Fashion 1625 to 1650 - Part 2 the 1630s: Elegance and Restraint

Published on 14 April 2024 at 19:36

The period of fashion history I’m most interested in fits nicely into the reign of King Charles I of England. Charles ascended to the throne upon his father’s (King James I) death in 1625 and his rule officially ended with his public execution by beheading in 1649.


Fashion changed slowly in the past – in comparison to the fast fashion we have today – but it did, however, change. Over the 24 years of Charles’s reign there were several distinctive styles. Let’s take a look at them…


I had intended for this to be just one post, but once I started to write it, and it needed to be image heavy to illustrate the points I was making, I decided to split it into three parts.


Part one – The 1620s: French Influence

Part two – The 1630s: Elegance & Restraint

Part three – The 1640s: The War Years


You can find out more about the general clothing terminology used during the 17th Century here


Five eldest children of King Charles I - Sir Antony van Dyck 1637

From left to right - Princess Mary, the Princess Royal (future Princess of Orange), Prince James (future James II), Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales (future Charles II), Princess Elizabeth and Princess Anne.

All except the baby Anne are dressed in miniature versions of adult dress, including hair styles. Princess Mary has the addition of 'leading strings', long strips of fabric attached at the shoulders, which served a similar purpose to a toddler's reins. These were frequently a feature of older children's clothing, and might be ceremoniously cut off as a sign of officially coming of age. Prince James is also wearing long skirts. Little boys were dressed like girls until they were about six or seven, when they were breeched and started to wear breeches like their fathers.


The 1630s marked the years of Charles I’s ‘personal rule’, after he dissolved Parliament in 1629, and governed without their support, assistance, or advice. These years might be considered the height of Charles’s reign, when he spent his time (and lots of money) hosting extravagant entertainments, acquiring one of the best art collections in Europe and fathering all but one of his nine children (the last – Henrietta Anne – was born in 1644), with his beloved French wife.


The 1630s saw the dominance of the Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck in England. Van Dyck had worked briefly in England during 1621, but returned in 1632, and remained for the rest of his life. Charles I knighted the painter, gave him a pension of £200 annually and created Van Dyck his ‘principalle Paynter in ordinary to their majesties’.


As few extant garments survive from this period of time, we are more reliant on the visual sources to show us how people dressed. Van Dyck was a prolific painter and set up an efficient studio system to deal with the demand for images painted by him. Throughout the 1630s Van Dyck developed a style of portraiture which allowed him to complete commissions more rapidly. This is most evident with his female sitters.


As well as the usual issues with using portraits and paintings as evidence for what people wore in the past Van Dyck also simplified the clothing worn to help him paint more quickly. From 1635 he tended to omit the gown and lace collar from female portraiture, items which we know were still worn from account books and other written sources. There was a fashion for ‘careless romance’, where patrons desired to be depicted as visions of timeless loveliness in arcadian landscapes, with the clothing illustrated more a type of fancy dress. Van Dyck also used studio props, including jewellery and scarves, which appear in paintings of more than one sitter.


However, there are still a few paintings of Van Dyck’s which could be considered to represent more realistic fashions worn during the time, cross referenced with works by his rivals, the etchings of Wenceslaus Hollar from the later part of the decade, and the handful of surviving pieces in museum collections. Children were hardly ever portrayed wearing fanciful clothing, but perfect miniature versions of the outfits worn by their parents, as was then the custom. Van Dyck’s official position as court painter meant he was required to record the ever-growing royal family and painted several portraits of the little princes and princesses.





Queen Henrietta Maria - wife of Charles I - with her dwarf Sir Geoffrey Hudson -

Sir Anthony van Dyck 1633

The queen is ready to go hunting. Riding habits as such weren't a thing until the later 17th Century, women would add masculine accessories such as wide collars and hats to their usual clothing when they wanted to go riding.

The queen's outfit consists of a separate matching waistcoat and petticoat of pinked satin - typical fashionable attire for wealthy women during the mid 1630s. 


In general, the look of the decade was one of width and bulk, for both sexes. At the same time there was an air of elegance, decoration was kept to a minimum, especially when compared to the overly elaborate Elizabethan and Jacobean fashions that went before. The beauty of the fabrics – satins and wide Flemish laces – were left to speak for themselves.


Portraits of Queen Henrietta Maria - both by Sir Anthony van Dyck, mid 1630s.

In both paintings, the queen wears realistic fashionable dress of the time. Both outfits consist of matching - but separate - waistcoats and petticoats. Both waistcoats have squared tabs attached to the waist and large sleeves. The waistcoat on the right is fastened with 'spiral' lacing, which is both functional and decorative.

Both these images show how bulky the fashionable silhouette was during the 1630s, but also how simple and plain the fashions were. 


