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17th Century Costumes and Fashion

Molly Schwichtenberg

The world of fashion has always had its influencers, people who set the style trends for the rest of society. Before there were Kardashians, there were royals and nobles whose taste and dress influenced not only the fashion of their eras but the looks to be found on modern runways. In the 17th century, these influencers included Elizabeth I, Henrietta Maria, Charles II, and Louis XIV.

The first half of the 17th century saw looks very similar to the fashions of the century before. In accordance with the stiffness and formality of the Elizabethan court, many of the fashions of the time were padded and rigid. This trend continued into the beginning of the 1600s, featuring high collars, low waistlines, and tight, constrictive corsets for the ladies. This lasted until the reign of Charles I and his marriage to Henrietta Maria of France.

Henrietta Maria was a child of Europe, with heritage and lineage from all over the continent. Aside from being the sister of Louis the XIII and aunt of Louis XIV as well as a princess in her own right, she also had lineage from the Medici family of Florentine fame. Her social status and her association with patronage of the arts put her in the path of trendsetting fashion, and she became an influencer herself. The influence of Elizabethan fashion is present in the overall look of the time, but the stiffness disappeared with the padding, and ease of movement became more important in the construction of clothing patterns.

Henrietta Maria was queen of England until 1649, and her son, Charles II became king in 1660. He was a trendsetter himself, and he had a fast friendship with his equally regal cousin, Louis XIV, the Sun King. The two kings together set trends in men's fashion that are still followed today, including creating the concept of a complete suit of clothes, called "en suite," from which we get the clothing term "suit." Prior to this fashion innovation, most outfits were mix-and-match, with separate pieces being paired to make an outfit. Louis XIV introduced outfits in which the pieces were made to match, and Charles II took this to England with a new piece called a vest, forming the basis for what would evolve into modern men's suits.

Louis XIV promoted fashion in a lot of ways because it was good for French trade. The French produced a lot of textiles, such as brocade and lace, and the Sun King even formed a dressmakers' guild, which attracted the most sought-after designers and tailors in France. He was known for throwing lavish balls, inviting nobles and royals from all across Europe and challenging them to show off their best fashions. Trade with the Far East brought new textiles as well, and France capitalized on this by becoming a major exporter of silk and other luxury fabrics. All of these efforts made France the leader in fashion in the latter half of the seventeenth century.

In England, Charles II was setting his own fashion trends, introducing the French styles and influencing the Catholic courtiers with their ornamented elegance. Decorations using lace and embroidery were often found in the clothing of this era. However, as much as Charles II was a trend-setter, he also set an anti-trend. Protestant factions looked upon all of this finery as an indulgence and developed styles that showcased the simplicity of what they considered to be a proper lifestyle. Nicknamed the Roundheads for their close-cropped haircuts and hats, they did not believe in excess. This is not to say they were not stylish in their own right, however. These cousins to the American Pilgrims showed their fashion sense through sleek cuts and stark lines, displaying through their style of dress the simple lifestyle they believed in. They nicknamed the styles of Charles I and II the "cavalier" style in an attempt to associate it with libertine behavior; this label endured despite its derision.

If Henrietta Maria, Louis XIV, and Charles II were the supermodels of their day, Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens was the era's most faithful paparazzo. A look at Rubens's portraits of the famous nobles and royals of the day displays many of the fashions that characterized the period. He painted notable figures including the Duke of Buckingham and Marie de Medici, and he earned a knighthood from Charles I. He also worked as a diplomat, work that put him at the forefront of European fashion in the Baroque era, preserving it for generations to come.