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!

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The Ultimate One Pattern Piece Project: Elizabethan Coif

6 Steps to Fabulous!

Once again, I am breaking my vow to keep HSF posts off of my blog. However, this project has actually been on my plate for quite some time and by some miracle, it’s completion happened to coincide with HSF Challenge #11.

Since my costume fascination began, my favorite era has been the 17th Century. In particular, I fell in love with blackwork. However, I am incredibly inept at embroidery, almost to the point of being that cliché historical fiction character that scandalizes her family by acting like a impetuous tomboy…

Extras inside indeed: an extra dose of terrible embroidery skills and stubbornness, that is.

…okay, so that really would be me…

Though I have no embroidery skills, I do have enough hand-sewing skills to make me a decent small-scale seamstress. Combined with my love of the 17th Century, blackwork, hats and thrift, I have the perfect set of skills to be a decent coif maker, or at least an excellent blackwork coif faker.

Inspiration

I started this project without a pattern, just pictures and measurements from various online museums. I basically followed my wobbly seamstress instincts. The subsequent tutorial follows the method I developed to create my coif.

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Detail of “Portrait of a Bride” by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck
Besides her pretty coif, notice how tightly the wire of her headdress is pressing into her cheeks.

English Woman’s Blackwork Coif, circa 1600

Top Stitching and Gathering Detail on an English Woman’s Coif, circa 1590-1610
(see Step 5)

Women’s Coifs showing repetitive patterns and a variety of shapes, circa 1600
Another pair of similar coifs are also in the V&A, notable for one’s bottom edge: “Along the bottom edge, instead of a turned casing there are a series of loops braided in linen bread and stitched to the coif.” Another option for Step 4!

How to Make an Elizabethan/17th Century Coif

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Illustrated in Microsoft Office Word  for your convenience and pleasure!

Large_Coif 1I used newsprint to create my pattern. Coifs from this period come in a variety of shapes, but most are based on a simple rectangle of fabric cut into a gentle urn shape. The top of the urn forms a widow’s peak at the top of the head and the curved bulge covers the ears. You can make your shape as simple or extreme as you like. Here’s my pattern:

Paper Pattern

You can test the paper pattern by pinning the top edges together. Bear in mind that the fabric coif will be smaller because of your seams.

Paper Pattern Test

Opportunity for excellent party hats? I think so!

Large_Coif 2Since I cannot embroider well enough, I prefer to use pre-embroidered fabric. Finding a pre-embroidered fabric with a proper motif  and decent colors on a suitable fabric can be a real challenge, but I was lucky enough to find an embroidered cotton shirt for $3 at the local thrift shop. While it’s not perfect, it’s close enough!

Embroidered Shirt

After two weeks of searching for the perfect blackwork fabric, this is probably the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen in my life. If finding an embroidered fabric is too difficult, you can use plain linen or silk.

I plucked the seams out, leaving me with enough fabric to make about 4 coifs.

Unpicking Stitches

Chinese machine embroidery is fairly easy to unpick, but it did leave prick marks down the edges and where there were darts. A little steam ironing helped make them less noticeable.

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I can make two coifs from the back panel and one from each of the front panels.

For my lining, I used some cheap cotton sheeting from my stash. Elizabethan coifs could be lined or unlined. Many had removable linings so when the inside got dirty, the lining could be removed and washed, saving the delicately embroidered outside from wear and tear. Since my fashion fabric is completely washable, I sewed the lining into my coif as a permanent feature.

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I really wish I’d taken more construction pictures, but I was too excited to pause for photos. I sewed my coif using backstitches set about 3/8 inch away from the fabric edge for clean seams. If your lining has a right side, make sure it faces teh right side of your fashion fabric so when you turn it inside out, it faces the proper way.

Large_Coif 4The drawstring casing can be done multiple ways, but just turning up the bottom edge worked best for my coif. I used backstitching again to close the casing because it’s strong and you can manipulate the stitches so that they hardly show up on the outside of the fabric. Since the seam can be seen from the outside of the coif, I made sure the outside stitches were as small as possible.

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This is the front edge of my coif, showing the smooth seam you get when you use the “pillow” sewing method to connect your lining. To make the front edges crisp, iron them from the lining side before and after sewing the drawstring casing. You can see the stitches on the inside of the drawstring casing on the right.

