Three Costume Books

Published on 30 June 2020 at 09:39

When I started out on my 17th Century fashion odyssey I had just three books about historic costume. Now I have many more, but let’s have a look at those books which got me started.

900 Years of English Costume – Nancy Bradfield

This was the first ever book on period costume that I owned. I must have been about 13 when I bought it.


The book is set out by monarch’s reign, from William the Conquer to Elizabeth II. Monarchs with longer reigns have more than one entry – George III, Victoria and Elizabeth II.


This is a good reference guide if you want a general overview of what was worn when. The items which make up fashionable outfits during each reign are listed with a short description for each.


The book is illustrated with line drawings which can be quite comical. Several of the upper class depictions are rather snooty and lower class figures look downtrodden – which is appropriate really. My husband regularly gets this book out just to have a giggle at the pictures.


A Visual History of Costume: the 17th Century – Valerie Cumming

I bought this book on a school trip to Bath and a visit to the Fashion Museum. I was 15 and felt very grown up buying such an expensive (it cost £12.95! – a lot of money for a teenager in the 80s) and focused book. Even at that young age I was already obsessed with the 17th Century.


This is quite a small book (a bit bigger than A5 size). It is arranged in chronological order by year. The author has chosen images – mainly paintings, but some engravings and fashion plates – which are broken down into Head, Body and Accessories with a short note about each.


The main issue with this publication is that the images can be quite small and are black and white. The details of the clothes therefore can be quite difficult to make out, problematic when these are being pointed out to you in the text.


On the plus side, this is a quick and easy book to read, and allows you to follow the main thread (pun intended) of the changing face of fashion throughout the 1600s. The subjects of the illustrations are varied, not all fashionable courtiers, but also provincial gentry, though there are very few lower class depictions - such as woodcuts.


Corsets and Crinolines – Norah Waugh

Another purchase from the Fashion Museum in Bath, though I was in my mid twenties when I bought this book.


This book looks at structured foundation garments – bodies and farthingales, stays and panniers, corsets, crinolines and bustles – all using extant items and including patterns made from these. There are also quotes from original sources, letters, journals and magazines. Information about the construction process and the whalebone industry is also welcome.


As all costume historians and most live interpreters and re-enactors know, moulding the body underneath the clothes is half the battle in creating a convincing historical impression. As there are few extant items surviving the further you go back in history, Ms Waugh has included a pattern for the boned lining for the white satin waistcoat, dated to the 1630s, part of the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. This is the iconic female look for the reign of King Charles I and therefore seen being worn by many re-enactors of the English Civil War. When faced with finding something to wear for my first re-enactment event, this is the book and pattern I turned to, making bodies and the waistcoat worn over the top. I’m still using this pattern today, with a few minor tweaks.

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