Unique Embellishments and Passementerie Through the Centuries: 17th Century Swag

Addicted to Trim: 17th Century Ribbon Loops

If you could describe the 17th century in one word, “swag” probably wouldn’t be the first to come to mind, but the term– which is American slang for “fashionable, ornamental excess”– actually describes the era particularly well, especially the use of trims and ribbons that swelled to ridiculous proportions by the 1650s. During the 17th century, trim became a major player in the fashion game. Early in the century, the fashion for all-over abundance of embroidery, metallic lace, and jewels was de rigueur for the upper class, but by 1610, different tastes 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 century.

“Portrait of Mary Radclyffe” by William Larkin, circa 1610-13

This black-and-white world is a faux reality, since 17th century fashion was as brightly colored as any century before or after and was, perhaps, more heavily textured. However, solid colors including black, powder blue, pink, and yellow gowns and coats gained popularity over the polychrome brocades and embroidered smorgasbord of the late 1500s. During the 1600s, texture and volume became immensely important. It was no longer enough to throw on all your finery and be done with it. Textures had to compliment and contrast each other. If you wore a fitted black silk gown, you would contrast the smooth dark with a frilly, soft white lace. Rosettes, which had blossomed in popularity during the Elizabethan era, soared in popularity and offered a lady or gentleman yet another opportunity to play with texture. Rosettes of ribbon could be worn nearly anywhere: sleeves, garters, necklines, shoulders, belts, or shoes. Many rosettes were quite large, 6 inches in diameter or even larger!

Detail of “Amalia van Solms” by Sir Anthonis van Dyck, circa 1631
Notice how carefully “choreographed” the play of texture is on Amalia’s gown. The smooth silk bodice has ribboned sleeves which would reveal glimpses of an undersleeve. On top of that, golden rosettes tame the volume of and huge pinked cuffs soften the stark look. Her abundance of jewelry is symmetrically placed, contrasting with her offset belt rosette.

Rosettes are carefully sculpted into shape with folds and stitches, but when they become quite large, it’s much harder to control the stiffness and shape. Naturally, the rosette took on a softer incarnation, halfway between a rosette and a bow. It became fashionable to attach long aglets (metal tips) to the ends of the bows, adding yet another textural feature to the outfit. This popular embellishment could also be functional, tying sleeves to a bodice or stays, for example.

Loosely looped rosettes in “Portrait of a lady” by Jan Anthonisz van Ravesteyn, circa 1630-50

Doublet and Breeches Suit with loose bows, circa 1635-40

“The Cheat with the Ace of Clubs” by Georges de La Tour, circa 1630-34
Rosettes and bows were fashionable for both men and women. This painting, as well as the later version, show the aglet-tipped bows that exploded in popularity during the 1630s.

Stays and Sleeves with Metal Aglets, circa 1660-70

Perhaps the most interesting use of ribbon during the 17th century, however, was the ribbon loop. Developed out of the bows and loose rosettes, by the 1650s, these loops became the mark of the most fashionable, Cavalier gentleman. Cascades of these rustling ribbon loops were hung low around the waist to bridge the gap between relatively short doublet and high-waisted breeches.

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Outfits belonging to Charles X (1622 to 1660)
These rich outfits were the height of fashion for men during the mid-17th century. The popular shape for men was a bowed-forward posture with thick limbs for a jaunty appearance. I’ve heard plenty of comments that these outfits make men look like toddlers since there is no strong waist delineation and the form is very puffy. However, the rounded appearance, coupled with large accessories like feathered hats, turned-down boots, and wide capes all served to make a man as large and grand looking as possible. The ribbon bows/loops added even more swagger and size to the picture.

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Livery uniforms, circa 1672

Men weren’t the only ones to indulge in ribbon loops. Ladies closed their jacket fronts with a boa-like line of ribbons and hung ribbon tassels from their bodices and hair. By the 1670s, the loops had ceased to be distinctly bow-shaped and were applied like tassels. The ribbon strips were often wider for men and thinner for women and children.

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“The Eldest Daughter of the Artist” by Claude Lefebvre, circa 1672

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Maria van Oosterwijck” by Wallerant Vaillant, circa 1671
This amazing woman became a floral still-life painter of great renown by her own volition at a time when painting flowers was a fine female occupation, but not one a woman was expected to do unmarried. Her paintings are bright, lifelike, and still quite collectable today. Her biography is well worth a read!

“Portrait of a Woman with a Moorish Page” by an unknown artist, late 17th century

“Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary” by The Freake Limner, circa 1671-74

“Portrait of a Young Boy” by the studio of Henri Gascar, circa 1680-90
Note the matching ribbon puff attached to the hat.

Ribbon loops even trimmed hats, purses, and gloves. Anywhere embellishment could conceivably go, a swathe of looped ribbon could be–and often was– applied.

Gloves, circa 1660-80

Purse with ribbon loops and love symbolism, circa 1650-1700

The fashion for looped ribbons fell out of favor around 1700 as a new century rolled in and the fashion of choice changed from the full and voluminous Baroque silhouette to longer, leaner waistcoats for men and mantuas for ladies, eventually evolving into into the 18th century’s signature Rococo look with plenty of swag of its own.

“Marriage Portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix van der Laen” by Frans Hals, circa 1622

“Mr and Mrs Andrews” by Thomas Gainsborough, circa 1750

Learn more about 17th century fashion

The 17th Century” on Wikipedia – Explore the expansive entry, including a fabulous world timeline, or skip straight to the fashions

Passementarie” on Wikipedia – What the heck is that?! Find out.

The 1660s Dress” by the Aristocat – View this lovely recreation of an 17th century gown from start to finish

1660s Dress” on Rossetti – Another late 17th century style dress

For those of you who use Pinterest, there are a few lovely passementerie boards containing examples and tutorials here, here, and here.

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.