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This is the most complicated-looking step, but it’s actually rather simple. You’ve already finished 2/3 of the top edges by sewing them in step 3, so all you need to do is whipstitch the very top edge shut with small stitches. When you reach the end of you finished edge, sew around the unfinished edges. You can adjust how your coif fits by gathering more or less fabric. Gathering less fabric will make the coif pointy at the back while gathering more will give it a rounder look.

Coif Top Seam

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I used bias tape fror my drawstrings because it was what I had immediately on hand, but you can make ties out of yarn, linen tape, twill tape, shoelace, or braided cord. Threading your ties can be tricky. Some people like to use safety pins while others use wire to help guide it through the casing. I used a cheap, thin pair of tweezers to hold one end of my drawstring while I used the other end of the tweezers like a giant needle, pushing it through the casing.

Done!

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I would like to trim my next coif with a little bit of lace along the front by sewing it inside the seams in step 3. I would also like some twill tape for ties instead of my last-minute bias-tape drawstring, and to take pictures with the strings wrapped around the top like they are supposed to be worn. But for a blind first attempt, I’m rather proud of it!

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HSF Breakdown

17th Century “Blackwork” Coif

The Challenge: #11 Squares, Rectangles and Triangles
Fabric: A thrifted cotton shirt with cotton machine embroidery lined with even more cotton!
Pattern: I basically just measured a rectangle using coifs documented at the V&A and cut a light “urn” curve into the sides
Year: 1600-1630
Notions: Cotton thread and bias tape
How historically accurate is it? 50% It’s not linen or silk, but it is all natural fibers. The embroidery pattern is entirely modern, but from a distance, if you squint, it looks fairly legitimate. The construction method is pretty accurate as is the size and how it sits; however, I have much more hair than this coif can contain. It will sit on my head by itself, but I feel more comfortable tying it on so I don’t feel like it’s constantly going to fall off. Next time I will make the coif a bit deeper or try using hair pins to hold it on.
Hours to complete: 3 hours
First worn: By me…at 3am…in my apartment
Total cost: $3 for the embroidered shirt, stash sheeting, and stash thread

A matching forehead cloth would also be nice, and I have plenty of fabric left over for at least one!

Coif and Forehead Cloth, circa 1610

More Coif Tutorials and Information

Full-length Coif Tutorial” – All of the steps from this page in one looooong image

The Coif Question” by Kate at Dressing Terpsichore – Explains why most extant coifs are one-piece, but most paintings appear to have two-piece coifs

Elizabethan Coifs!” by Morgan Donner – Examples of how a coif should be worn with  a forehead cloth to get the proper look

Coif Patterns” at No Strings Attached – Multiple patterns for different styles of coifs

UPDATE!

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Truly Hats now offers coif-sized blackworked (by machine) fabric for only $10! The pattern is a replica of an extant 16th century piece.

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

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

Fashion’s Least-Sexy Accessories: The Coif

Fashion Misconceptions, Part I

I’m too Sexy for my Coif
(Oh no you’re not)

This is a coif. The word has rapidly changed meaning during the 20th Century, and it now is used vigorously by celebrity websites to describe hair-dos (usually bad ones) or in reference to any headdress or hat. In the past, however, coif referred to a small, bonnet-like cap usually made from linen or silk  that fit close to the head.  It’s name is pronounced “qwaf,” a sound which, if it was an onomatopoeia, summons visions of rotten fruit hitting the ground or the delicate suppression of a full-bellied burp.  How can anyone look good with a starchy napkin draped over their head like a sack? This disregarded head garment, however, is a lot more interesting (and sexy) than it’s name may lead you to think!

Plain linen coifs were worn as a foundation head garment beginning in the Middle ages. Men wore them while working the fields and children wore them while playing outside. Ladies most often wore veils and turbans over their coifs. Unlike men or children, a proper lady wouldn’t dare go outside the house without covering her coif with a hat or veil first! Coifs for women became especially popular during the 1500s. The trend originated by combining the practicality of a man’s cap with a veil’s delicate beauty. Early lady’s coifs were worn to promote modesty, tame the hair, and– as an added bonus– keep lice infestations at bay. It was worn almost all the time, except to comb and clean the hair. It was worn to bed to keep the hair in place, in the kitchen to keep the smoke out, and especially out in public under all the fashionable hats, hoods, and veils!