One of the big question marks hovering over this decade is whether gowns were still worn or not. There are several portraits by Van Dyck and Cornelius Johnson (Van Dyck’s main rival in England) painted during the first half of the decade which undeniably show women wearing gowns, but after 1635 hardly any, sitters being shown in a more informal, casual attitude wearing just petticoats with matching waistcoats or what might be bodies with sleeves attached


From the pictorial evidence and one beautifully preserved surviving example in a museum in Germany, we can surmise that gowns hadn’t really changed much from that of the late 1620s. They still had split elbow length sleeves and a high waist. Virago sleeves were still seen until the middle of the decade, but a simpler sleeve was becoming more popular. This sleeve was made in one piece, or might have one long slash from shoulder to cuff revealing the smock sleeve underneath. In general, these sleeves were still bulky, and could be worn with the gathered, tiered cuffs favoured during the previous decade, or with starched turn back cuffs which effortlessly showed off the exquisite lace edging.



Woman's gown 

One reason why gowns may not have been worn during the late 1630s was because sleeves became huge. This was not just an affectation of Master van Dyck – several extant waistcoats show this was the fashion. The fullness was gathered into the back of the armseye only. Floppier cuffs were worn with these sleeves, often being pinned up in part, but left to dangle elegantly in places. The wearing of two layers of massive sleeves might have been impractical and even uncomfortable – but when has fashion ever been bothered with practicality and comfort.


Satin waistcoat, mid 1630s - Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

A rare survival, this waistcoat has several fashionable features including large, full sleeves, scalloped edges and the fabric has been 'pinked'. The waistcoat would have been fastened over a separate stomacher.


The waistcoats worn more often than not had the squared tabs below the waist, the style with the short, gored skirt less so. Stomacher fronted with lacing closure seemed to be the norm. Lacing during this period was nearly always ‘spiral’, tying the lace or ribbon off at one end and weaving it, back and to, until the opposite eyelet at the other end has been reached. Ladder lacing was another common way of fastening your waistcoat, creating several horizonal ‘rungs’ with the ribbon.


Two paintings of ladies in blue from the late 1630s

Left - a lady of the Spencer family (who looks like my mum!) by Sir Anthony van Dyck

Right - Diana, Countess of Elgin by Cornelius Johnson

Both women wear matching petticoats and waistcoats, complete with collars and cuffs, realistic everyday wear for wealthy ladies during this time. Note Lady Elgin's waistcoat is 'ladder laced', a popular fashion during the late 1630s/early 1640s


Another type of bodice may have been worn. Several of Van Dyke’s portraits show a bodice without tabs and/or stomacher front. These may represent stiffened bodies, a corset like garment worn to support the bust and give the torso the correct – fashionable – shape. Bodies could be purely functional, and completely hidden under other clothing. But they were also sometimes made to be seen, as surviving examples made from expensive fabrics demonstrate. We also know that bodies could have sleeves, and many of the sitters shown wearing this type of bodice had sleeves attached at the shoulder with ouches, or brooches. The sleeves were usually pure fantasy, and the whole ensemble could possibly be the creation of the artist’s imagination – or maybe not. These things usually have a grounding in reality, and it seems relevant to me that during the next decade more stiffly boned bodices started to be worn more frequently, and by 1650 were the usual formal wear for a lady of quality. Could it be that women were leaving off their gowns when they adopted the fashion for big sleeves, going about in bodies with sleeves either attached with brooches, ribbon ties or completely sewn in. It seems plausible to me, but is only my very humble opinion. You may have your own.


By the late 1630s there’s a new artist on the scene – Wenceslaus Hollar. Hollar was a Bohemian etcher who met the Earl of Arundel when he was on a diplomatic mission in Europe. Hollar joined the Earl’s household and came back with him when he was recalled to England. Hollar had eclectic interests, one of which was female fashion. He produced several sets of etchings on the subject, the first being published in 1640 – although several of the individual images are dated a year or two earlier.


Three of Hollar's etchings from 'Ornatus Muliebris Anglicus or the Severall Habits of English Women, from the Nobil to the Country Woman, as they are in these times' published 1640.

The images are all full length and show other views as well as face on. Note the accessories worn and used by women - the folding fan, mirror suspended from the waist, fur muff, hood, apron and hat.

The woman on the right, who we presume is the wife of a wealthy urban merchant, wears a gown with the skirts folded and pinned back, displaying a patterned petticoat worn underneath. We also get a rare glimpse of a female shoe with its moderate heel and fabric shoe rose fastening.


In many ways, Hollar may be more reliable than Van Dyck as a guide to what women actually wore. Hollar was not being paid money by vain aristocrats for him to flatter them, although it has been suggested that Hollar used the Countess of Arundel’s ladies in waiting as his models – capturing what they wore on an everyday basis. Hollar’s work has several other advantages too. His images are always standing and full length, and he shows his figures in different positions – profile, rear view, - not always full frontal, so we get a better understanding of the clothing in the round. Hollar also depicts women other than the uber wealthy wives and daughters of the upper classes, we also get to see the fashions worn by the urban middling, mercantile classes.


