Category Archives: Clothing

Clothing Custom Household Women

Both a maker and a mender

These images come from a book of needlework patterns from the mid 17th century. In the introduction, the author waxes lyrical about the importance of the needle, and indeed it was an invaluable tool to the housewife. All women, including Elizabeth I herself, would have prided themselves on their needlework; not only because it was regarded as a sign of female piety, but because it enabled a skilled embroiderer to demonstrate her often considerable talents. The Countess of Bedford embroidered two ‘window turkey carpets’ [probably window seat cushions], and Bess of Hardwicke was famous for her large and sumptuous embroidered hangings. Needlemaking was a fast-growing industry in the 17th century, so much so that in 1656 a charter of incorporation of the trade was granted by Oliver Cromwell. The designs in this book would have had a wide range of applications, from lacy collars and fancy cushions, to luxurious embroidered detail on fine cloaks. The author here describes the importance of the needle:

The Needles sharpenesse, profit yeelds, and pleasure,
But sharpenesse of the tongue, bites out of measure.
A Needle (though it be but small and slender)
Yet is it both a maker and a mender;
A grave Reformer of old Rents decayde,
Stops holes and seames, and desperate cuts displayde.
And thus without the Needle we may see,
We should without our Bibbs and Biggings be;
No shirts or smockes, our nakednesse to hide,
No Garments gay, to make us magnifyde;
No Shadowes, Shapparoones, Caules, Bands, Ruffes, Cuffes,
No Kerchiefes, Quoyfes, Chin-clowtes, or marry-Muffes,
No Cros-cloathes, Aprons, Hand-kerchiefes, or Falls,
No Table-cloathes for Parlours or for Halls.
No Sheetes, no Towels, Napkins, Pillow-beares,
Nor any Garment man or woman weares.
Thus is a Needle prov’d an Instrument
Of profit, pleasure, and of ornament.


Below are two lovely examples of early modern embroidery from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent Embroidery Exhibition.

Source on women and embroidery – Liza Picard.  See Useful Reading for details.

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Clothing Custom

The Fann-Makers Grievance

Today’s fragments come from a 17th century text entitled The Fann-Makers GRIEVANCE.  It reveals some lovely details about the art of early modern fans and fan making, and also highlights the issues faced by an industry suffering the results of overseas out-sourcing.

‘The Manufactures of Fanns and Fann-sticks, tho’ it may seem slight to some, is certainly at this time of very great Consequence to a considerable breach of the Trade of England; for that it employs multitudes of Men, Women and Children in making the Sticks, Papers, Leathers, in ordering the Silk (which Paper, Leather and Silk is Manufactured in this Nation) likewise great numbers employed in Painting, Varnishing and Jappanning, and preparing abundance of Foreign Commodities, viz.of Whale-bone, Tortoise-shell, Ivory, Box, Ebony, which Wood is imported from Turkey and Russia, and is bought in Exchange for English Cloth.  Likewise several other sorts of Wood from the West-Indies to the great advantage as well of His Majesties Customs, as of the Woolen Manufacture; by which it is obvious that the King’s Customs and the Woollen Manufactures are very much advanced, and that great Numbers of Poor People may be continually employed in Work, who otherwise must inevitably perish; or, as some already are, become a burden to their Parishes, unless there be a stop put to the Importation of Indian Fanns, and Fann-sticks, of which vast quantities are daily brought over, and it can be proved, that Five Hundred and Fifty Thousand have lately been Imported, which Hundreds of Poor Artificers are too sensible of, by the general decay of their Trade, and are in great fear that they and their Families shall be reduced to the utmost Want and Misery, unless the Honourable House of Commons relieve their pressing Necessities by prohibiting the Importation of Indian Fanns and Fann-sticks.’

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Clothing Custom Etiquette

The first Englishman who ever carried an umbrella

These fragments come from The Umbrella and its History by William Sangster (1855). Sangster takes the reader on a whistle stop tour around the world of umbrellas and parasols, providing some intriguing descriptions of the use of the umbrella. The following snippets include his account of the umbrella’s first public outing in England by a man.

The general use of the Parasol in France and England was adopted, probably from China, about the middle of the seventeenth century. At that period, pictorial representations of it are frequently found, some of which exhibit the peculiar broad and deep canopy belonging to the large Parasol of the Chinese government officials, borne by native attendants. John Evelyn, in his Diary for the 22nd June, 1664, mentions a collection of rarities shown him by one Thompson, a Catholic priest, sent by the Jesuits of Japan and China to France. Among the curiosities were ‘fans like those our ladies use, but much larger, and with long handles, strangely carved and filled with Chinese characters,’ which is evidently a description of the Parasol.

In Coryat’s Crudities, a very rare and highly interesting work, published about a century and a half prior to the general introduction of the Umbrella into England, we find the following curious passage: ‘Also many of the Italians doe carrie other fine things of a far greater price, that will cost at least a duckate, which they commonly call in the Italian tongue Umbrellas, that is, things that minister shadow unto them, for shelter against the scorching heate of the sun. These are made of leather, something answerable to the forme of a little canopie, and hooped in the inside with divers little hoopes, that extend the Umbrella in a pretty large compasse. They are used especially by horsemen, who carry them in their handes when they ride, fastening the ende of the handle upon one of their thighs: and they imparte so long a shadow unto them, that it keepeth the heate of the sun from the upper part of the bodies.’