The coif was considered an undergarment of sorts. Uncovered hair was naked, and the coif acted like a chemise for the head. It would never be worn uncovered outside the safety of the house. Though fashion rules are rather lax today, you wouldn’t want to go to work in just your knickers if you want any sort of respect, but you can safely lounge around in them at home all you like. So it was with the coif. Only the lower classes, who could not afford fancy headgear, wore the coif alone.

The most popular color for coifs is white. White linen, white silk, white satin, white anything! The basic coif was simple: a square of fabric gathered shut on one end and pulled over the head. Most Renaissance coifs were made all in one piece, like this one:

Notice how it looks like a widened urn, creating longer side panels and a puffed back to the coif, framing the face and allowing more room to tuck long hair into. They became exceedingly popular during the early 17th Century from about 1600-1650, which is why many puritan costumes incorporate a bonnet-like coif as standard fare. Coifs, however, didn’t have to shade the face, just cover the hair, and they often ended around the ears.

This painting by Caspar Netscher shows a delicately-coiffed woman sitting at home making bobbin lace, perhaps to decorate more of her coifs. Notice how her coif is not plain white, but covered in twining black vine patterns. There’s even a little bird embroidered on the side. This line of needlework is called blackwork and it was all the rage during the Elizabethan and Stuart periods. It was sewn on cuffs, collars, gloves, and especially coifs. Here’s a close-up view of a coif covered in blackwork:

Every bit of that is carefully hand sewn. Some blackwork even has special stitching techniques that allow for woodblock printing details like cross hatching and half-tone shadows. Embroidery didn’t always have to be black. Redwork was also popular using a brick-red colored thread that contrasted beautifully with the white linen or silk. Vine patterns, holly, flowers, birds, bugs, and fruit were all popular themes. This redwork example even has life-like squirrels frolicking through the pattern!

The examples above have extra special touches: gilded silver thread accents on the blackwork and small silver sequins on the redwork. These beautiful embroidery accents are made from actual precious metals! The next example shows at 17th Century coif blooming with brilliant polychrome embroidery.The MMA website allows you to zoom in on the design, revealing not only the crispness of the colors, but that it is also spangled with silver sequins!

Since coifs would usually be covered outdoors and be seen only in the house,why decorate them with such amazing, time-consuming embroidery? Firstly, coifs were not always covered completely when outdoors; a hat or French hood may let the sides peek out around a woman’s ears, allowing her needlework skills to be displayed for all to see. Much like samplers, the more delicately decorated the coif, the more skilled and desirable the woman is presumed to be. At home, the fineness of the embroidery set a lady apart from her servants and added a little bit of Renaissance bling to her house dress, kind of like putting a fancy satin robe over your negligee when you lounge around at home on a rainy day.The painting below (The Morning Toilet by Jan Steen) is quite scandalous– no stockings, a flash of high thigh and buttock, a satin housecoat, and she’s not even out of her night coif yet!

There was a whole series of these sort of paintings done  by a range of artists during the 1600s. They are akin to the pin-ups of the 1950s, flashing a little here and there, chaste, but far more titillating and intimate than all those famous nudes. Her coif isn’t just her pajamas, it’s like a key piece of her negligee, that special touch that she only shows when she’s alone at home. Fashions change quickly, however, and by the 18th century, sexuality in the upper classes was much more blatant. Heaving busts and gigantic wigs defied the purpose of the coif, rendering the need for decoration null and void. The coif became a necessity under wigs and hair pieces, but by 1800, the coif as it had been known had all but vanished. The coif still existed on the fringes, morphing into long, lapel-brushing lace bonnets and hairnets called snoods during the 19th century, but its reign as a fashionable headpiece was over. It remained a piece of folk costuming throughout Europe and as an American prairie legend, slowly developing its current bonnet-like identity associated with elderly Puritans and infants.

Though they may not be considered fashionable, flattering garments today (much less sexy negligee!), coifs are an essential part to any Renaissance wardrobe. They can be just as beautiful as any hat or headband, and they’re practical too! Perfect for wintery reenactments or for keeping your hair out of your face while you catch some beauty sleep without leaving that unmanageable pony-tail wave or stiff neck you get from wearing a scrunchie. It may not look sexy by modern standards, but attractiveness surges with optimistic confidence and you will feel darn confident after a restful night sleep in your coif and knowing that no matter how windy or humid, your awesome coif will keep your hair in check and under control! :)

Study more amazing Elizabethan coifs at The Coif Gallery!