Seventeenth-Century Body Decorations

While the sixteenth century was an age of excess in ornamentation, the seventeenth century is often thought of as an age of elegance, with greater care for the manner of display than for its abundance. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in the use of jewelry. While people displayed their wealth in the sixteenth century by sprinkling jewels across their garments, hair, and bodies, people in the seventeenth century were more likely to wear just a few well-chosen jewels to demonstrate their taste. A string of pearls, a golden crucifix on a chain, simple dangling earrings, or a finely carved ring were the preferred jewels among the nobles of this period.

Queen Anne wearing a bead choker. People in the seventeenth century were likely to wear just a few well-chosen jewels to demonstrate their taste, such as a string of pearls or a finely carved ring. Courtesy of the .

Instead of jewelry, people in the seventeenth century were especially fond of accessories, which they carried in abundance, worn on a belt at their waist, fastened to their body with ribbons, or simply carried in the hands. For men preferred accessories were gloves, a handkerchief, a sword worn attached to a baldric, or shoulder belt, and a fine walking cane. Women accessorized even more heavily, carrying delicate gloves, a handkerchief, a fan, a parasol in the summer, and perhaps a mask. Both men and women wore face patches and carried muffs to warm their hands in the winter. Each of these accessories could be as simple or as luxurious as a person's budget would allow.

The bathing customs of Europeans remained as they had for several centuries: minimal. People believed that immersing the body in water caused disease, so they used dry clothes to rub dirt from their bodies and only occasionally washed. To combat the unpleasant smell of body odor people used a great deal of perfume. It was carried in small bags or metal ornaments called pomander, applied to clothes, or worn directly on the body, and was very popular. Kings and queens and wealthy nobles even might have their own perfume makers.

Lead-based makeup remained in use in the seventeenth century, but doctors were becoming aware of the way it damaged the skin and warned against its overuse. More and more, women took great care to maintain a pale complexion by wearing masks or carrying parasols when they were outdoors to block the sun.


Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington. Handbook of English Costume in the Seventeenth Century. Boston, MA: Plays, Inc., 1972.


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