 In the first set of prints we see the high waists and full sleeves with floppy cuffs seen in works by other artists at this time. There are a few gowns depicted, but not many, and mostly by middle class women.


Two female figures from Hollar's 'Ornatus Muliebris Anglicus or the Severall Habits of English Women, from the Nobil to the Country Woman, as they are in these times' - 1640

Both women wear a new type of bodice - with the half length sleeves of a gown, but with the squared tabs below the waist of a fashionable waistcoat.

Note - the lady on the left wears her hair in two smooth loops over her ears. Hollar portrays several figures with this hairstyle, most can be assumed to be from the merchant, middling classes. This would perhaps be a suitable way of wearing your hair if ringlets and curls didn't want to set.


What we do see for the first time is some sort of hybrid garment, with the tabbed waist of the waistcoat but half length sleeves of a gown, and usually stomacher fronted. This may be what Sarah Bendal terms a ‘hungerline’, several of which are listed in the wardrobe accounts of Queen Henrietta Maria. Hungerline could be the English corruption of the word ‘hongreline’ or Hungarian. Hungarian short overcoats became popular in France during the reign of Henrietta Maria’s brother, Louis XIII. Could this be one of the fashions brought over to England when the French princess arrived in England to marry King Charles?


An interesting feature of the English take on this garment is that the sleeves are usually closed and not split down the front like earlier gown sleeves, and there is what looks like a turn back cuff as well in some illustrations. I think little Princess Mary is wearing something similar in Van Dyck’s ‘Five Oldest Children of King Charles’ painted in 1637. It’s hard to make out, but there’s definitely some layering going on in the sleeves, and what could be a fold of fabric (some sort of cuff?) around the position of the elbow. Mary is not wearing a gown, as we can just see the overlapping waist tabs under the sleeve. Gowns were garments usually associated with adult, married women. Mary did get her own gowns, and was painted in them, only a few years later, when she married William, Prince of Orange, in 1641 – at the very grown up age of nine!



Detail from the 'Five eldest children of King Charles I' - Sir Antony van Dyck 1637

Little Princess Mary wears what looks like a two layer sleeve (both unhelpfully the same colour). There is possibly a deep fold of fabric just above the elbow, which could be a turn back cuff.



Whatever the garment there were some decorative techniques which were typically 1630s. We see scalloped edges everywhere – hems, necklines, edges of waist tabs. Lustrous surfaces were made more interesting with pinking – small holes and slashes were cut into the fabric to give it textural interest. Seams and hems were trimmed with narrow gilt braid, and ribbon bows and rosettes held jewellery, sashes and sleeves in place. Embroidered waistcoats were still worn, but the needlework was less refined, more akin to crewel work, and mostly monochrome.





Embroidered waistcoat - 1630s, V & A Museum

The embroidery is less refined than earlier in the 17th Century. Gone are the multi-coloured silks, gold threads and spangles.




Jewellery remained plain, the purity of large pearl earrings and single strings of pearls staying popular. With wrists now on show, bracelets of pearls and other gems became fashionable. Jewelled buttons, and ouches held parts of the clothing together, although many of the pieces seen in Van Dyck’s portraits were studio props and were never owned by the sitters.


Hair was dressed in a similar manner to the 1620s, with the side locks growing longer, hanging in more defined ringlets and curls. There was a fashion for ‘love locks,’ copied from men, where a longer lock of hair was left on one side only, sometimes tied with a ribbon. If a fringe was present, this was usually also arranged in curls and ringlets, which reduced in number as the decade progressed. There was a brief trend for one single curl worn in the middle of the forehead, and by 1640 many women took the hair smoothly back without any curls or fringe. The longer hair at the back of the head was often decorated with flowers or feathers, or might have strings of pearls twisted into it. Ladies of fashion started to wear loose linen hoods instead of close fitting coifs, and dark hoods of taffeta, velvet or fur were replacing masculine style hats for outdoor wear.


As far as we can tell, women’s shoes stayed the same as the previous decade, female feet rarely being seen under long skirts. At this time there was no real difference between men’s and women’s shoes, both had moderately high heels and slightly tapered squared toes, and were still fastened with large shoe roses fastened over the instep.


Detail from one of the ectchings from Hollar's 'Ornatus Muliebris Anglicus or the Severall Habits of English Women, from the Nobil to the Country Woman, as they are in these times' 1640

Dark masks became popular after the Countess of Carlisle wore one when she returned to court after surviving a bout of smallpox


Both folding and small feather fans were carried, and pomanders (filled with sweet smelling herbs to keep away nasty smells and diseases), mirrors, and miniature portraits of loved ones could be hung on ribbons from the waist, as well as household keys, scissors and other useful items. Muffs were popular in autumn and winter, and long, plain, pale kid gloves were worn to cover naked flesh exposed on arms when out and about. Black masks, either full, or covering the eye area only became popular after the Countess of Carlisle – that 17th Century IT girl – was allowed to wear one when she returned to court whilst waiting for the scabs to drop off her face after surviving smallpox.

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