Book Review: Seventeenth Century Women’s Dress Patterns

Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns

Editors: Susan North and Jenny Tiramani

Book Review by: Mark Hutter

I a thrilled to have this book review from the eminently qualified, Mark Hutter. Mark is the Senior Tailor in the Department of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, and currently serves as a Vice President for the Costume Society of America. Mark holds degrees in art history, history, and theatre. For more than twenty-five years he has studied and replicated original 17th through early 19th century garments, in order to document and reconstruct the practices of the tailor’s trade. As a tradesman and historian Mark shares his knowledge with visitors to Colonial Williamsburg, as well as by teaching the trade in a formal apprenticeship, and in frequent workshops and lectures. Here is his review:

I am captivated by a classic detective story and am thrilled to find one in this innovative study of late Elizabethan and early Jacobean clothing. With Holmesian acuity the team of Jenny Tiramani, Claire Thornton, Luca Costigliolo, Armelle Lucas, and Susan North sleuth the seams, stitches, and styles of fifteen garments in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

While the bluntly factual title, Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns, does little reveal the wealth of information within, it does not mislead the reader to believe that this will be a cultural analysis; it is not. It is a thoroughly technical, yet eminently readable, work. It is in many ways the story of the making and, therefore, the makers of these garments as told by the clues left in their creations. Pencil lines, chalk smudges, and abandoned basting tell trained eyes of the process and the people. Brief opening chapters introduce the now anonymous tailors, seamstresses, embroiderers, and knitters who collaborated on these garments. Period commentary on their trades, drawn largely from The Academy of Armory published by Randle Holme in 1688, lays out their tools and techniques.

Adding greatly to this commentary are the modern working tradesmen’s insights of Tiramani and Costigiglio. They, along with Thornton and Lucas, established and operated the wardrobe of the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. From 1997 until 2005 they built and maintained all of the Shakespearian-period costumes using strictly period- appropriate tools, techniques, and materials. Their work was, and is, based upon an intimate analysis of extant objects, as well as the scholarly scouring of period texts and images. Their perspective as academic artisans is the heart of this book.

This team’s resurrection and mastery of the skills used to manufacture clothes in pre-industrial Europe has trained them to see and assess with the craftsman’s eye, joined with the most knowledgeable curator’s historical hindsight. Their carefully detailed case studies of surviving garments fill the successive 137 pages. The pieces examined date mostly to the first half of the seventeenth-century and include: four ornately decorated waistcoats, a sumptuous slashed satin bodice, a glittering gold and silk knitted waistcoat, an exotically embroidered linen mantle, an exquisite lace-trimmed smock, a curious rare linen hood, an enigmatic coif and cross cloth, a gossamer band and cuffs, a puzzling partlet and sleeve panels, two pairs of requisite gloves, and one humble linen handkerchief. Meticulously drawn scaled-patterns and sequential illustrations of the constructional process of each garment are given. Lest you think that Tiramani and team are complete Luddites, they also employ the most modern photography to highlight constructional details and some rather sexy radiography to see through the layers. In most cases the authors have been able to ferret out contemporary portraits with sitters wearing articles akin to the originals. (In the remarkable instance of Margaret Layton both her waistcoat and a portrait in which she wears the same survive; each was acquired by the V&A in 1994.) Finally, patterns for all the embroidery and each bit of bobbin lace are included. Clue by clue the making of these garments is unraveled, figuratively. While in a few peripheral instances, other sleuths may make different deductions from the evidence, the cases presented here are compelling.

Not surprisingly, among the pieces studied there is a preponderance which is elaborately ornamented. North, Curator of Fashion 1550-1800 at the V&A, explains that the objects reflect the limitations of the museum’s collection, having been gathered primarily for their decorative textiles. Very few humble garments survive across the centuries and nearly nothing at all from between 1640 and 1700. Yet the understanding to be drawn from of these precious pieces is not applicable to the elite alone. The contextual paragraphs for each entry include quotes extracted from early wills and inventories showing that clothes such as these were owned by the gentry and middling sorts. Similar garments, perhaps without the degree of adornment, were worn by the working and lower sorts.

The vast majority of books written on the history of dress discuss the social, political, economic, and artistic aspects of clothing, as seen from the exterior of the finished garment. Disappointingly few books have competently addressed historic methods of cut and construction, let alone seen these aspects as valuable historical records. North’s introduction to the book gives rightful acknowledgment to the works of Norah Waugh, Nancy Bradfield, Dorothy Burnham, Johannes Pietsch, Linda Baumgarten with John Watson and Florine Carr, and most especially Janet Arnold, as having created the cumulative literature on historical patterns. The older works by Waugh and Bradfield give schematics and sketches to trace the changes in pattern caused by the ever-fluctuating silhouette of post-Renaissance women, but do not analyze the assembly. Burnham looked at the cut of garments scattered across time and cultures. It was the now classic works of Janet Arnold that set the first standard in the publication of object-based studies of historic garment, their patterns and construction. Her primary objective was to aid costumers and curators in understanding the methods of garment fitting and assembly throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Her patterns, however, give only one-half of the garment and while her constructional notes are extensive, they are not (and were not intended to be) complete. The more recent works by Pietsch and Baumgarten build upon Arnold’s format, adding more photography of the artifacts. Seventeenth-Century Women’s Dress Patterns sets a new standard for object-based studies: beautiful, complete, and completely usable patterns; crystal clear photographs of the garments appropriately mounted and of carefully charted details; thorough and well illustrated constructional sequences; and scholarly documented comparative material from drawn contemporaneous texts and images. While the first book by this formidable team of scholars and tradesmen is nearly overwhelming in its depth, they are not finished; this is book one of a series.

The great value of this new study lies in the comprehensiveness of its format, and the ability of its authors to detect a story in a single stitch.

For further reading

Janet Arnold:

  • Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, 1560-1620
  • Patterns of Fashion 1: Englishwomen’s Dresses & Their Construction, 1660-1860
  • Patterns of Fashion 2: Englishwomen’s Dresses and Their Construction, 1860-1940
  • Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women,1540-1660

Linda Baumgarten:

  • Costume Close-Up: Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790
  • What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America

Nancy Bradfield:

  • Costume in Detail: Women’s Dress 1730-1930

Dorothy Burnham:

  • Cut My Cote

Randle Holme, see: N.W. Alcock and Nancy Cox:

  • Living and Working in 17th Century England: An Encyclopedia of Drawings and Descriptions from Randle Holme’s original manuscripts for “The Academy of Armory” [CD-ROM]

Ninya Mikhaila and Jane Malcolm-Davies:

  • The Tudor Tailor: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Dress

Bettina Niekamp and Agnieszka Wos Jucker:

  • Das Prunkkleid des Kurfürsten Moritz von Sachsen (1521-1553) in der Dresdner Rüstkammer. Dokumentation – Restaurierung – Konservierung

Johannes Pietsch and Karen Stolleis:

  • Kölner Patrizier- und Bürgerkleidung des 17. Jahrhunderts. Die Kostümsammlung Hüpsch im Hessischen Landesmuseum Darmstadt

Naomi Tarrant:

  • The Development of Costume

Norah Waugh:

  • The Cut of Women’s Clothes, 1600-1930
  • The Cut of Men’s Clothes, 1600-1900
  • Corsets and Crinolines

 

 

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