The primary garment worn by women of all social classes was the gown, consisting of a close-fitting bodice with attached decorative sleeves and full skirts. Though the basic form of the garment was very similar to gowns worn during the sixteenth century, a variety of changes made seventeenth-century garments quite distinct. Perhaps most notable were changes in the way skirts were worn.

The gown of the early seventeenth century continued the fashions of the sixteenth century. Skirts were given their shape by stiff farthingales, or underskirt hoops, and bodices were stiffened with flat stomachers. Sleeves were puffy and full, completely covering the arms. Beginning in about the 1620s the styles began to change quite noticeably. The first change, a shortening of the sleeves to reveal a woman's wrists, marked the first time women's arms were visible in the hundreds of years of European costume history. Soon women's arms could be bared up to the elbow. Often, however, more modest women would wear an undershirt with long lacy sleeves that came over the wrist.

The 1630s saw a general softening of the outline of women's gowns. Stomachers became less rigid and the bodice was allowed to follow the natural contours of the body. Skirts became less rigid as well, as farthingales went out of favor in every European country except Spain, where they remained in use. Underneath the top skirt women now wore petticoats, sometimes several petticoats, to give the skirt shape.

Fashions changed once more after the 1650s. Stomachers grew stiffer and flatter once again, and they also lengthened and came to a point below the line of the waist. As with men's costume, women's gowns sought to give the wearer a thin, elongated profile. Perhaps the most important changes had to do with skirts. Overskirts began to be parted to reveal decorative petticoats. In a popular style called a mantua, or manteau, the overskirt was pulled up at the front and sides and fastened in flowing billows or bunches, revealing a decorative petticoat. The outer skirt of the mantua was often worn very long to form a train, a length of skirt that trails on the ground. Another popular late-century style was the décolleté neckline, a low cut neckline which revealed the upper part of a woman's breasts. More modest women, as always, tended to cover this area with a scarf or a light undershirt.

Women of all classes wore gowns, though there were wide differences in materials and the complexity of the tailoring. Among the wealthy satin was the most popular fabric, followed by velvet and rich brocade. These fabrics were often carefully embroidered, though they were never as ornate and ornamented as in the sixteenth century. Poorer women might wear gowns made of wool or cotton. The tailoring of their garments was much simpler. While a rich woman's bodice might be made of a dozen different panels, a poor woman's was made of just a few. And while a rich woman might wear five to ten rustling petticoats, a poor woman might wear no petticoat at all beneath her overskirt.


Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.

Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.

Hatt, Christine. Clothes of the Early Modern World. Columbus, OH: Peter Bedrick Books, 2002.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

[ See also Volume 3, Sixteenth Century: Gowns ; Volume 3, Seventeenth Century: Stomacher ]

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: