General 17th Century Fashion Notes




Just as today, people during the 1600s were judged on the clothing they wore. You were expected to dress in a way which reflected your place in society. Ordinary folk were not meant to dress above their station, but neither were the upper classes meant to dress below theirs.


Several factors might affect how far an individual could keep up with fashion during the 17th Century.


Wealth - Following the latest styles cost serious amounts of money. Materials cost a lot (although labour was cheap). High fashion demanded luxury fabrics such as silk, gilt braid, and imported lace - all very costly. The yardage required was also considerable. A fashionable gentleman's outfit might consist of doublet and full breeches, possibly with matching jerkin and/or cloak. All would be lined, and probably interlined as well. There was then accessories to purchase - shoes or boots, stockings, hat, gloves etc. Female fashion was even more excessive, with long, full petticoats and gowns being the order of the day.

Location - the fashion trade in England was based in London.  This is where all the most fashionable tailors worked, and where all the best shops were located. In an age before easy long distance travel and mass media, ideas about fashion took time to filter through the countryside. Rural villages might be several years behind the current London trends. However, provincial towns were always more fashion conscious than the surrounding countryside.

Age -  just like today, older people tended to cling to the fashions of their youth. Senior members of society may not be particularly fast in adopting the latest trends even if they were aware of them. 



Linen - mainly for shirts, smocks, collars, cuffs and women's head wear (coifs etc). Common folk wore unbleached, rougher cloth such as sack cloth and canvas, the upper classes preferred softer, finer fabric like cambric, lawn and holland, naturally bleached white using sunlight and urine. 

Wool - used for nearly all outer clothing. Fabrics ranged from thick heavy frieze, work a day russet, soft fluffy cotton, super fine scarlet, and expensive broadcloth.

Fustian - a hard wearing fabric of mixed fibres, usually wool and linen.

Silk - worn only by the wealthy. Most fashionable during the 17th Century was plain shiny satin, but patterned brocades and damasks were also worn. Velvet was popular for winter wear.

Leather - used for some men's work wear, such as breeches and jerkins.



Many fabrics were left in their natural colours, shades of grey, brown and off white for wool (also known as 'sheep's colour'), and grey/beige for linen. Silks were usually brightly coloured as the fibre takes dye very well. All dyes used natural ingredients, and were not 'fast' (the colours often faded quickly and ran when wet). Therefore, the colours worn by ordinary people were often dull and muted, described as 'sad'.

Black was a hard colour to produce, using either expensive imported dyes, or dying twice or more to build up a good depth of colour. To wear black was therefore a sign of social status.

The most costly colour to achieve was true purple (using crushed up sea snails). It was so expensive that it was only worn by the royal family. 

The 17th Century term 'pink' denoted a yellow colour. What we call pink today was called 'carnation' or 'rose'.

Women's under-petticoats were more often than not red. 



Surface decoration during the mid 17th Century was often very discreet.

Lace (braid, tape) - used to cover and bind seams and hems. Frequently sewn in bands around the lower part of petticoats and sometimes up the centre front as well. Gilt (gold or silver) for the wealthy, wool or linen for ordinary people.

Embroidery - reserved mainly for use on underwear, head wear and women's informal waistcoats, which also used 'spangles' or sequins. Small stylised flowers and plant motifs were popular, also knot work, executed using coloured silk threads. Monochrome patterns were fashionable (blackwork, redwork etc).

Pinking - decorative patterns of holes or tiny slashes cut into the surface of the fabric, usually silk.

Point (lace) - used for neck and wrist wear, also linen coifs and night caps. Italian needle lace, geometric in pattern, was most fashionable at the start of the century. Flemish bobbin lace, heavier and scrolling in design became more popular from the 1630s. Straight edged 'insertion' laces (both needle and bobbin) were sewn between the seams of linen items.  'Point' was a real luxury item and was worth more than its weight in gold.

Ribbons - bows, rosettes and ribbon loops were everywhere during the 17th Century. They attached men's breeches to their doublets, and fastened women's girdles, busks and jewellery in place. The use of ribbons was excessive between 1660 and 1670, especially for men. 


Now let's have a look at the clothing itself. Click here for the most common female garments and here for male attire.