The Seventeenth Century

European history in the seventeenth century was dominated on the one hand by the rise of France as the greatest power in the region, and on the other hand by the great fight for political power that occurred between the monarch and the governing body of Parliament in England. These were the great social issues of the age, and they had a great influence on the way people lived and dressed. More subtle historical changes, such as the growth of the middle class and the growing differences between a luxurious Catholic and a plain Protestant sense of style also had an enduring influence on European culture and costume.

The rise of the French

The century began with power in Europe fairly evenly distributed between France, England, and Spain, but that balance would soon end. The Thirty Years' War (1618โ€“48) was fought in Germany between the Spanish, French, Swedish, and Danish. By the end of the conflict Spain's influence beyond its borders had diminished significantly. France, on the other hand, became a great power, expanding its territory on all sides. The war also led to the creation of the Dutch Republic, or Netherlands, which became a powerful economic force during the century and beyond.

With England distracted by years of civil war and political strife, France became the reigning power of Europe. French king Louis XIV (1638โ€“1715), who ruled from 1643 to 1715, slowly won power from the nobles and established himself as the most powerful monarch in the region. He formed a huge army, crushed internal resistance, and fought to expand his territories. He also built France into an economic power by refusing to import goods from other countries and by encouraging French industries to become Europe's biggest producers of luxury goods. Soon, France became the leading producer of such luxury items as lace, silk, ribbons, and wigs, exporting them to the rest of Europe. French political and economic power was thus used to influence taste, for all of Europe followed the fashions introduced in the French court and sold by French industries.

Years of strife in England

While France strengthened its power, England immersed itself in internal strife. The great conflict of the century was over whether the king or Parliament, which represented not the broad populace but a fairly select group of nobles and landowners, would have the greater power. This conflict was made worse by religious differences, with Catholic-sympathizing or openly Catholic kings pitted against a population that was increasingly Protestant. Long simmering political battles erupted into civil war in 1642, a conflict that ended in 1648 and was capped in January of 1649 by the beheading of Charles I, who reigned from 1625 until his death. After nearly two decades more of conflicted rule under Commonwealth chairman Oliver Cromwell (ruled 1649โ€“60), King Charles II (reigned 1660โ€“85), and King James II (reigned 1685โ€“88), matters were settled with the establishment of the Protestant joint rulers William III (reigned 1689โ€“1702) and Mary II (reigned 1689โ€“94). Political power in England was effectively transferred to Parliament after 1689, thus creating the first representative government in Europe. Political stability and the defeat of the French in the Nine Years War (1688โ€“97) set the stage for England to become the great world power for the next two centuries.

Though the English conflict was primarily about political power, religion played an important role in the conflict and in Europe as a whole. In general, the continent was increasingly divided into a Protestant north (England, Scotland, Ireland, the Dutch Republic, the German states, Sweden, and Denmark) and a Catholic south (France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy). Within England, those who supported a strong monarch tended to be Catholics, while those who supported representative government tended to be Protestants. Accordingly, northern nations tended toward representative forms of government, while southern nations favored a strong monarch closely allied to the leadership of the Catholic Church. The very different religious and political ideas of Protestants and Catholics contributed to real cultural differences between north and south and were eventually reflected in clothing styles as well. Over time, Protestants, and especially the more extreme Puritans, tended toward simplicity and austerity in their clothing styles, while Catholics tended toward luxury and extravagance.

Economic expansion

Other large-scale changes also had an impact on costume. Perhaps the most important was the continuing expansion of the role of shopkeepers, small landowners, professionals, and skilled workers. The members of this growing middle class of people played an ever more important role in the cultural and economic life of European countries, especially in Protestant countries. The middle classes had greater access to wealth, and their efforts to build businesses and progress financially fueled the economies of every nation. The largest industry in all of Europe was the textile, or fabric, industry, and many people who once worked on farms found employment in this industry, usually by spinning and weaving cloth in their homes in what was known as the putting-out system. One of the biggest innovations of this industry was the creation of something called "new draperies," a new form of lightweight wool. This adaptable and inexpensive material was used to make clothing for middle-class people, allowing them to wear decent clothing. There remained, of course, large numbers of people in every country who were very poor and who could not afford even this new, cheaper clothing. They had to rely on coarse wool and secondhand clothes.

Exploration and colonization continued to play a large role in Europe's affairs in this century. The New World, Spain, Portugal, France, the Dutch Republic, and England all nurtured colonies and fought with each other for control of the larger region. These colonies began to develop cultures and economies of their own during this century, though they mostly reflected the interests and culture of their mother country.


Cameron, Euan, ed. Early Modern Europe: An Oxford History. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Cook, Chris, and Philip Broadhead. The Longman Handbook of Early Modern Europe, 1453โ€“1763. New York: Longman, 2001.

Gerdes, Louise I., ed. The 1600s. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2001.

Hunt, Alan. Governance of the Consuming Passions: A History of Sumptuary Law. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Secara, Maggie. Elizabethan Sumptuary Statutes. (accessed on August 6, 2003).

Williams, E.N., ed. The Facts on File Dictionary of European History. New York: Facts on File, 1980.

Decline of Sumptuary Laws
Seventeenth-Century Clothing
Seventeenth-Century Headwear
Seventeenth-Century Body Decorations
Seventeenth-Century Footwear

User Contributions:

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