider Buckle Witch shoes by Pleaser, circa 2012

So to Conclude:

The caricaturization, combination and evolution of the past is what defines our current ideas of Halloween, from witches and vampires to butterflies and hamburgers.  Fashion itself is always evolving, so it makes sense that our “dress-up” fashions would follow suit. Being completely over-the-top is half the fun of dressing up in costume! You don’t want to be just a hippie. You want to be a technicolor, tye-dye-wearing, afro-topped, peace-sign-covered tower of disco glory…even if it’s not quite what you remember wearing back in the day. And you know what? That’s totally groovy.

Peace out!

Happy Halloween!

3 Responses to “Echoes from Salem: Witchy Fashions of the 17th Century”

  1. SHMM Says:

    Love this post! We linked to it on our museum’s facebook page. Thanks for all of the interesting information.

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