Fashion has always been an ever-changing creature, so it’s no surprise that we look back on times long past and see nothing resembling present-day style. On top of that, the societal changes that have occurred between the 1600s and today are staggering, and it’s reflected in the dress sense of the time.
In the 1600s, men and women both wore significantly more conservative clothing. Little more than face and hands were often exposed, with the addition of sometimes parts of the shoulders and chest. Let’s have a look at some of the key elements of 17th century dress.
The reticella is an example of needle lace that became immensely popular toward the beginning of the 17th century. Reticella patterns were very intricate, with fine weaves and cutwork involved. They were very popular for collars in particular. If you think collars were big in the 1970s, just wait until you get an eyeful of 17th century collars. Many of them extended beyond the shoulders, and stood straight up behind the head, rather than resting flat on the back. Over time, reticella evolved into ‘Punto in Aria’, which was similarly complex lace work initially developed in Italy.
An item of clothing like the chemise is interesting because in many ways it still exists. Sometimes referred to as a shift or a smock. The chemise was an undershirt of sorts, designed to keep sweat off of outerwear. While today, a chemise is something worn like a slip – mostly by women, particularly of a certain age – in the 17th century, the chemise was a staple of fashion for men, women, and children. Until the 1820s, a chemise was the only underwear worn in England, and as such was often the only item of clothing that received frequent washes.
Sometimes spelled britches, these items were an essential for men of the 17th century. Covering the body from the waist down, breeches are most easily compared to modern-day tights worn by women, or potentially jodhpurs worn by equestrians. While breeches weren’t exclusively white, you’d be hard-pressed to find examples that are coloured. Usually, breeches went over the knee and were fastened around the thigh with buckles and/or straps. Breeches were popular and practical until the mid-19th century, when trousers rose to prominence and were seen as the preferable choice for most men.
If you’ve ever watched a period drama, you’ve likely seen countless men in doublets. Close-fitting, doublets were like jackets worn over a chemise, and usually paired with breeches. Doublets were often worn under armour of various kinds such as cuirasses or chainmail shirts. The use of the doublet in this scenario is to add a layer of comfort that prevented chafing when one needed to wear armour for potentially hours – or days – on end. Through 3 centuries of popularity, only the cut and styles of the doublet changed, but otherwise it remained essentially the same garment.
Antique jewellery is always a popular topic for modern enthusiasts, and jewellery from the 17th century is no different. Far and away the most common element of antique jewellery from this time was pearls. Scarcely a 17th century portrait exists without a string of pearls involved. Pearls were even woven into clothing, acting as lavish beadwork on special garments. Diamonds also found a significant increase in popularity through the 1600s. Jewellery that featured intricate, foliate patterns was popular, mirroring the patterns and popularity of the reticellas that were also commonplace. Flower petals and leaves were massively popular themes for 17th century jewellery.
Traces of these styles can be found today in faint echoes such as tights and slips, but by and large, the dress of the 17th century is entirely different to our own. It’s always a good idea to take a little trip into the past to see what has ultimately influenced the dress sense of society today.