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Brief Costume History

Dress in 17th Century Europe


The trend towards an accelerated rate of change in fashion seen in the 16th Century continued into the 17th Century.  However the 17th Century is further complicated by a considerable fragmentation of fashion in the West.  Mainstream fashion reflected sharpened divisions among Europeans in religion, nationality and class that had been broadened by the wars of the Reformation and  by the "enclosure movement" (aka the early part of the Agricultural Revolution).  

So, for example members of various conservative sects of Protestantism in this period develop "plain dress" (a style that in greatly modified form is still worn by Amish and Mennonite people) as a form of anti-fashion, and conservative clergy preach sermons on the sinfulness of fine dress. Conservative Catholics at the Spanish court, on the other hand keep wearing fashions from the previous century well into the 17th Century.

Spanish Infanta of the 1660's from Stibbert based on a Painting by Velasquez Spanish Infanta of  the 1660's from Stibbert based on a Painting by Velasquez

Spanish courtiers at the wedding of Louis XIV of France to Maria Therese, the daughter of the King of Spain, in the 1660's are shown wearing stiffened Whisk collars and ruffs, and the poor Infanta is trapped in a huge "French Farthingale" over 40 years after the French dumped the fashion. 

The dress of the poor is noticeably more ragged in this period, as the "Beggar" engravings of Jacques Callot will attest, because in many parts of Europe the peasantry were being displaced from their homes in large numbers by either the numerous religious wars of the period, or the Agricultural Revolution.


Mainstream fashionable dress in the early 17th Century began with the silhouette left over from the previous period, stiffened, slashed, be-ruffed, and stuffed.  This "Jacobean" style continued with only slight alteration for another 10-20 years in most places, but even from the beginning, there is a slight visible softening beginning at around 1600.  First it is only a greater use of soft fabrics to cover the enormous hoops worn by the women, then lace ruffs begin to be starched less, puffs inside slashings are unstuffed, and finally hoops get discarded altogether.

Henri IV in 1600, Gentleman in the fashion of 1605 (Quicherat) Henri IV in 1600, Gentleman in the fashion of 1605 (Quicherat)


After 1620 the fashion loses all stiffness whatever, and most ruffs fall into soft pleats, and formerly standing "whisk" collars (like the one seen in Shakespeare's best known portrait) become un-starched "falling collars". 

Lace collar, first half of the 17th Century (Kohler) Lace collar, first half of the 17th Century (Kohler)

Men's breeches get softer and longer, and the waists of their doublets went higher giving an elongated silhouette. Many men discarded shoes in favor of high topped boots. This is the style people associate with The Three Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas and Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

Gentleman in the fashion of 1630. (Quicherat) Gentleman in the fashion of 1630. (Quicherat)

Fashionable men wore their hair longer, and it stays long for the rest of the century.  Conservative men, especially Protestant clergy, kept their hair shorter--only shoulder length. During the English Civil War the Puritans (and other Protestant religious conservatives) who opposed King Charles I and supported Parliament were derisively called "Roundheads" by their longer haired opponents, and the name has stuck to this day.  Londoners were warned by conservative clergy that the sexual confusion caused by young men growing a "lovelock" or long piece of hair, and by women cutting and frizzing hair into bangs was the beginning of a slide into mortal sin. 

Plate by Callot, 1630  Plate by Callot, 1630 

Women's dress in the same period  (1620-40) underwent a very similar style shift, waists rose slightly above the natural waistline, collars softened, hair softened, and hoops went out in favor of a more vertical line. The main exciting innovation is that women's wrists, and eventually lower arms began to be bared again, for the first time since the end of the Roman period. Folding fans, first imported from Asia in the late 16th Century begin to be locally produced and become the fashion as well.

Pourpoint doublet c.1650 (Kohler) Pourpoint doublet c.1650 (Kohler)

All text and photos on this page are courtesy of

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