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

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!

Playing Dress Up: Kid’s Clothing in the 17th century

Historical Children’s Clothing in the 17th Century

“A Boy And A Girl With A Cat And An Eel” by Judith Leyster, 1635

Children didn’t always wear “kid’s clothes.” Setting children’s clothing apart from adult clothing is a relatively new concept developed in the last 100 years or so. In modern times, we still dress our kids in scaled down, more “cutesy” versions of our own clothes, but with a much more definitive line between what is kid-appropriate and what is adult-appropriate. In the past, parents did not raise children; they raised tiny adults. Younger generations wore in their youth the same clothes their parents were wearing–with few alterations for smaller, growing bodies. There are a few exceptions to the adult-clothes-only rule, including toddler dresses, coral teething necklaces, and pudding caps which were all made specifically for toddler-aged children.

Boys in Dresses

2005 vs. 1659

Some children’s trends from the past may seem quite strange to us. Today, little boys are expected to wear pants, but up until the late 19th century (and sometimes beyond), boys under the age of 5 wore dresses. Gender issues make up a major portion of our modern fashion sensibilities. Girls wear pink. Boys wear blue. Girls wear skirts. Boys wear pants. It’s become a major source of conflict both socially and politically. For years now, there have been movements to abolish these gender-defining guidelines. It is now acceptable for girls to wear pants and even shorts, but boys are still expected to shun skirts.

Young Boy by Jan van Bijlert, 1640-1660

In 17th century Europe, the sight of a little boy in a fluffy pink skirt wouldn’t have been frowned on in the least. Boys wore skirts from the time they could walk until the age of 6 or 7. Since zippers and elastic were centuries in the future, a 17th century mom couldn’t just slip a pair of pants over her squirming toddler’s legs. Breeches required buttons and buckles to hold them in place: two nimble, dexterous activities that toddler hands cannot perform on their own. Until a boy was considered mature and independent enough to handle his own dressing, he wore skirts. Unlike breeches which required a fitted liner, skirts did not need underwear. A dress allowed toddlers to easily use the chamber pot or lift the fabric out of the  way to pee. Toddlers also grow rather quickly, needing new clothes in a matter of months. Skirts could be hemmed and let out as the child grew, a much more economical option than paying for a new pair of breeches every 4 months. The addition of a full-length apron protected the dress from all the drips, drizzles, and mishaps little boys always seem to get covered in!

Portrait of King Louis XIV and his Brother, Duc D’Orleans, 1640s

Sometimes it can be quite hard to tell a little boy from a little girl in portraits. Many, if left unlabelled, still stump art historians! Usually the only major difference between toddler girls and toddler boys is the lack of flowers or jewelry, though many wealthier families decked their children’s gowns with heaps of pearls, coral strands, collars, lace, and flowers regardless of gender.

Beads, Baubles, and Bells

“Susanna de Vos” by Cornelis de Vos, 1627

Would you give your 3 year old child a string of beads to chew on? In a world dominated by recalls and warning labels for small parts, we’ve become accustomed to keeping small things out of our children’s grasp. In the 17th Century, toddlers were often given strands of beads to play with and chew on. Coral was considered healthful, a talisman to ward off sickness and disease–a big threat in a world without vaccinations and other modern medical advancements. A common baptism gift to an infant was a string of smooth coral beads which the child continued to wear until they married and had children of their own. The coral beads would then be passed on to the next generation.

The portrait of the little girl is Susanna de Vos, the daughter of the Dutch painter Cornelis de Vos. He painted many pictures of his changing family over his lifetime, from his oldest children to Susanna, his youngest. You can see that she is wearing a pair of coral bead bracelets. Here’s a painting done 3 years later in which you can see that she is still wearing her coral bracelets (along with her cross necklace):

“Self-Portrait Of The Artist With His Wife Suzanne Cock And Their Children” by Cornelis de Vos, 1630

You can also see that her elder sister is wearing a coral bracelet of her own. If you look at an earlier portrait, you can see that the bracelet is actually made from a long double strand coral necklace given to her when she was still a toddler! In addition to her coral bracelets, Susanna is holding a silver rattle on a chain. Her sister keeps her close by on a braided silk leash. Accessories like this helped keep track of where a rambunctious young one was. Many portraits show small trinkets dangling from cords and chains on the waistbands of children’s aprons. One of the most common is a rattle or a bell.

Detail of “Portrait of  Doña Antonia de Ipeñarrieta and Her Son don Luis” by Diego Velázquez, 1631-32

This is a great painting for three reasons: first, it shows another young lad in a gown; second, he is holding a pretty scarf in one hand while his mother holds the other end; and thirdly, a little golden bell hangs from his belt. The low position of the bell makes sure that it gets the maximum amount of motion and therefore makes the most sound.

Silver Bell on a Chain, 17th Century

Pudding Caps

“The Lacemaker” by Nicolaes Maes, 1656-57

We call very young children “toddlers” because they toddle around, wobbling on new legs and generally motoring about in a haphazard fashion. Since they haven’t quite got the hang of being graceful, they often fall down. To protect them, 17th century mothers would make pudding caps. Pudding caps were soft, quilted “helmets” that would help protect a child’s fragile skull from dangerous bumps.

“The Family of the Artist” by Cornelis de Vos, early 17th century

Pudding caps remained popular through the early 19th century. Pudding caps in the 17th century usually took two forms: a padded ring that fit over a coif or a regular bonnet-style cap with quilted-in padding. Here is an example of a leather pudding cap from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

Leather Pudding Cap, early 19th Century

Though it’s 19th century, the pattern it follows is the same as the pudding caps in the 17th and 18th centuries before it. They’re brilliant safety devices (and cute to boot), but they fell out of favor in the 20th century.

Paintings: Infant to Pre-teen

“(The Twins) Clara and Aelbert de Bray” by Salomon de Bray, 1646

“Magdalena and Jan Baptist de Vos” by Cornelis de Vos, 1622
Magdalena is the pretty girl in the red and white dress, a fabulous design! The little boy on the right is Jan. He wears a petticoat with blackwork embroidery. These simple petticoats with embroidered borders were very popular as children’s wear from about 1600-1650.

“2nd Duke of Buckingham, with His Brother, Lord Francis Villiers” by Anthony van Dyck, 17th Century (first half)

“Princess Mary Stuart And Prince William Of Orange (Future William III)” by Van Dyck, 1641
This is the wedding portrait of Mary Stuart and William. He was 15 and she was only 10 years old when they were wed. You can read more about it here: “A Stuart royal wedding, 2nd May 1641”
The image may look grainy because it is actually very, very large. Click on it and you can see every brushstroke!

“Portrait Of The Duke Of Medinaceli” by Francisco de Zurbarán, Mid-17th Century

“Portrait of a Girl at the Age of 10” by Cornelis de Vos, early 17th Century

“Portrait of a Young Woman with Fan” by Jan Daemen Cool, 1636
Again, this image looks grainy because you can enlarge it and see every paint daub! The details in the lace are breathtaking.