Posted by: Natalie | July 30, 2010

Silks, Satins and Codpieces

After yesterday‘s near fatal error, I spent a good few hours in Birmingham Central Library today expanding my knowledge. I now know an awful lot more about sixteenth century codpieces – not that this information directly affects my novel, these protrusion are around 50years out of date for my needs. But it was interesting and a little disturbing all in the same!

As for seventeenth century fashions and fabrics, much of it is as I originally suspected. But, I do now have the physical back up I require. I can quite happily continue to sculpt my characters as I originally planned. But, this is by no means the end to my delving into fashions of the past. I find the alterations over the centuries intriguing and enjoy being able to see comparisons (or not) with our own modern take on ‘fashion’ – although I am eternally grateful the full frontal male displaying is a thing buried with the Tudors.

Portrait of the Cheek Sisters by Anthony Van Dyck, c.1640

One of my intrigues, coming mainly from depictions in art, is to see the alterations to perceptions of women. Our modern times see the stick thin, almost emaciated, big eyed, big boobed, platinum blonde, reign supreme. And although I think this in its self may be beginning to wane in favour of a ‘healthier’ body image, we are far from the preferences of our past. The seventeenth century, as that is my current concern, very much followed on from the sixteenth in its depiction of ‘full women’. However, unlike the Tudor regime with its ridiculously large skirts, ruffs, sleeves and shoulders , by the time Van Dyck was painting these ladies, fashion had changed to create not so much ‘volume’ as ‘breadth’.

The neck line of dresses squared off and hung lower on the shoulders, giving the impression of broadness. A flattened chest and raised waist line along with three-quarter length sleeves (slightly puffy from the large amount of fabric used) created something of a ‘boxy’ look to the top half of our Civil War era beauties. Skirts were full and long and still at this time, hip pads were worn to give further shape to womanly curves. Even though fashion leading up to the Restoration (and even more so beyond it) was a softer, less rigid affair then the sixteenth century, there was still the importance of shape and size – but so much more realistic and healthy than our own modern take on the female form.

I love the glitz and the glamour of the rich and famous in the 1600’s, particularly post Restoration when the flamboyant French influence kicks it up a gear. But, even though our views of women’s beauty has changed, maybe the context hasn’t so much. To be ‘of the fashion’, to be perceived as the beautiful elite, the conformities are still the same. The price to pay, I fear, will always be the same; a certain amount of ‘pain’ to achieve the desired look, popularity, and above all, cash. So although the visions of the past might promote a more sensible view of how women should be seen, maybe the trend setters have always suffered for the vanity of being so. Maybe we are not so different in our 21st century world?



  1. If you haven’t read “Mayflower” by Nathaniel Philbrick, I think you’d find it interesting from the perspective of the religious and social mores of 17th century England and how they transfered to the new world via the voyage of The Pilgrims and their desperate fight for survial in the New World.

    I wrote a review today. Hope you can take a look and tell me what you think.


    • Oooo, smashing! I always love random recommendations, thank you! I will of course take a look at your review.

      Thank you for the comment Judson, lovely of you to stop by.


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