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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A Treasure Trove: Enameled Jewels from 1550-1700

Some Other Color than “Gold”

This post was inspired by my project for HSF Challenge #7.

The Renaissance and Baroque periods were immensely ornate. Deep colors were indulged in and everyone rich enough to afford them was donning clothes made of a ransom’s worth of fine silks, velvets, pearls, and gemstones. Why should gold be left naked? Though we sometimes feel that enameling is tacky looking (thanks in part to terrible mass-produced Christmas pins), the enamel artisans of the late-16th and 17th century achieved a look that is anything but cheap!

Enameled Gold Pendant with Rock Crystals and Pearls, circa 1610-20

Enameled Gold Cross Pendant with Rubies, Diamonds, and Pearl, circa 1610-20

Enameled Gold Ornament with Pearls, circa 1600

Small enameled gold ornaments like this would be sewn directly onto clothing. Many were later converted to have brooch-backs made, especially in the 19th century when Renaissance Revival style swept through European fashion.

Enameled Gold Brooch (later conversion) with Diamond and Pearls, circa 1610

Enamel work was often mixed in with precious stones. Even if the front of a piece was paved with large table cut gems, the smallest tongue of gold that showed between the stones would be covered with enamel. Early jewels are covered in bold, primary colors like deep red, bright blue, emerald green, fiery yellow-orange. Most pieces before 1660 feature enamel work applied to sculpted, 3-dimentional pieces. Though the actual thickness of the metal may not have been great, the combination of careful sculpting and enamel gave the pieces depth and presence. Many of the larger pendants were made and worn in Spain. Spaniards adored bold lines and colors. Their enamel work was often some of the most intricate and dense.

Enameled Gold Pendant (front and back) with Emeralds, circa 1650

The back of pieces were often more elaborately enameled than the front of the piece. Since almost all stones were placed in closed-back settings, there was plenty of space for the enamel artist to display his skills. Jewelry was made to be admired both on and off the body, so being beautiful from all sides was essential. Because enamel is made of fused glass particles, the colors do not fade as readily as other paints and pigments, so a piece enameled over 500 years ago will have colors as brilliant as the day they were fired. Bright colors were, of course, very popular, but the all-time favorite color combo was the dynamic duo black and white.

Enameled Gold Monogram Pendant (front and back) with Lapis Lazuli and Paste stones, circa 1600-30

Enameled Gold Ring with Garnet, circa 1550-1600

Rings, though small, almost always had at least a touch of enamel on the shank. Many of the gold rings from between 1500 and 1700 once had colorful enameled designs on the band and were not as plain as they appear today (it’s kind of like the famous Grecian marbles which we always admire for their clean, white simplicity, but many were brightly painted). The enamel wore off after years of wear, often helping save the metal underneath from damage or erosion, especially on silver pieces.

Enameled Gold Ring with portraits of Anne of Austria and her son (King Louis XIV), circa 1625

Enameled Gold Frame around an Enameled Gold Holy Shroud Scene under Crystal, circa 1650

During the 17th century, small scenes stamped or sculpted of thin, enameled metal set behind panes of rock crystal or glass soared in popularity. Religious scenes, mementos mori, and symbols of love were popular themes. After the execution of King Charles I in 1649, versions of these rock crystal jewels called Stuart Crystals made from woven locks of the king’s hair or his portrait became immensely popular among Royalists. Later monarchs were also honored in this manner, including Queen Mary and William III.

Rock Crystal Pendant commemorating the Death of William III, circa 1702

Enameled Gold Memento Mori Pendant, circa 1660

A popular motif since ancient times, the memento mori gained huge popularity as early Christian morality took hold of Europe. The focus on life after death was a big theme and the pivotal moment of death–the last moment to escape from the bonds of sin and hell–was an important event. The Latin “memento mori” roughly translates to “remember death.” Pendants, charms, and rings served as daily reminders of the fragility of life and the need to both live well and/or righteously. Due to their connections with death and the afterlife, memento mori motifs like the skull, skeleton, and crossbones also served as symbols of mourning.

Enameled Gold Mourning Ring surrounding a Lock of Hair, circa 1661

Enameled Silver Miniature Case, circa 1660

Enamel wasn’t just applied to gold. Silver gained popularity in the latter half of the 17th century as light blues and pinks came into fashion. A cheaper alternative to gold, silver was often used to make more utilitarian objects, such a chains and cases for sewing kits. The miniature case is an early incarnation of the locket. It is larger and deeper than a modern locket and would have held a portrait miniature, a popular aristocratic gift to send to friends, family, patrons, or lovers. Many of these cases reveal the trend towards more painterly decoration than enamel work of the earlier half of the century, which focused on accenting shapes rather than being the focal point of the design.

Enameled Gold Miniature Case, circa 1650-1660

Enameled Gold Bow Pendant with Ruby and Pearl drop, circa 1630-1660

Enameled Gold Badge, circa 1650-75

Enameled Gold Pendant with Rubies, Sapphires, Emeralds, and Diamonds, circa 1680-1700

By the 1680s, enameling styles had changed. The major difference between earlier pieces (those from before 1660) and later pieces (those after 1660) is that the way the enameling is applied slowly began to change as tastes in fashion changed. Stones and enamel were no longer melded together so freely, though the style remained relatively common in Spain and Germany. France was rapidly rising in power, bringing with it lighter, more romantic tastes in color and texture. By the mid 18th century, almost all decorative enamel work is smooth and is painted on relatively flat, 2-dimentional surfaces rather than the highly sculpted surfaces of the centuries before.

Enameled Watch and Case, circa 1686-1700

All of the pieces featured in this article are from the collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum. You can find many, many more beautiful examples of enamel from different eras by using the handy advanced search option to narrow your search by year, technique, material, or object type.

(Note to American researchers: Use “jewellery” instead of “jewelry” as a search keyword. The former is the British spelling of the word and the V&A, being British, does not recognize the American spelling as well)

For more examples of Renaissance enameled jewels, you can also check out the Jewel Book of the Duchess Anna of Bavaria.