The clothing worn by Europeans during the seventeenth century was influenced by fashion trends—rapid changes in style influenced by trendsetters—as never before. During the course of the century garments went from restrictive to comfortable and back to restrictive again, and excessive ornament was both stripped away and added back to clothing for both men and women. While the very wealthy continued to determine the styles that were most popular, political preferences and the rise of the middle classes also began to have a significant influence on fashion.
From ornamentation to elegance
Fashions in the early seventeenth century continued the trends of the previous century: men's doublets and women's bodices were worn tight and stiffened with rigid stays or padding; women's skirts were given full, rigid shapes with the help of farthingales, or hoops; and the garments of both sexes were laden with ornamentation, from jewelry to lace to the showiness of multiple contrasting fabrics. By the 1620s, however, styles began to change fairly dramatically. While the garments worn remained the same, such as the doublet, breeches, and hose for men and long gowns for women, the overall trend through the midcentury was toward softness and comfort. To allow for easier movement, waistlines on doublets and women's bodices rose higher, and the padding on both doublets and bodices was removed. The starched ruffs and whisks that once encircled the neck were replaced with the softer, more comfortable falling and standing bands. Women's sleeves began to rise, showing first the wrist and then the entire forearm. With the exception of petticoat breeches, men's breeches lost their bagginess and became slimmer and easier to move in. People continued to value rich materials and exquisite design, but they set aside the rigid formality of earlier years and didn't add ornament for ornament's sake. Overall, the trend through the first sixty years of the century was toward looseness, comfort, and elegance.
These changes in fashion reflected the rising influence of France, with its freer sense of style, and the shrinking influence of Spain, with its stiff formality. French King Louis XIV (1638–1715), who ruled from 1643 to 1715, helped make France the leading fashion influence of the century. Louis believed that he could best lead his country by setting an example of style and taste in everything from architecture and furniture to food and fashion. He surrounded himself with a huge court of officers and advisers and held numerous lavish balls at which wealthy nobles competed to wear the most tasteful and elegant clothes. Louis's palace at Versailles became the center for French fashion. At the same time, France became Europe's leading producer of luxury goods. French cities led the production of silk, lace, and brocade, and they aggressively exported these materials to other countries, expanding their influence. France also exported its fashion in other ways as well such as through fashion publications.
Cavalier versus Roundhead
Though the preferred styles were simpler than in the sixteenth century, French fashions were still quite ornate. In fact, the French love of sumptuous fabrics and carefully chosen accessories led to a revival of fashion excess after about 1660. Stomachers stiffened and lengthened once more, and the overall profile of both men's and women's garments emphasized vertical lines that made wearers look tall and slim. For women tall hairstyles, high-heeled shoes, and long skirt extensions, called trains, all added to the effect. Ornament, in the form of decorated swords and baldrics, fancy lace collars, and high rolled boots, came back into style.
While the new lavish clothing styles were adopted by some, others rejected the excessive ornamentation in favor of more restrained styles. Throughout the century people's clothing styles diverged along these artistic lines. But clothing styles during the seventeenth century were not merely about looks; a person's choice of clothing also told the world about his or her religious or political positions.
Those who favored the new lavish clothing styles came to be known as Cavaliers, after those well-dressed soldiers who fought in support of the Catholic King Charles I in the English Civil War (1642–48). The Cavalier style soon was associated with a political position that favored the Catholic religion and a strong king. But not all followed this style or this political position. Another group, named after the Roundheads, who fought in support of Parliament, or the governing body in England, in the English Civil War, favored Protestant religions and wanted to give more political power to the people, especially by strengthening representative bodies like the English Parliament. The Roundheads soon developed a style sense of their own. They avoided the ornamentation and excess associated with Cavaliers, instead preferring more sober colors and less decorated fabrics. The most notable fashion innovation associated with the Roundheads was the introduction of the waistcoat and justaucorps as common men's garments, replacing or worn over top of the doublet.
The most extreme Roundheads were the Puritans, a strict religious sect that held strong ideas about avoiding excess in personal display. Puritans favored black clothes, simple fasteners, and clean lines. Being a Roundhead or a Puritan did not mean that one did not care about fashion, however. Roundheads valued rich if not ornate materials, and the richer followers of this style hired skilled tailors to give their garments a fine cut and finish. The split in fashion sense between the Cavaliers, who were most numerous in the Catholic countries of France, Spain, and Italy, and among Catholic sympathizers in England, and the Roundheads, who lived in the more heavily Protestant countries of England, Scotland, Germany, and Flanders (present-day Holland and Belgium), was one of the major fashion facts of the century.
Quickly changing fashions
The powerful influence of French fashion and the conflicting attractions of the Cavalier and Roundhead styles contributed to a quickening of the pace of change in the world of fashion. Another factor was the rising power of the middle class. Throughout the European countries shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors, and other skilled workers gained access to greater wealth and were able to afford more
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.
Hart, Avril, and Susan North. Fashion in Detail: From the 17th and 18th Centuries. New York: Rizzoli, 1998.
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.
Ruby, Jennifer. The Stuarts: Costume in Context. London, England: B. T. Batsford, 1988.