As Seen in the Works of Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer
This page is a summary of the book research, dress diaries, recosntructions, and conclusions I have made in my analysis of the clothing worn by market women in the paintings of Aertsen and Beuckelaer.
The goal of this project is to create as accurately as possible a replica of Netherlandish Working Women's clothing. Considering that no Netherlandish working women's garments survive from the 1550s and 1560s (or any part of the 16th century), creating a true reconstruction is not possible. That being said, information from other extant garments of the time period — specifically those belonging to working class people — will be used extensively in this project.
There are a few rules we must follow when making choices pertaining to this reconstruction. Because this is not a theatrical costume, it is not enough that it simply look like the dresses in the pictures. It must also act like the dresses in the pictures. This means it must be a garment one can wear when doing the same kind of physical labour as shown in the paintings. One must also take into consideration the availability of materials for this outfit. While it is a given that no working class woman was wearing silk brocades or velvet, what is not always considered is that inexpensive wool was still a large expense for the common person. Therefore constructing a garment from the smallest amount of materials with the least waste possible is the goal. Fourthly, the materials used in the construction of this outfit must be as close as possible to those we know to have been available in that time and place. And finally, for the best test of validity of the reconstruction, the garment should be assembled using known construction techniques of the time. The information from contemporary garments can help in achieving these goals.
- Construct a dress that not only looks but acts like those in the pictures;
- Use as little fabric as possible;
- Avoid curves and other wasteful cuts;
- Use only materials available to working class people at that time;
- Use information from extant clothing and known construction techniques from the period.
The Analysis of the Paintings
(See below for "A Little Pedantry" on why I will not call this a "Flemish Peasant" dress2.)
So I've been staring at the pictures of mid-16th century Netherlandish working women by Pieter Aersten and Joachim Bueckelaer for some time now and I'm finally ready to share some of my thoughts and begin my reconstruction of an outfit of this type.
First I have to tell you the first thing I see when I look at these paintings. Boobs! Now, don't get me wrong -- I am not a woman obsessed by breasts. But the prevailing method of constructing these market women dresses produces a flat and conical torso. Matter of fact, one of the proponents of this construction actually calls it "the flat and slightly elevated bosom".
Friends, does this (left) look flat and slightly elevated to you? 'Cuz to my eye, that's big, round, and slightly droopy being barely contained from bursting forth by the strength of her partlet alone. As my darling Partner in Life would say: "Dem's some bosoms!"
And this isn't the only picture showing this silhouette. Matter of fact, in all of my flipping through books and websites and seeing photographs friends took in the museums, there is only one single painting where the bosom could be described as "flat and slightly elevated". Indeed, in that particular paining ("Fire" from Joachim Beuckalaer's "Four Elements" series), the woman standing in the left foreground with a chicken in one hand and a rotisserie in the other looks so conical and flat that it could be argued she's wearing boned stays.
But I fear I'm straying from the point. Here are a few more pictures of women who appear to have round and non-lifted bosoms:
If those are flat and slightly lifted, friends, I'm a monkey's uncle!
What I believe we're seeing here is a dress of the kirtle type laced over a soft unstiffened stomacher. In some of the paintings above, you can see the stomacher wrinkling and gapping as a boned stomacher or fitted underdress will not. In some the stomacher does not come up high enough to cover the breasts; it is merely located under the lacing and stops where it does. This varies from painting to painting. In the picture above ("Water" from Joachim Beuckalaer's "Four Elements" series) in particular you can see the edges of the stomacher sticking out past the edges of the kirtle, proving it is not an underdress. Look up!
Another breast-related phenomenon I've noticed in the paintings is that the front of the gown doesn't appear to cover the breasts at all. In almost every painting, the edge of the laced section is aligned with the edge of the shoulder strap, indicating that they are cut apiece and not cut separately and sewn together. The shoulder straps skirt the outside of the bosom and continue into the laced area where they draw a little closer because of the lacing. This indicates a completely different construction technique to that being purported thusfar.
