Research Award Guest Post: The Fashions of Early Modern London

Worn Through Research Award winner, Sophie Pitman is a second year AHRC-funded PhD student of History at St. John’s College, Cambridge, supervised by Ulinka Rublack. Her dissertation, ‘Tailoring the city: the making of clothing and the making of London, c.1560-1660,’ uses material, visual, literary and archival sources to explore the ways clothing contributed to the development of early modern London and, in turn, how London’s rapid growth changed the making, wearing, and meaning of clothing. Her methodology is based on interdisciplinary approaches to visual and material culture that she developed during her Frank Knox Fellowship at Harvard (2010-11) and her Master’s at the Bard Graduate Center (2011-13).

Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, (c.1574), MAP L85c no.27. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg, Civitatis Orbis Terrarum, (c.1574), MAP L85c no.27. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Early modern London was full of clothing. Fabric-laden boats traversed the Thames, bringing textiles in and out of the city to customers hungry for a wide-range of colours, textures, and patterns. Young apprentices wearing large ruffs were disciplined by their masters for their transgression, merchants imported and exported textiles which were then sold in new shopping spaces such as Thomas Gresham’s Royal Exchange, actors wore sumptuous costumes on the public theatre stages, and cast-offs were re-sold in the second-hand shops of Long Lane. This was a city growing rich from the trade of textiles, and on whose booming streets an ever-increasing range of fashions could be seen.

I am attempting to study the growth of early modern London through the ways clothing was made, worn and understood by inhabitants and visitors to the city. As Vanessa Harding has explained, “historians of early modern London do not expect to find new caches of unknown documents.”[1] Most of the manuscripts and printed books that I pore over in the archives have been consulted, discussed and debated by generations of scholars fascinated with the history of London. But when I embarked upon a PhD focusing on clothing in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London, a period of rapid and uncertain change in which London grew from a small European outpost into one of the continent’s largest cities, I decided to not limit my search to textual sources alone. In addition to consulting archival documents, I look to images and – most excitingly – to extant objects. 

The Museum of London is widely celebrated for its vast costume collection, containing over 24,000 objects. But while a handful of its earliest pieces from the Tudor period have been well-preserved and are well-known, particularly through Janet Arnold’s Patterns of Fashion books[2], most of the early clothing collection is under-represented in the online catalogue and little has been published on it. Though not a completely unknown cache, the collection is certainly a promising trove waiting to be explored, and provides much exciting material for my research.

 

Until recently, the Museum of London’s walls were decorated with a huge sculpture based on a diamond and emerald studded salamander brooch, part of the Cheapside Hoard, a cache of sixteenth- and seventeenth century jewels found in the City of London 1912.  Photograph by Sophie Pitman

Until recently, the Museum of London’s walls were decorated with a huge sculpture based on a diamond and emerald studded salamander brooch, part of the Cheapside Hoard, a cache of sixteenth- and seventeenth century jewels found in the City of London 1912. Photograph by Sophie Pitman

The costume stores under the galleries of the Museum of London are as tantalising as any other museum I have visited. Rows of umbrellas, concealed with protective white covers, hang from a rail, their horn handles peeking out. One apparently unpromising cupboard, which could be confused for a filing cabinet, opens to reveal shelves full of children’s shoes – rows filled with tiny pairs of Victorian boots and leather slippers which give a slightly eerie feel to one corner of the collection. But most of the objects I consulted were carefully laid out for me on large tables in the centre of the room.

This is where I was able to view the Isham doublet (A7577) – a black silk cut velvet piece dated to the first quarter of the seventeeth-century. The doublet, one of the most common forms of male upper-body wear, is much degraded, but this deterioration enables a close examination of the tailoring techniques used in this fashionable garment’s construction.[3] The silk, patterned with leaves and scrolls, covers a layer of dark brown wool fabric, underneath which is a coarse linen interlining. The doublet has been quilted with wool, the neat ridges of which are covered with an inside lining of pink silk. The collar, now coming away from the body of the doublet, is constructed of four layers of stiff canvas. The doublet was fastened with thirty-four buttons constructed of wood and wrapped in black and silver gilt thread. Similar buttons are at the collar neck and the lower sleeves. The metal hooks along the waist of the doublet show how it could be attached to a pair of breeches or hose. Around the lower edge of the doublet at the waist there are small tabs or ‘laps’ made from different felted brown fabrics. We can almost imagine the thrifty tailor at work, selecting off-cuts from previous commissions to line these small decorative flaps. Though this doublet is said to have been worn by a wealthy nobleman – either 1st Baronet of Lamport John Isham (1582-1651) or his son Justinian (1610-1675) – it bears evidence of quick and economic manufacture. This branch of the Northamptonshire Isham family gained their fortunes in London in the cloth trade, and so this doublet contains many threads (please pardon the pun) of the development of the city – as a site for the dynamic and lucrative commercial trade in textiles, as a centre full of quick and clever tailors, and as a stage upon which the well-dressed could show off their new silk velvet doublets tailored to the most fashionable shapes.

While most of the pieces I was able to consult were laid out carefully on tables, I had the most fun rifling through the storeroom drawers. These wide and shallow wooden trays are filled with fragments carefully protected with foam and card supports. Excavations of London sites over the past century have furnished these draws with pieces – laces, shoes, belts, codpieces, hats, decorative bands, cloth fragments. Unlike the Isham doublet, we have few clues as to the identity of the original owners of these pieces. But as an historian, I have long been fascinated by the way that clothing carries the imprint of its former owner. Sweat stains, rips and tears, even deposits from a decaying body all give us insights into the life (and sometimes death) of the body beneath the clothes.

