Styles of Dresses From the 1600s

Elizabethan dresses still donned the Renaissance fashion's wide, square neck.
Elizabethan dresses still donned the Renaissance fashion's wide, square neck. (Image: Images)

Events in the 1600s were key to creating the modern world. Scholars like Galileo, Newton and Descarte pioneered modern science and philosophy; Thomas Hobbes and John Locke jumpstarted modern political thought; and Europe quickly colonized the world. Fashion evolved, beginning with Elizabethan styles in the first quarter, followed by the cavalier period and a third shift during the restoration. Studying women's dress styles during the century provides a glance into the general fashion style during this period.

Elizabethan Dresses

During the first 25 years of the 1600s, women's dresses still had corseted bodices that flattened the chest. Corsets were made from ivory, wood or bone. The center boning in the corset was referred to as a spoon busk, named for the way it curved out to form a slight mount at the belly called a peasecod. The bodice had a deep center-front point. Bodice styles accentuated the shoulder, with wide necks and leg o' mutton sleeves that billowed out, then gathered in mid-arm. Skirts were slit into overskirts and underskirts. An undergarment called the farthingale was worn to achieve a bell or wheel shape in the dress skirt. Bolsters and bumrolls were stuffed rolls tied to a woman's front for a less severe silhouette.

Cavalier Dresses

The cavalier period ran from 1625 to 1660. Dresses were not typically corseted during this period, but they might have boning sewn in. Bolsters and bunrolls remained in use. Embroidered petticoats in quilted materials became common. The dress bodice was high-waisted with a wide neck and low, off-the shoulder sleeves. A ruff or collar might cover the open neck area for extra modesty. The bodice typically had a long peplum, created by gathering the bodice material at the waist so the bottom flared out a bit over the dress skirt. Sleeves were short and tube-shaped. The over-underskirt combination gave way to a vertical skirt that fell over the bolster.

Restoration Dresses

The corset returned to women's dress between 1160 and 1700 with a natural waistline and deep v point. It typically had heavy embroidery. Most dresses had petticoats at this point. A woman would wear several of them, with the top petticoat having decorative embroidery, as it was exposed at the bottom of the dress. Restoration dresses had diagonal seams to make the waist look narrower. The skirt was pulled open in the back to expose the petticoat. Dresses sometimes had a long train. Sleeves were typically short and off the shoulder. The area around the stomach had layers of graduated ribbons called echelle.

Dress Accessories

In the late Elizabethan era, women adorned their hair with jewels and embellishments instead of wearing hats. Men and women both wore earrings, with the pearl teardrop being a popular choice, as were pierced ears. Ruffs were often worn as well, a stiff, wheel-shaped collar around the neck to frame the face. Dress cuffs echoed the ruff style, flaring out underneath the sleeve.

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