The Umbrella was not used by gentlemen for a long time after its merits had been recognised by the fair sex. Pursuing our quotations, we find an allusion to the Umbrella, as employed by ladies, in Gay’s Trivia:

Good housewives all the winter’s rage despise,
Defended by the ridinghood’s disguise:
Or, underneath th’ umbrella’s oily shed
Safe through the wet on clinking pattens tread.
Let Persian dames th’ umbrellas rich display,
To guard their beauties from the sunny ray:
Or sweating slaves support the shady load,
When Eastern monarchs show their state abroad.
Britons in winter only know its aid,
To guard from chilly showers the walking maid.

It is recorded in the life of that venerable philanthropist, Jonas Hanway, the friend of chimney-sweeps and sworn foe to tea, that he was the first man who ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule by carrying an Umbrella. He probably felt the benefit of the Umbrella during his travels in Persia, where they were in constant use as a protection against the sun.  It was more than probable, however, that Jonas Hanway’s neatness in dress and delicate complexion led him, on his return from abroad, to appreciate a luxury hitherto only confined to the ladies. Mr. Pugh, who wrote his life, gives the following description of his personal appearance, which may be regarded as a gem in its way:

In his dress, as far as was consistent with his ideas of health and ease, he accommodated himself to the prevailing fashion. As it was frequently necessary for him to appear in polite circles on unexpected occasions, he usually wore dress clothes with a large French bag. His hat, ornamented with a gold button, was of a size and fashion to be worn as well under the arm as on the head. When it rained, a small parapluie defended his face and wig.

Hence it was long ere the Umbrella became an article of general use, which is strikingly confirmed by an anecdote we derive from that amusing repertory of facts, Notes and Queries.  Mr. Warry, many years English Consul at Smyrna, described to a friend the envy and astonishment of his mother’s neighbours at Sawbridgeworth, in Hertfordshire, where his father had a country house, when he ran home and came back with an Umbrella he had just brought from Leghorn, to shelter them from a pelting storm which detained them in the church porch after the service on a summer Sunday. Now, as this occurred about the year 1775 or 1776, and Sawbridgeworth was so near London, it is plain that Umbrellas at that time were almost wholly unknown. Since this date, however, the Umbrella has come into general use, and in consequence, numerous improvements have been effected in it. The transition to the present portable form is due, partly to the substitution of silk and gingham for the heavy and troublesome oiled silk, which admitted of the ribs and frames being made much lighter, and, also, to the many ingenious mechanical improvements in the framework, chiefly by French and English manufacturers.

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Clothing Court Women

Farthingales & Vizards – Elizabethan Women & their Dress

This post follows on from The History of the Ruff, and Elizabethan Men & Their Dress.

For women, the equivalent of the doublet was the bodice. It was sometimes known as a ‘pair of bodies’, and had curved seams which flattened the breasts. The bodice also had a wooden or bone insert in the front, which additionally pressed and flattened the breasts and stomach. It is this bodice which gives the torsos of Elizabethan women the unique inverted V shape. New advances meant metal eyelets could be incorporated, which enabled the bodice to be laced up much more tightly than had previously been the case. The bodice often revealed a whiff of cleavage, which could be brazonly sported, or hidden beneath a little smock or ‘partlet’ worn at the neck. As with the some doublets, the bodice had separate sleeves, pinned or fastened on at the shoulder.



Over the bodice women wore a skirt, under which was a farthingale. Early versions were made with hoops of willow or whale bone, sewn into an underskirt. Some women eschewed the farthingale in favour of padding round the hips, like an attachable French bolster. The flounce of a farthingale depended on how it was pinned, and in essence arranging it was like arranging a ruff; it could be altered depending on taste, seasons and fashions. The skirt worn over it could be endlessly adapted; folded and pinned in which ever manner suited the whim of the wearer. Early farthingales were quite simple affairs, but under the reign of Elizabeth the wheel farthingale became increasingly popular. Essentially a wheel shape constructed of wire or whale bone, or an underskirt in the same shape stiffened at regular intervals from waist to ankle, wheel farthingales were weildy and cumbersome. In both cases the skirt projected away from the waist at right angles and could be anything up to 120cm from side to side.



Skirts were made from a variety of fabrics, and were as elaborate as the wearer could afford.  Jewels, embroidery, ribbons, all could be stitched on, and removed to be worn on another outfit.  In chilly weather women would wear cloaks, often fur-lined with hoods. The favoured leg wear of women, as with men, was the stocking. Usually terminating under the knee, the fancier versions incorporated embroidery and were fashioned from silk, tied with garters. Poorer women, like their male counterparts, would have worn stockings of wool.



Some women, like men, did not wear knickers. The more aristocratic ladies may have sported linen drawers beneath their underskirts, but their poorer sisters were forced to endure long pant-free winters.  In bed, women wore nightcaps, and smocks made of linen.

Up until 1575, Elizabeth I had forty pairs of red velvet shoes, then she appears to have adopted shoes made from Spanish leather, presumbably for practical reasons. Most working women would have worn stout, unpretentious leather shoes but ladies at Court, following the Queen’s fashions, wore decorative shoes with heels made of wood. Most women over a certain age would cover their heads with caps and hoods, but young married women and virgins were allowed to gad about bare-headed. Nets of gold thread sprinkled with pearls and worn over the hair were very popular.



Women often wore silk or velvet masks, or vizards, when they were out and about to protect their complexions.


Extant Elizabethan Vizard (via The Portable Antiquities Scheme)


Gloves, scarves and furs were also available to those who could afford them. While a poor woman might have to make do with a plain woollen scarf, a woman of means could travel about swathed in sable or silver bear. Jewellery was fashionable with the wealthy – it was hip for both sexes to sport a single ear ring, and both women and men wore jewels on their fingers and around their necks.



For more on the extant vizard, see here
Sources as for the History of the Ruff & Elizabethan Men’s Clothing

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