Women’s fashion in the 17th century was in a constant state of shift. Sleeve length, waist height, and the popular silhouette shapes continually changed, according to the whims of fashionable monarchs and other trendsetters. The agricultural revolution was in progress and more peasants were uprooted and moved to cities. More clothing and accessories began to be produced in France and England, but still by hand. Divisions in class, nationality and religion continued to influence style of dress as Spanish Catholics kept the style of the previous century and conservative Protestant sects preached against fancy dress.
James I reigned in England from 1603 to 1625 and the visual style of the time was called Jacobean, corresponding to much of the aesthetics of the century before. Clothing was very stiff and heavy in general, with lace collars called ruffs jutting straight out from the neck, also popular in the 16th century. These collars used wire supports to hold their shape and became very ornate, while the rest of the outfit changed to become less detailed. The waistline rose slightly in clothing and sleeves were tight. Women wore circular hoops underneath their dresses to support the fabric and give it shape. The Dutch painter Rubens painted his wife Isabella wearing this style. In Holland it was popular to wear black with detailed long pieces called stomachers, extending the silhouette in the front.
Changes beginning in the 1620s began to create a new style for the 17th century and the altered style gathered momentum throughout the 1630s. The ruff fell, becoming a relaxed lace collar instead. Many stiff fabric accessories became soft pleats instead. Waistlines rose to slightly above women’s natural waists, but hoops were discarded in favor of a more vertical silhouette. In Northern Europe, women began to show their wrists and forearms for the first time since the Roman era. Folding fans were also popular. Peasants were not part of the fashionable world, and dressed in plain separate garments they sewed for themselves.
After 1640, clothing began to collect the amount of heavy ornamentation now known as Baroque. The waistline for women's dresses fell down to the natural waist again and the entire dress shape changed to be longer and slender. Sleeves became full, rounded and often paned in sections with other fabrics. Baroque became well known as an architectural style as well, and is identifiable through its detail and elaborate golden sculptures. Heavy fabrics were used in households and for gowns, such as silk damask, brocade and velvet. These thick fabrics gathered into pleats and folds created stiff, voluminous women's outfits.
The most powerful women in the second half of the 17th century were mistresses. Gentlemen of a certain level were expected to have one or more, but only of noble origin, not commoners or actresses. This trend changed fashionable clothing into a more revealing, and disheveled, style. Sleeves became gradually shorter and corsets were used to accentuate the female form rather than hide it. Necklines on women’s dresses dropped, even though clergymen preached against the sinfulness of fashion.
Louis XIV, popularly known as the Sun King, was the strongest influence on European fashion and created the Baroque aesthetic. He trimmed everything with ribbon, which was used on both men’s and women’s clothing in the 1660s and 1670s. After 1680, the style relaxed and trends for the next hundred years became very stable with the establishment of lasting political systems in both England and France. Changes to fashion became more gradual with less sudden shifts. Gowns became even longer and more vertical and women began wearing a style of wired lace headdress called a frontage in the 1680s to further elongate the silhouette.