Confessions of a Costumier: Dress Warmly

December 12th, 2011 Confessions of a Costumier

Those that participated in Pennsbury Manor’s annual Holly Nights last week may have noticed a larger selection of winter wear for costumed interpreters.  That’s because our Sewing & Mending Society has been working hard the past couple months to create more cloaks, capes, and mitts for our clothing collection!  After last year’s bitterly cold event, we wanted to ensure that all our volunteers were as warm as possible. 

So I’d like to offer a little background on the 17th-century cloak and all the research that went into our reproductions!

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute

As with all clothing research, we use two main sources to find out how clothing was made and used.  They are both “primary” – meaning that they come directly from the period in history, rather than someone else’s later perspective on that period.  The first is 17th-century artifacts: garments that have survived from the time.  Often these are nicer, upper-class pieces, since they are made from valuable fabric that was inherited by descendents.  The early 18th-century piece seen above and below is from Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, which has a wonderful online collection of artifact images (the database can be found here).

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute. Notice the seaming on the bottom edge, seen above - fabric was typically cut in a half-circle or crescent shape, depending on how full they wanted to make the cloak. But if the fabric was not long enough, the remaining scraps could be sewn onto the sides to finish off the arc. Notice the way the back closure has been sewn into place, a variation on the styles seen below. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Courtesy of the Pilgrim Hall Museum
This is even more evident on this beautiful circa 1750 claok from the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA.  This cloak indicates it was never lined, often seen in more upper-class garments, and was clearly made from this technique of completing the arc with additional fabric pieces.  You can see this frugality also in the pieces used to create the attached hood, seen below. 

Courtesy of the Pilgrim Hall Museum

Cloaks were typically made of wool, as the warmest of fabrics, but upper-class cloaks were often lined with luxurious fabric such as silk.  Light-weather cloaks can be made entirely of silk or printed cotton, both expensive imports.  Lower-classes, however, were limited to domesticall-made fabrics.  Linen was a popular light-weight fabric, but wool was one of England’s biggest exports and was easily acquired. 

The exterior back of Pennsbury Manor’s reproduction cloak hood, based on the construction of the 17th-century example shown above.

Lower classes had more access to quality, ready-made fabric and  garments by buying them secondhand on the street from venders like the cloak-seller who is depicted selling his wares in the drawing below. 

Two Studies of Men by Luca Carlevarijs (Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum)

The second type of sources we use are images from the time period: portraits, paintings, drawings, engravings, etc.  In The Criers and Hawkers of London, seen above, late 17th-century artist Marcellus Laroon depicts the lowest class of life in London: street hawkers pushing their wares and services.  Their winter wear was typically not as fashionable as the cream-colored cloak we saw first, or the garments depicted in these two paintings.  Even the red Plymouth cloak was a nice example of the style, whereas the woman in the drawing above appears in a short, worn-looking cape.  Another engraving in the Laroon collection shows a woman with a blanket pinned across her shoulders. 

An English Man-of-War, taking a French Privateer by Robert Dighton?

I am having trouble finding 17th-century paintings with women in cloaks, as the winter scenes and portraits I’ve found seems primarily composed of men.  This is why I’ve included a late-18th century engraving below (notice the cheeky title!).   If my readership find any depictions circa 1680-1720, I’d love to be proved wrong! 

For those interested in making your own 17th-century cloak, there is very little information on cloak construction available online.  But after much searching, I did find a well-researched article with some good diagrams here.

I am just beginning to do in-depth research on these different garments and accessories, so I will definitely keep you posted as I continue to explore!


Written by Hannah Howard, Volunteer Coordinator & Costumier