Like the Dark Side of the Moon: Rear Views of 17th Century Fashion

September 27, 2013

Bodice Backs and Bumrolls

We are accustomed to seeing antique fashion from the front. It is presented to us that way in museums and paintings. Unless there is a notable feature (usually a train) in the back of a gown, the flip side of fashion is rarely put on display.

In 1643, Wenceslaus Hollar published a series of prints detailing the fashions of Europe at the time. He didn’t just focus on nobility or a single country, but rather spread his focus to multiple countries and classes (though they are still relatively privileged). His works are great references for national costumes of the period and reveal just how varied fashion was.

Roughly translates to: The Different Types of Dress from the Nations of Europe Common at the Present Time, etc.

The etchings display the usual front views of fashion from various nations, showing the vast number of trends Europeans were following at the time:

A Woman of Basil (Basel), circa 1643
When you remove the artificial Latin ending from “Basilienis,” We are left with Basilien. Basiliens were a religious order of monks. Rather, this lady hails from Basel/Basle, a city in what is now Switzerland. Her outfit is quite common for this area during the mid 17th century, especially her round fur hat.

Merchant’s Wife of Parisr, circa 1643
In contrast, this merchant’s wife wears an interesting blend of French and English fashion at the time, which makes sense considering that her husband works in trade.

What makes this book of prints really wonderful– besides the variety of costumes– is how many are drawn from the rear rather than just the front. While fashion usually puts its best face forward, the backs of garments are often more utilitarian. However, these reverse portraits give wonderful clues to construction, how layers were worn, and how hair was styled. They also reveal where old trends hung on and what silhouette was rolling in or out of fashion:

A Noblewoman of Brabant, circa 1643

This wealthy lady probably hails from what is now the Duchy of Brabant in the Netherlands. Her dress is richly trimmed with lace and bands of metallic trim on her bodice. She wears a medium-sized bumroll (about 7 inches deep) and there is still enough fabric to drape onto the floor. Notice how her huge sleeves are set extremely far back on the bodice, creating a fashionably tiny back. Stays during this period were made to push the arms far back for a straight, column-like torso.

Noblewoman of England, circa 1643

This lady is less ostentatious than her Brabrant counterpart (she is likely a lesser noble or a modest one), but her fur muff, well-fitted bodice, and artfully drawn-back petticoat still give her an air of privilege. She wears a softer bumroll and there are fewer pleats across the back of her petticoat. We can glimpse the center-back seam of her bodice under her large, peaked collar. Her hat/cap is difficult to discern, but it is fitted over a large bun. Notice how dark it is, probably indicating it is black; however, her clothing is drawn in a lighter shade and was probably made of a more lively color with a contrasting petticoat. (Not all 17th century clothes were black.)

Noblewoman of Spain, circa 1643

The Spanish, however, adored black for its severity, richness, and luster. This noblewoman wears a fashion that was popular a few decades earlier during the 1610s and 20s. Clearly its imposing beauty has not diminished, but it is far different from her neighbors in France! She is probably an older woman, but she may be a lady who just loves older fashion. Rich clothes were not wasted and were thus reworn many times, so this may be the robe of a mother, sister, or higher-up noble that was passed down. Yet another possibility is the time it took to publish Hollar’s book. Making plates for printing took a lot of time to do. If he had spend enough time working on this project, it is quite likely that this is actually a fashion from an earlier time, perhaps by years! Still, the Spanish nobility was famous for treasuring their ornate style longer than their contemporaries (as this painting of Isabel de Borbón from 1632 reveals) and the heavy style from the turn of the century lingered on the Iberian Peninsula longer than in other parts of the continent.
The rear view of this gown reveals the decorative cut of her hanging sleeves and the pickadil/supportasse which props up her tall lace collar. We are also treated to a rare glimpse of what goes on behind those high hair rolls: artfully arranged braids accented with either jeweled ornaments or flowers.

The Dutch Navigator’s Wife, circa 1643

I cannot tell from the image, but the German translation in the top corner appears to say “Shiffer,” an alternate spelling of Schiffer, which may be translated as “boatman.” This assumption meshes well with the faux Latin “Navigatoris” (aka Navigator). Since this lady hails from Amsterdam, it would make sense that she would be married to a boatman.
Her outfit consists of fantastic layers. She wears a jacket with a jaunty tail or peplum over an ankle-length petticoat with an apron, a very practical choice for a busy woman! Her bumroll is of a noticeable size, though that may be due to wearing multiple petticoats over it. She sports not just a fur collar, but also a wide starched ruff.
Her hair, drawn back in a crowned bun, is covered with a coif under her cone-shaped straw hat, similar to the Vietnamese nón lá. These sorts of hats are actually common to the northern European region as well, and examples of a similar shape can be found from the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of these examples have colorful embroidery around the brim, but this lady’s appears to be plain and utilitarian. The coif would keep her hair out of the way and her wide hat would protect her skin from the damaging effects of the sun.
My favorite feature, however, is her stout mules. These shoes were common during the 17th century, worn by all classes of women. They have short wooden heels and decorated uppers (much like these).

And finally, here’s my favorite print of the lot:

A Dutch Woman in her Household Dress, circa 1643

It’s not an etching done from behind, but this is my favorite picture of the lot. This lady is not dressed for shopping or promenading. She’s dressed in the 17th century equivalent to your favorite pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. While we might venture forth freely in these lax clothes, a 17th century lady of standing would not venture far from her house in such simplistic dress. Dutch masters like Vermeer put this sort of “undress” in their cherished, intimate scenes of 17th century home life.
She is dressed practically, with a full-length apron and a capelet to keep out the chill. Her pretty jacket just peeps out from under her cape, giving us a glimpse of what is most likely a intricate blackwork embroidery design, like this jacket. We are treated to another wonderful view of a pair of mules, revealing the banded decoration on the uppers. This may well be the same Dutch navigator’s wife from the previous print, though this style was prevalent across Europe and fairly standard, so it is hard to say.

The 17th century is my favorite century to study. I always enjoy finding prints, paintings, and extant clothing to admire and share!

—– Bonus Look! —–

Here is a stunning photo of the back of Merja’s (of Aristocat fame) Baroque gown, taken by Lauren from American Duchess:

More lovely photos of the dress from all angles are available on Merja’s blog.

This dress is an excellent recreation of a mid-17th century dress. Doesn’t lit look similar to the other northern European noblewomen’s gowns? Here, the gown is styled for an indoor party. If she were going out, she would wear a collar or cape and cover her hair. Notice the beautiful deep-set sleeves and how smoothly it is fitted. It is a Cinderella-worthy gown, to be sure!

3 Responses to “Like the Dark Side of the Moon: Rear Views of 17th Century Fashion”

  1. this last grey dress is so beautiful! and great post

  2. Mom Says:

    Beautiful analysis.

  3. Isis Says:

    Excellent post! I love back-views!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: