Monday, December 16, 2019

Party clothes in the 17th Century

by Deborah Swift

I wondered if my 17th century equivalent would open her closet and sigh the way I did, when someone invited me to a party and I couldn't decide what to wear. So just what would the fashionable woman about town be wearing in the 17th century?

On the left you can see the 17th century equivalent of the "little black dress" in this painting by Verceulen. Invisible in this picture is the fact that at the beginning of the 17th century women wore farthingales and whalebone corsetry beneath their clothes to emphasise a small waist and large hips. So she is probably not as comfortable as she looks. The large amount of gorgeous lace would be hand-made as Elizabethan ruffs gave way to expensive lace collars. Fancy embellished petticoats were now revealed as skirts were hooped back to display them. Perhaps she has one on, just out of view! After the restoration of the monarchy women’s clothes were elegant and colourful and made from costly fabrics such as satin and silk.

But what accessories might you choose on your night out - perhaps dining with a courtier, or attending a concert?

Well one of the oddest 17th century accessories was the mask or "vizard". These were commonly worn by women to protect their skin from the sun when they went outside, particularly for horse-riding or on carriage journeys. Women also wore masks to maintain their mystery as well as to keep their identity secret, although not many masks survive, and those that do are in poor condition.

Here is a real surviving example - this vizard was found during the renovation of an inner wall of a 16th-century stone building. The nose area is strengthened to stand out and form a case around the wearer's nose. The outer fabric is black velvet, the lining of silk, and inside it is strengthened by a pressed-paper inner. A black glass bead attached by a string to the mask was used to hold the mask in place - the wearer would hold the bead tightly in her mouth. This of course made speaking impossible, so I don't think I would have worn mine for long!

An exerpt from Phillip Stubbes Anatomie of Abuses, published in 1583:

"When they use to ride abrod, they have invisories, or masks, visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, he would think hee met a monster or a devil; for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them".

So now you have your dress and your vizard, what else might you need? Well, fans made from silk and decorated paper were widely used by wealthy people during the 17th century and the most essential accessory for women during the Stuart period. And without being able to speak you would definitely need the 'language of the fan'.
The example I show is from the Fitzwilliam Museum.

But I feel we are lacking a bit of glitz and glamour, don't you? So how about embroidered petticoats and a bit of twinkling jewellery?
There was a passion in this period for floral fabrics and jewellery, so it was likely you would put on your earrings by looking in a mirror with an engraved or enamelled back, decorated with floral motifs like the one on the left. You might be tempted to have your dressmaker make a gown, or under-dress, from flower-inspired fabric like the example below made in India for export to the English market.

Cosse-de-pois (pea pod) shapes and later flowers became very popular and many designs in this fashion were produced. Exotic flowers were immensely popular and botany became a study in its own right. In The Lady's Slipper, my main character Alice Ibbetson is a botanist and artist. Like many ladies of this era she was fascinated by new varieties of flowers.

The intensification of the trade with the near East had brought flowers and bulbs to Europe which had never been seen before, and a true craze for flowers suddenly sprang up. The Tulipomania of 1634 is a well-documented example. Flora had been fashionable in embroidery since the end of the 16th century but was now adopted by jewellery designers as well. From the 1650's on engraving in metal was another, and later preferred, way of depicting flowers.

Other popular jewellery designs were the three droplets, or ‘girandoles’, called this as they resembled the lit branches of a candlestick. Examples of these gorgeous 17th century designs for earings and pendants are from and

If you were going to go outside then the latest fashion was for Venetian "chopines" - a type of sandal or stilt designed to keep your shoes protected from the filth and dirt of the city streets, and for short ladies, to add a little height.

Constructed from carved wood and silks, they must have been as uncomfortable to wear as modern platform soles, but twice as difficult to keep on. Chopines apparently caused an unstable and inelegant gait. Women wearing them were generally accompanied by a servant or attendant on whom they could balance themselves, and even to put them on was a little like climbing onto stilts, so they were usually put on with the help of two servants.Some chopines could be as high as 50 cm, and their height became symbolic of the status of the wearer.

So now, in whalebone re-inforced black dress, gripping my vizard between my teeth, ears heavy with floral gems, I shall totter on my chopines to my sedan. Have a great Christmas party time, everyone!

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published December 12, 2011.


Deborah Swift is the author of eight historical novels as well as the Highway Trilogy for teens (and anyone young at heart!). So far, her books have been set in the 17th Century or in WW2, but she is fascinated by all periods of the past and her new novel will be set in the Renaissance. Deborah lives on the edge of the beautiful and literary English Lake District – a place made famous by the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.

For more information of Deborah's published work, visit her Author Page


  1. There's a surviving party dress from the 1670s at the Bath Museum of Costume. It's their prize possession--it's made of cloth of gold.

    It's also very tiny...

    They've also had, for the past several months, a display of gloves from the 16th and 17th century. They're magnificent--and were, of course, de rigeur, for anyone with pretensions to style.

  2. Hi MM, I'm a long way from Bath, so I don't get to their Costume Museum often.Those who want to know more about this fabulous dress can find pictures and the pattern at

    And Shawn, yes, I shudder to think of some of the things I wore in my teens. A hideous silver plastic mini-skirt springs to mind....

  3. Makes me appreciate my Nike slides, my sports bra, and my not-so-little black dress (which ensemble, I have never tried on all at the same time).

  4. Deborah,
    not only do those stilts look very uncomfortable but there seems to be no support under the actual heel.

    The vizard looks more like a torture aid.

    great article


  5. The vizard would have been wonderful for the cross-dressing woman who wanted to appear a man when not needing to talk.

    I can't believe (I believe you) that the taller chopine was for the higher status woman. Did she not realize that she looked ridiculous? I do, however, understand the need to keep the shoes higher than the mud.

    Such a great article from a former film costumer. Thanks!

  6. Wonderful! And I used to grumble about wearing mini skirts and stilettos!

  7. Can I just say that I am so happy to be in a different century. I think I would have broken my neck on those shoes or swallowed that bead. Just for good measure, I probably would have accidentally signaled something terribly off with my fan.

    What a fascinating look at the lady's clothing of the 17th century. Thank you!

  8. Deligthful! Thank you Deborah.
    I must differ on one point, bone (or steel reinforced) bodices or corsets, if fitted properly, are far from uncomfortable. At a Fairy Fair (sic) I bought a Tudor style bodice, chemise, "the works." It was a blisteringly hot day, but once I had all the laces snuggly done up, there was no way I was going back into my ordinary clothes. Unlike the "merry widow" corset popular when I was young, this bodice did not poke under the bosom, but was cinched over it, pushing it up (yes, on plump ladies, like a shelf under the chin.) With lacings in five different directions, the bodice not only fit perfectly, supporting the spine and producing an elegant posture, but I felt as armored as a battleship. And no, on a very hot day it wasn't hot. This remarkable garment is made by Lena Dun of Moresca.

  9. I absolutely loved this. Amazingly good research and I'm putting The Lady's Slipper on my kindle. Wonderful, Deborah. Thank you for posting. I would love a vizard but not to hold it in my mouth via a bead and string, thank you.

  10. Lovely post Deborah, and yes, inconvenient, cumbersome, uncomfortable, scratchy, faint-inducing - all those things - But sooooo romantic don't you think? Love it.


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