Woman's gown

German 1630s

The 17th Century gown was worn on formal occasions, especially by married women, of all classes.


In Northern Europe, an extra layer of clothing, worn over the basic bodies/waistcoat and petticoat combination would be most welcome throughout most of the year, especially when houses had no central heating and were draughty. Europe was also going through a mini ice age - when temperatures were on average 1 to 1 1/2 degrees lower than today.


The gown of the mid 1600s had a separate snug fitting bodice with full skirts gathered or pleated onto it. The fashionable gown was open all the way down the front, displaying the bodies/waistcoat/stomacher and petticoat worn underneath. The gown was fastened with decorative lacing, straps or pinned on top. The sleeves were half length and might also be open down the centre to reveal other – longer – sleeves beneath. After about 1640 the sleeves, although still half length, were usually closed all round, but might have a turn back cuff.


Although depicted frequently in portraits of the 1620s, gowns are almost completely absent from the visual record during the following decade, particularly in England. One reason for this may be the fashion to be portrayed wearing timeless apparel. Van Dyke in particular, simplified his sitters’ clothing to enable him to paint more quickly. However, references to gowns are to be found in account books from the 1630s. Some of Hollar’s engravings from the 1640s do show, I think, gowns still being worn by elite women.


There also appears to be a fashion – in England, at least - for gown, petticoat and bodies/waistcoat to be made from the same fabric, making the different items difficult to see in paintings and illustrations.


It may be that the wearing of a gown was a rite of passage, something expected once a woman married, on formal occasions at least.


English Gentlewoman

Wenceslas Hollar 1643

My Gown

I used gold yellow duchess satin for the outer fabric, fully lined with blue duchess satin. The bodice is interlined with calico.


The pattern I used for the bodice is one I adapted from the boned lining of a 1630s waistcoat in the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The pattern for the lining can be found in Norah Waugh’s ‘Corsets & Crinolines’. This was the pattern I used to make my first pair of 17th Century bodies, and I’m still using it – with a few variations – to make my waistcoats to this day.


The gown bodice has shoulder wings which run all the way down the two centre back seams to the waist. This emphasises the elegant narrow back sloping down from wide shoulders, so typical of this period.


The sleeves are elbow length and open down the front, where they can be fastened with ribbons. They are moderately full, with the fullness gathered into cartridge pleats at the back of the armhole only.


The waistline is slightly raised, as was the fashion during the 1630s, and slopes gently down towards the front.


The skirt is cartridge pleated onto the waist and has a slight train. As the skirt is also fully lined in blue satin I have the option of folding and pinning the skirts back – creating another different look.


All the main internal seams are machine stitched, with edges top stitched by hand to give a crisp finish.