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Fashion in Jacobean times

These watercolor illustrations by an anonymous artist show the highly layered clothing of the period.

Little is known about these watercolors, which belong to a larger group held at the Folger that has been dated to the time of James I. The artist is anonymous, as is the occasion for this wealth of detail. The costumed figures, as well as the nameless lovers, may have been part of a “friendship album,” or album amicorum, an early variation on the autograph book, into which pictures like these were often copied. Representing Continental as well as English dress and grooming, the pictures have much to tell both social historians and designers of theatrical costumes. 

As the images show, clothing of this period was highly layered. The standing woman, for example, wears red undersleeves inside her hanging sleeves, while the seated woman has a handsome underskirt, and her companion’s doublet and sleeves are slashed to reveal a blue shirt inside. Men and women of the upper and middle classes proclaimed the relative prosperity of the times by wearing materials such as silks and velvets, dyed in a rainbow of colors, often with touches of gold adding to the display. Gold embroidery ornaments the clothes worn by both of the standing figures, and the female lover has a gold purse. Typically for the period, all four figures wear ruffs, in a variety of styles.

Both of the women wear gowns with slimming bodices and padded sleeves; each has her hair dressed over a pad to give it added bulk and structure, and the woman being wooed has a wheel farthingale meant to extend her gown outward at the hips. For their part, the men are dressed in doublets and matching trunk hose with garters at the knee and colored stockings; both have moustaches (the standing figure also sports a beard) and are wearing swords. To emphasize the intimacy of the seated scene, however, the male lover has removed his hat, something men normally did not do in public—indoors or out—except in the presence of the sovereign.

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