One brown and black cloth slipper, (A.26847) heavily patched and pieced together with large clumsy stitches, suggests many days of pounding the streets of London. Possibly a lining for a pair of outer shoes, this well-worn piece was found in Worship Street and brought to the museum in 1924. When the former owner of this slipper was busy repairing another hole or tear, this area lay outside of the city walls and was mainly fields. Close by, London’s first theatres – The Theatre (1576) and The Curtain (1577) were drawing audiences from across the urban area. Why this slipper was left behind and who took such care to patch and repair it, we will probably never know. But it does demonstrate how early modern Londoners valued their clothing, which bore the brunt of the climate, the urban environment, and the demands of labour on the body. 

But the feather in the cap of the Museum of London’s collection of sixteenth-century clothing must be its unparalleled collection of knitted hats worn by non-elite men. As John Stow explained in his Survey of London (1598), such hats were ubiquitous in the city, ‘the youthful citizens also took them to the New fashion of flat caps, knit of woollen yarn black.’[4] In 1571, the Cappers act even made it obligatory for men from the middling and lower end of the social spectrum to wear an English-made knitted wool cap on Sundays and holy days. It was said that there were over eight thousand people in London alone occupied ‘in the trade and science of capping’ and this act attempted to ensure continued business and stability in a city rocked by fashion trends and imported goods.[5] Fifty-seven knitted caps, all found in excavations within the City of London, demonstrate the range of knitting, dying, and finishing techniques and suggest that many wearers attempted to personalize their headgear with ribbons, slashes and tabbed brims.[6] It was these individual efforts that I was most fascinated to see up close, to witness how early modern Londoners attempted to stand out, adapt and make even the most humble and necessary items of clothing fashionable in a city bustling with dressed bodies.

Unknown, Portrait of Edward Courtenay, 1st Early of Devon (1526-1556), c. 1555, oil on panel: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Courtenay_1st_Earl_of_Devon.jpg

Unknown, Portrait of Edward Courtenay, 1st Early of Devon (1526-1556), c. 1555, oil on panel, via Wikimedia Commons

As I am particularly interested in the manufacture of clothing, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to see evidence of craftsmanship in the Museum of London’s collections. One dark brown leather jerkin (36.237) on display in the ‘War and Fashion’ section of the Medieval Gallery, is decorated all over with scored diagonal and vertical lines and diamond, heart and star pinking.[1] Sized for a young man and dated to the second half of the sixteenth-century, the jerkin shows how even a relatively mundane item of outerwear could express the emotions and decorative interests of a young man. In conjunction with my trips to the museum, I have been learning the techniques required by the tailors and other makers in the period, and during a weekend course on ‘Historical Stitching & Decorative Techniques on Leather Clothing, 1400-1800’ at the School of Historical Dress, I was able to recreate this punched and scored design myself. In doing so, I realised that such effects could be achieved quickly with fairly simple punching and scoring tools, requiring no more than the patience and eye accuracy of a leatherworker.

A detail of the star punch and my sample reconstruction of the Museum of London Jerkin. Photograph by Sophie Pitman

A detail of the star punch and my sample reconstruction of the Museum of London Jerkin. Photograph by Sophie Pitman

I am very grateful to Worn Through for the support that enabled me to make research trips to London, and to discuss my research in this blog. I would also like to thank Tim Long, Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London, for his help and assistance. Thanks also to Hilary Davidson for her kind generosity – electronically and in person – of information and encouragement. I would also like to thank Karl Robinson and The School of Historical Dress, and my supervisor Professor Ulinka Rublack for their support and interest in the academic value of historical reconstruction. I have much more work ahead of me, especially with regard to the archaeological provenance of many of the pieces, but I am sure that these investigations and the photographs that I was able to take (though unfortunately not able to share online at this stage) will form a central part of my PhD thesis, which – in due course, will hopefully be adapted for publication.

If you have any suggestions, comments, or tips for Sophie, please feel free to leave a comment!

[1] For images and information, see ‘Jerkin, 36.237’: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/object.aspx?objectID=object-118831&start=474&rows=1

[1] Vanessa Harding, ‘Recent Perspectives on Early Modern London,’ The Historical Journal, Volume 47, Issue 2 (June 2004), pp 435 – 450, 447

[2] In particular see Janet Arnold, Patterns of Fashion 3: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women, c1560-1620. London; New York: Macmillan ; Drama Book, 1985 and Janet Arnold, Jenny Tiramani, and Santina Levey, Patterns of Fashion 4: The Cut and Construction of Linen Shirts, Smocks, Neckwear, Headwear and Accessories for Men and Women C. 1540 – 1660. Unabridged edition. (Hollywood, CA: Macmillan, 2008).

 

[3] For photographs and close examination of the Doublet, see ‘Early Doublet in The Museum of London,’ (9 December 2011) http://thegoodwyfe.blogspot.com.es/2011/12/early-doublet-in-museum-of-london.html

[4] John Stow, A Survey of London ed. H. Morley, (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1997), 445-6. As quoted in Maria Hayward, Rich Apparel: Clothing and the Law in Henry VIII’s England (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 122.

[5]1571 13 Eliz. cap, 19 as in George Nicholls, A History of the English Poor Law in Connection with the State of the Country and the Condition of the People, (reprint Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, 2006), 173-4.

[6] Fortunately, many of these caps have been photographed and documented in the online catalogue: http://collections.museumoflondon.org.uk/Online/. Thanks to Hilary Davidson and Jane Malcolm Davis for sharing their prepublication copy of ‘“He is of no account … if he have not a velvet or taffeta hat”: A survey of sixteenth century knitted caps’ which is forthcoming….

 

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