More than Materials — the Differences between Common and Noble Clothing

I’ve been playing around with construction of the Netherlandish Working Woman’s Outfit when something occured to me. I have studied many extant garments. But the ones that I have actually held in my hands have been common people’s clothing. Oftentimes the commoners’ clothing seeks to ape the clothing of the noble classes, but the cut and construction of the common garments is always vastly different.

For example, the Dungiven Jacket is meant to be a pinked doublet in the late 16th century style. Yet it is constructed by wrapping a single width of wool around the body, eliminating the need for side seams and the waste they cause. The body is shaped through the additional of a small triangular gore at center back.

Another example is the Dungiven Trews. Although of exquisitely fine wool, these trews were cut without a single thread of waste. This makes the fitting very difficult, but it conserves every last scrap of fabric.

The sailors’ clothing excavated from the wreck of the Mary Rose isn’t a bunch of jerkins and hosen with elaborate codpieces like we’d expect to find on Henry VIII’s flagship. They are wrap tops whose fronts overlap like kimono that can be made by non-tailors and fit a variety of sizes of men. They are cloth hose that only come to the knee. These garments lend themselves to the work of sailors and only vaguely resemble clothing worn by the nobility of the time.

As late as the 1690s, the Gunnister and Tawnamore coats were frock coats in shape and form, but were constructed with gussets and gores like a medieval tunic.

The Lesson: common people don’t waste anything. They can’t afford to.

As historical costumers, we tend to base common people’s clothing on the clothing of their betters but instead make it out of less opulent materials. But my research is demonstrating that this approach is a mistake. The difference between upper class and common clothing isn’t simply one of materials. It’s one of cut and construction techniques. Except in the case of second-hand clothing, common people weren’t having their clothing made by a professional tailor. They were making their own or having a local person do it. These people were not in the tailors’ guild and didn’t have access to the patterns tailors used. So they would look at an outfit and “figure it out”. We see this over and over again in Irish extant clothing. The outfit looks like something worn in England at the same time (or 50 years earlier), but the way the Irish example is cut belies the tailor’s familiarity with English styles. He knows how to cut clothes. He doesn’t know how to cut those styles, so he makes something that “looks right”.

Relevant to this study, the Shinrone Gown is a common woman’s gown from the 16th century. Like those of the women in Aersten and Beuckalaer’s paintings, it laces closed in the front and the lacing usually stops under the bust. Also like Aertsen and Beuckalaer’s working women’s clothing, the skirts are voluminous but short (just covering the knees). The Shinrone Gown was not found on a body or with any other garments, so we don’t know with what other garments the gown was worn. But if we look at some of the works of Aertsen, we can imagine the Shinrone gown being worn with a modest partlet and pin-on sleeves, or even with a jacket.

When I work on a garment or outfit for which there are no extant garments, I look around at what is extant and make educated guesses based on that. The Lansknecht Wams und Hosen look more like the woodcuts if you construct them of squares and rectangles like a soldier on campaign would rather than how a city tailor would. The Golden Age of Piracy Sailor’s Jacket and Slops are constructed simply, like the finds at Gunnister and Tawnamore and Lewis, instead of elaborately like the upper class garments of the same period in museums. When you follow these construction techniques, the clothing not only looks more like the pictures, they allow you to do real work in them. There is one test of common people’s clothing — work. If you can climb a rigging in reconstructed sailor’s slops and they’re comfortable, you’ve got something right. If you can milk a cow in a mildmaid’s outfit without worry, you’re okay.


© 2007 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

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