Blog, Women's History

Clothing in 17th-Century Provincial England by Dr Danae Tankard

In our latest post, Dr Danae Tankard gives us a sneak preview of her forthcoming monograph, Clothing in 17th Century England, which will be released later this September.

My new book, Clothing in 17th-Century Provincial England (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), examines the clothing culture of men and women living in Sussex.  It draws on an extensive and previously unexploited range of archival sources as well as a wide selection of contemporary literature.

In the book I use literary sources to identify and explore contemporary ideas about clothing, the individual and society, the relationship between London and the provinces, and the causes and consequences of excessive clothing consumption.  I subsequently look at the production, distribution and acquisition of clothing in Sussex and the participation of consumers in these processes and the role of London as a centre of fashionable clothing consumption and the experiences of wealthier consumers in shopping there, either in person or by proxy.  Using a number of case studies I examine the clothing worn by men, women and older children of the ‘middle’ and ‘upper’ sort and try to identify the extent to which these individuals engaged with contemporary fashion and the influence of gender, age, social status and personal preference on their clothing choices.  In my final chapter I look at the clothing worn by the poor, including vagrants, parish paupers and the ‘labouring’ poor.

Whilst the book gives equal weight to women and men, it does try to explore how gender might constrain a woman’s consumer choice.  An obvious example of this is that wealthy provincial women had more limited access to the London clothing market than men because they were less likely to travel there.  For example, Sussex rector Giles Moore travelled to London some forty times between 1656 and 1679, typically staying between two or three nights.  Whilst in London he bought books, clothing and a range of other specialist and luxury goods.  His wife, Susan, in contrast, appears to have visited London only twice during the same period, on both occasions travelling with him.  A provincial woman wanting to participate in London’s extensive consumer culture was more likely to do so by proxy, using a friend or relative to shop on her behalf.  This inevitably limited her ability to choose for herself.

It is also the case that women’s consumer choices were constrained by their lack of financial independence.  After marriage, a woman’s legal identity was subsumed into that of her husband and all her personal property was vested in him.  Some husbands were generous to their wives but others were not.  When widow, Judith Gresham, married William Morley in 1639, coming to live in the small provincial city of Chichester, she quickly discovered that she had made a mistake.  As she wrote to her son, James, she was living in fear of his ‘strange combustions’ and he had left her with so little money that she had been forced to borrow some to pay for her letters.  In London Elizabeth Pepys had to ask her husband, Samuel, for money for all her personal expenditure until 1669 when, prompted by his guilt over her discovery of his affair with their servant, he finally gave her an allowance.

Women’s clothing choices might attract male opprobrium if what they wore was viewed as immodest or excessive.  Contemporary conduct literature accepted that women’s clothing and personal adornment could be more flamboyant than men’s.  As the author of Coma Berenices (1676) said, God was willing to show greater tolerance of female vanity since women’s adornment made them more desirable to those ‘whose helps and individual companions they are ordained to be’.  Women’s fashionable attire was acceptable therefore because it was a sign of their sexual subordination to men.  However, a woman who dressed above her husband’s status in ‘costly and garish clothes’ showed a lack of respect for him and damaged not only her own but also her husband’s reputation.

Whereas male sartorial excess was depicted in contemporary literature as effeminising and silly female excess was often associated with sexual availability.  The female equivalent to the male ‘fop’ was the ‘town miss’.  Whilst the character of the ‘fop’ was intended to be comical – his fashionable clothing and simpering manners the outward signs of a vacuous mind – literary depictions of the ‘miss’ were more savage and there was often little to distinguish her from a whore.  Cosmetics and other artificial enhancements used by women could be particularly contentious, attracting both moral condemnation and satirical comment.  In a savage attack on his brother’s new mistress in a letter sent to his mother in 1641, James Gresham made reference to her ‘rosy colour for which she is beholden to Spanish paper’, a clear sign, in his eyes, of her sexual availability – ‘she is my brother’s whore’.

As my book explores, there was, however, some equality in the literary treatment of men and women’s fashionable excesses, particularly notable in contemporary ballads.  For example, in ‘The Fantastic Age or the Anatomy of England’s Vanity in Wearing the Fashions of Several Nations’ (c.1633-1669) the author accuses both sexes of being ‘chameleon-like’ in their adoption of the fashions of other nations and says that he will ‘make excuse for neither’.  Some ballads set up fictitious male or female narrators who admonish the opposite sex for their fashion obsession and defend their own sartorial behaviour.  In ‘The London Ladies’ Vindication of Top-Knots’ (c.1675-1696), young women complain of men’s hypocrisy:

Some young men may flout us, yet mark what I say/ there’s no woman living now prouder than they/ observe but their many knick-knacks which they wear/ more costly than top-knots or powdered hair/ Their wig, watch and rapiers we daily behold/ and embroidered waistcoats of silver and gold/ likewise turn-up stockings they constantly wear/ more costly than top-knots and powdered hair.

IMAGE: Female fashion doll from c.1680, known as ‘The Old Pretender doll’, wearing a fontange headdress or ‘top-knot’ (Victoria and Albert Museum, W.18-1945).

DANAE TANKARD is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Chichester.  She is a social and cultural historian, mainly of the seventeenth-century, and focuses her research on the county of Sussex.  She is the author of Houses of the Weald and Downland: People and Houses of South-east England, c.1300-1900 (2012) and Clothing in 17th-Century Provincial England (2019).  She is currently working on a study of 17th-century Chichester, exploring the physical environment of the city (especially housing), its social structure, trade and government.