17th Century Dress: A Speaking Fashion

Dress in 16th and 17th century portraiture was loaded with meaning. Elizabeth I's portraits, which functioned as one of the most important means of propaganda for her reign as well as a treasure chest of symbolic imagery, are well-known. Her formalised image functioned, as a Roman emperor on a coin, as an easily recognisable and multipliable pattern for the royal state. Portraits then, were vehicles to convey meaning first and foremost. Not only the (royal) status of the sitter, but also her or his heritage, property, material wealth, knowledge or wisdom, geography, and future aspirations were all contained in embroidery, accessories, and fashion.  

Elizabethan Dress

The tailoring of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean dresses was nothing spectacular. Skirts, sleeves an other parts were usually pinned or tied together on the body. This provided flexibility as one could choose to wear a bodice with or without sleeves, but it was also responsible for the enormously time consuming task of getting dressed. 

Artists did not focus so much on the tailoring the dress but on depicting the rich layers of decoration as they were more interested in getting a message across than in painting darts and pleats. A huge amount of money was spent on fabrics however, and artists were interested in getting as high as possible realism in their works, as the illusion of the materials will give the viewer the allusion of the sitter's position. 

So if a painter can paint silk or lace in such a way that it seems like we can almost touch it, it will give the contemporary viewer an instant sensation of the status of the sitter. The clothes of the sitter, after all, were often more expensive than the painting and can be compared to owning a Ferrari nowadays. It is something to show off, to cherish, and it will send a message out about your financial (and social) status in life. 

The World is a Stage

A painted portrait, therefore is an act of theatre. The sitter wants to sit, he or she wants to play the part of the person he or she wants to send out into the world. The world is a stage after all, and having your portrait painted is a way to carefully manage and compose your message to the world. Whether it is nonchalance or deep intellectualism, wealth or wisdom, whatever you choose to wear, whatever pose you take on and accessories you hold in your hand ,will help create that message. 

Artists and sitters in the early 17th century were very aware of this opportunity to create a clear message to the viewer. One way of conveying your message is through textiles; textiles in the clothes you wear, the accessories you hold, the background you sit in front of, the room you are painted in.  

Textiles as a Tool to Show off Wealth

In the early days of this period bobbin lace, for example, was slightly cheaper than needle lace and therefore needle lace was depicted in many portraits to show wealth. In the 17th century the price differences vanished and bobbin lace tried to imitate needle lace and the other way round (quite successfully and so often in paintings it is nearly impossible to distinguish between the two). 

Silks came from Italy, velvet was the most costly fabric and fine white linen was imported from The Netherlands. A black cloak in the first half of the 17th century often referred to the fashionable mode of 'melancholy' (although black was also worn for mourning and was popular in Spanish and Dutch fashion). Yellow lace was (said to have been) made fashionable in England by Anne Turner, the Lady-in-Waiting of Lady Somerset (although after Anne was executed in 1615 for her role in a murder plot, yellow lace disappeared from the fashion scene).  

Pale Skin as a Fashion Statement

William Larkin, Portrait of Lady Anne Clifford, oil on panel, 1618. National Portrait Gallery, London

Another fascinating fashion was for a pale white skin for which (as nowadays for a tanned skin) women went to extreme lengths to achieve it.  Strange mixtures of plant extracts and other ingredients (lead!) were turned into pastes and creams and applied to face and chest. To accentuate their pale skin contrasting black ribbons and patches were used as accessories. The fashion desired a transparent skin and often blue veins were painted on to a white-pasted chest. Examples can be found in many portraits, like in many of William Larkin's portraits. 

DUTCH SOBRIETY

In The Netherlands many rich citizens had themselves portrayed in modest and high-necked costumes often in just black and white. This now famous tradition of sobriety had its roots in Spanish fashion. In portraits from the period we see fairly stiff and heavily ornamented  dresses, topped with enormous stiff lace-edged ruffs (as in the paintings of Frans Pourbus the Younger). Spain had occupied and ruled The Netherlands for a long period of time and the fashion of the occupier stuck. Rich burghers wanted to show a slightly misleading display of modesty and protestant sobriety but at the same time showed of their wealth in the use of rich velvets, silks, embroidery and lace all dyed in the most expensive colour of all dyes: black.  Black fabrics were extremely costly to make (black dyes would often fade and a good quality black fabric would cost a fortune). 

Jacob Jordeans, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

Jacob Jordeans, Portrait of Catharina Behaghel, 1635, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam

In The Netherlands many rich citizens had themselves portrayed in modest and high-necked costumes often in just black and white. This now famous tradition of sobriety had its roots in Spanish fashion. In portraits from the period we see fairly stiff and heavily ornamented  dresses, topped with enormous stiff lace-edged ruffs (as in the paintings of Frans Pourbus the Younger). Spain had occupied and ruled The Netherlands for a long period of time and the fashion of the occupier stuck. Rich burghers wanted to show a slightly misleading display of modesty and protestant sobriety but at the same time showed of their wealth in the use of rich velvets, silks, embroidery and lace all dyed in the most expensive colour of all dyes: black.  Black fabrics were extremely costly to make (black dyes would often fade and a good quality black fabric would cost a fortune). 

The Dutch were famous for their production of very fine white linen, then known in Europa as 'Holland' which was used for collars, cuffs and undergarments such as smocks. The linen was so fine, none of such quality is made nowadays anywhere in the world. the black outfits of rich merchants were usually finished off with a white linen and lace collar and cuffs, again showing wealth and worldliness in a proper and modest manner. The enormous ruffs worn by the Dutch in the early 17th century have become instantly recognisable as a Golden Age icon. 

Ruff in Stockholm Armoury Museum

Ruff, 1620s. The Royal Armoury Museum, Stockholm, ©Göran Schmidt/CC-BY-SA

RUFFS

The large ruffs you find in early 17th century portraits are the results of the tie consuming efforts of linen bleaching, sewing, starching and setting. A ruff is constructed from a long strip of fabric, usually very fine linen lawn, gathered in to cartridge pleats. The length of fabric ranged from a few metres up to nearly 20 meters and ruffs could have anything for 30 to hundreds of pleats. The famous Dutch portraits often show ruffs of around 200 pleats and we can assume that the painters involved painted the ruffs fairly accurately. The laundress had the responsibility to starch and set the ruff in the shape required with the aide of a hot poking stick to set the pleats. Rain and wear would 'melt' the starch an would make the ruff go floppy and the world would have to start all over again. In Jonson's play Every Man out of his Humour (1598) a character warns his friend to "keep close; yet not so close, thy breath will thaw my ruff". A rare surviving ruff is in Munich's Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, where there is a linen ruff from around 1620-40 with no less than 530 pleats. A ruff with its original lace still attached can be found in Stockholm's Royal Armoury Museum.  

This article is the third chapter from my book
The Lace Trail
To read more you can buy the book in my book shop

Sophie Ploeg, The Handkerchief Girl, oil on linen, 91.4x76cm. Available.

The Lace Trail is a project that resulted in a series of 10 paintings. More paintings from this series and information about The Lace Trail project can be found here

The Lace T​rail

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