Contemporary Extant Garments
The Shinrone Gown is a sixteenth century common woman's gown from Ireland. Today is it housed in the National Museum of Ireland on Kildare Street in Dublin. You can read an article about my examination of the gown here.
The Shinrone Gown shares much in common with the Netherlandish Working Woman's Gown. First of all, it consists of a bodice and skirt sewn together at the waistline. Secondly, the front of both gowns lace but do not close. Third, both skirts are not floor-length, indicating the working status of their wearers. Fourth, both bodices lack full sleeves. Many other more minor parallels can be drawn. Suffice it to say that these two gowns are of a similar type worn by working women in Western Europe in the 16th century.
Because of the similarity of gowns painted by Aertsen and Beuckalaer on their working women and the extant Shinrone Gown, many construction details can be inferred. In my reconstruction, I will draw upon the construction techniques learned when examining the Shinrone Gown and use those that seem appropriate to the Netherlandish model.
A Little Pedantry
You may have heard these paintings called "Flemish Peasants". This is a misnomer on both counts. I have heard many people use the terms "Netherlandish", "Flemish" and "Dutch" interchangeably. You need only do this in front of a real Fleming once to know how wrong you are!
Neither Pieter Aertsen nor Joachim Beuckelaer were documentably Flemish. Pieter Aertsen was born in 1508 or 1509 in Amsterdam, a city not in the Province of Flanders. He died in 1575 in that same city. While it is true that Aertsen worked in Antwerp as well, which is a Flemish city, this does not automatically make him Flemish. He was born in the Netherlands, not Flanders. Joachim Beuckelaer, by contrast, was born in 1530 in Antwerp and died in 1574 in that same city. While this may argue that he may have been Flemish, since we know him to be the nephew as well as the pupil of Aertsen, this is unlikely.
It is, however, safe and correct to call them "Netherlandish" as both Antwerp and Amsterdam were in the Netherlands during their lives.
Now for "peasants". The etymology of the word "peasant" follows:
c.1410, from Anglo-Fr. paisant (1341), O.Fr. paisent (12c.), earlier paisenc, from pais "country, region" + Frank. suffix -enc "-ing." Pais is from L.L. pagensis "inhabitant of the district," from L. pagus "country or rural district" (see pagan). Peasantry is attested from c.1553.
Aertsen and Beuckelaer did not paint people from the rural districts. They painted women and men who worked in markets in the cities, most likely Amsterdam and Antwerp, two of the biggest maritime cities in Northern Europe. Therefore, their subjects were city people, not peasants.
Pieter Brueghel, by way of contrast, was born in the town of Breda in the Duchy of Brabant, which is now part of the Netherlands. The Duchy of Brabant and the County of Flanders border each other. But modernly, Brabant is Dutch and Flanders, Belgian. In Brueghel's day, there was no Belgium (it was created in the 1830s) but that does not mean one can call a Brabanter "Flemish". Unlike Aertsen and Beuckelaer, Brueghel's subject matter was filled with country people in agricultural and tavern scenes, which is conducive to life in Brabant. These are true peasants.
Although painted around the same time as Aertsen and Beuckelaer's works, the clothing worn by Brueghel's subjects is very different. It is more medieval in style, making the unaware observer to assume it is from the 1460s rather than the 1560s. So when trying to reconstruct the clothing shown in the paintings of Aertsen and Beuckelaer, the clothing of Brueghel's peasants should be disregarded.
This may seem like pedantry to some, but in any type of research precise nomenclature is necessary to define and limit our subject matter.
- McGann, Kathleen. Unpublished notes made at the National Museum of Ireland, July 1998, and July 1999.
- McGann, Kathleen. "An Irish Gown from the Elizabethan Age: The Shinrone Gown." In Tournaments Illuminated, Spring '99 and https://www.reconstructinghistory.com/irish/shinrone.html.
© 2007, 2008 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.