Fashion Trends in the Early Seventeenth Century

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Fashion Trends in the Early Seventeenth Century

Spanish Dominance.

During the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the styles of Spain dominated throughout Europe. In the long reign of Philip II (r. 1556–1598) the country was undoubtedly the most powerful in the continent, enriched as it was through its New World colonies and vast European holdings. Despite financial and military setbacks in the second half of the sixteenth century, Spain dominated European affairs, and its manners and clothing were widely imitated by aristocrats and wealthy city people from Austria and Hungary in Central Europe to the Netherlands and France in the west. While Spanish style achieved a general acceptance throughout much of Europe in the later sixteenth century, its influence did not persist past the end of the first quarter of the seventeenth. Thus the great age of Spanish fashion in Europe coincided roughly with the period of the country's international prominence. After 1620, Spain's defeats in wars against its rebellious subjects in the Netherlands and its disastrous involvements in the religious and political intrigues of the Thirty Years' War in Central Europe left the country impoverished and in an increasingly weakened state on the international scene. Yet in the years that Spain's dominance over European affairs persisted, Europe's aristocrats and merchants tended to conform to the styles of the Spanish court and its royal officials, who came to be widely admired throughout Europe for the elegance yet severity of their deportment and the somber dignity of their clothing.

Elements of Spanish Style.

In discussing the influence of Spain at this point in European fashion, a distinction must first be made between the styles of Spain itself and the ways in which they were interpreted and refashioned elsewhere in Europe. Spanish clothing was widely known and respected in Europe around 1600 for the skill displayed in its tailoring and the magnificence of its materials. Wealthy and aristocratic Spaniards favored dark and somber colors that set off their jewels and other elements of decorative trim. Elsewhere in Europe, the restraint evident in Spanish fashion was frequently jettisoned, and helped to inspire fashions that were more purely decorative. Indeed the period between 1580 and 1620 saw some of the most elaborate costumes appear in court societies throughout Europe, and these were notable for their exaggerated lines and sheer artifice. During the sixteenth century several Spanish innovations in dress had spread throughout Europe, including the farthingale, the cape, and the ruff. The farthingale was known in Spanish as the verdugado, and had first appeared as an element of women's dress in the country around 1500. The farthingale was a stiffened underskirt frequently outfitted with wood or whalebone hoops that made a woman's skirt stand out and fall into a cone-shaped pattern. Elsewhere in Europe this pattern inspired considerable innovations, as in France where farthingales appeared in the second half of the sixteenth century that were constructed in a simple drum rather than cone shape. By the end of the sixteenth century such skirts had often become very wide, as can be seen in many of the late portraits of the English Queen Elizabeth. To accentuate the lines of these English farthingales, it became common to tie a bum roll around a woman's waist so that the skirt stood out even further from the farthingale's structure. The ruff was a second popular Spanish style of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and one that, like the farthingale, was open to an almost infinite variety of elaboration and reinterpretation. In Spain, these fashions for the neck were actually quite restrained, but with the introduction of starch throughout Europe in the later sixteenth century, they became quite large and complex everywhere else. The craze for the ruff's elaborate sculpted ripples and cartwheel patterns reached its high point in the early years of the seventeenth century, but its popularity faded by about 1620. By contrast, the taste for cloaks or Spanish capes proved to be more enduring. The fashion for these loose-fitting outer garments had spread throughout Europe in the second half of the sixteenth century, and had showed considerable variety in length and cut. Cloaks were worn over both shoulders or artfully draped over just one. In Spain, capes had usually been constructed out of heavy and dignified cloth, but elsewhere in Europe, they, like other elements of Spanish dress, became elaborately decorated. The cloak had a perennial appeal as well. It persisted as a man's style throughout Europe for much of the seventeenth century, but was replaced in the 1670s by the French justaucorps, a long fitted jacket worn over a shorter vest. In the eighteenth century, though, capes made a comeback, particularly as an element of evening attire.

Character of the Spanish Style.

Like much of the clothing of the later Renaissance, the Spanish styles of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that were popular among wealthy and aristocratic Europeans were notably complex, elaborate, and uncomfortable. The act of dressing itself was a complicated task for the wealthy, and the aid of servants was frequently necessary to apply many layers of clothing. In contrast to the modern world in which Westerners usually wear only under and outer garments, early-modern Europeans wore many separate items of dress that combined to create a complete ensemble. Women's outfits consisted of a farthingale, petticoats, corset, outer skirts, a bodice, sleeves, a stomacher (a decorative V-or U-shaped garment that was worn over the bodice), a ruff, and from time to time, other elements like the cape or the bum roll. Men's garments were also multi-layered, and consisted of stockings, hose or britches for each leg, undershirts, an outer doublet, a ruff, and a cape. Both men and women often wore corsets. In the period mind, beauty was not natural, but an achievement of human art. Clothing may have covered the human form, in other words, but it also attempted to improve upon it, changing the contours of the hips, the torso, and so on, so that the figure took on shapes that were not natural, but highly contrived and decorative. After 1620, many of these more artificial elements of style softened somewhat before fashions grew even more formal and contrived in the court dress of the later seventeenth century.


Max von Boehn, Modes and Manners. 4 vols. Trans. Joan Joshua (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1932–1936).

James Laver, ed., Costume of the Western World. vol. 3, Fashions of the Renaissance (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1951).

Olga Sronková, Fashions Through the Centuries: Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo. Trans. Till Gottheimer (London: Spring Books, 1959).

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Fashion Trends in the Early Seventeenth Century

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Fashion Trends in the Early Seventeenth Century