Costumes in history

Whenever you’re researching costume history, you have to take the images you find with a grain of salt! Most of the time, the people in paintings, sculptures, and photographs are wearing period clothing. Sometimes, though, they’re wearing a costume! This provides interesting insights into how the period you’re researching viewed the past — and also gives amusing commentary on what the portraitees couldn’t bring themselves to give up about their normal clothing!

This lovely lady on the left was photographed in 1879, during the height of the bustle period. However, the clothes she’s wearing appears to be from the Cavalier period (early 17th century).

Her costume quotes elements from both mens and womens wear of the Cavalier era — her 3/4 length sleeves and bodice rosettes are very typical of Cavalier women, but her sleeves are ‘paned,’ which is usually found only in menswear of this time (women seemed to have preferred light colored, shiny fabrics with unslashed sleeves). Lace at the neckline and sleeve cuffs (left over from the Shakespearean ruff) was popular for both men and women.

However, she doesn’t quite have the high-waisted Cavalier silhouette and the low, square neckline Cavalier women preferred. Instead, she has a v-shaped neckline that’s filled in with lace, and her belt (another  non-Cavalier feature) is clearly at her natural waist.

Here’s a bodice from 1630-39, smack in the Cavalier period. (The back is on the left, the front on the right.) These bodices were worn with stomachers, triangle-shaped pieces of fabric that filled in the front of the bodice. Just imagine how square the neckline would be! Also note how full the sleeves are, compared to the 1879 interpretation (sleeves were very slim in the 1880s).

Hairstyles are apparently notoriously difficult for women to give up. I’m still looking for good images to share with you all, but just try watching any period movie that was made in the 40s! The costumes are often fabulous, but the hairstyles are a dead giveaway…  


images from the Victoria and Albert museum


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