16th Century Women's Dress in the Province of Noord-Holland and Around the Zuider Zee

The dress of working class and middle class women commonly termed "Flemish Peasant" in the SCA is well-known and popular. Rightly so, as it's practical, comfortable, and flattering to many body types. There is also a good deal of documentary evidence available in the genre paintings of the late 16th century. In addition, excellent tutorials on the topic exist online, two of the most useful being Mistress Drea Lead's site:


and Mistress Constance Fairfax's site:


It's certainly the case that this style was very popular in Antwerp and Amsterdam, as well as many of the cities in Flanders and the Southern Dutch provinces. However, traveling northward into Noord-Holland and Friesland leaves behind the large trading centers and brings into view more parochial fashion sense. In point of fact, the cities to the north, in the 16th century began a differentiation in costume by village and city. In some cases, even different neighborhoods in a city had unique costume elements. No where is this as well illustrated as in the set of 24 panel paintings of Noord-Holland women currently on display in the Kaasmuseum in Alkmaar. Nor was this the only such set of paintings - at least two others are known. One of these is now in private hands, and the other believed to be destroyed during WW II.

There are commonalities and unique features present amongst the images. This image is hoechtwouder vrouwlabeled Hoechtwouder Vrou. The lady is question is wearing multiple layers. Most likely these consist of a hemd, or chemise, that has a darned-thread work embroidery collar, as well as text on the body. Over this is probably a kirtle, whose red bodice can be seen beneath the lacing. To this are probably pinned the tops of the brown sleeves, which end in velvet or black fur cuffs. Over this she wears a red gown, the bodice of which appears to be watered silk, with sleeves and skirt of a slightly different, but still red, fabric. Then comes the black partlet, again with a watered silk lining. It's trimmed with velvet bands, silk braid, and finely work gold-colored metal clasps. There is also a creased black apron, almost certainly of linen. And on her head she has a crisp, folded white linen kercheif. It is pinned in place, and probably starched to hold it's shape over her hairstyle. This becomes more obvious when one compares the "Maecht" or maiden from a given city with it's "Vrou" - as the maiden goes bareheaded.

In her hands she holds two wheels of cheese - a prominent product of her hometown. If fact, the high quality and amount of fabrics and trim required to put together this "look" implies a lady of fairly high standing. Perhaps the wife of a Stadholder or wealthy merchant. The text on her shirt and others often references Mary - implying a date at the beginning of the third quarter of the 16th century - before Calvinism became nearly universal.

This lady is the "Valfaueier Vrou." Her outfit is similar, but with distinctive changes. Her chemise is simpler, with nothing but a black band for decoration at the very top. Her pin-onvafluaeier sleeves appear green, the kirtle brown, and the lining of the partlet is black. Her simple apron is not pleated, made of white linen, and the ties wrap all the way around her body. The cuffs of her hemd can be seen peaking out beneath her sleeves, and her kerchief has less structure.

The layers, however, are consistent, as are the gold-tone clasps on the partlet. Red lacing holds the sides of the outer bodice together, crossing decoratively over the under gown. Missing are the black cuffs with their gold fasteners. This lady holds a butter churn, implying that her home village is prominent in the production of that commodity.

It is easy to over-interpret the small variations, however. It's as possible that this lady is less well-to-do, or dressed in more work-a-day fashion - accounting for the slightly less decorated outfit.

Most of the women in the portraits wear a variation on this style of outfit. In fact, 21 of the 24 wear the gown laced over a colored layer that shows beneath, black partlet, and apron of either plain white linen or creased black linen. The linen kerchief is always seen on those paintings labeled "Vrou" and never on those labeled "Maecht."

Our next lady is the "Broker Vrou." She fits the established pattern and adds some new brokerelements. Her black cuffs are nearly lower sleeves, and the lacings on her gown are cream colored. They also appear to pass through white discs. These may be bone, metal, or wood. It's rather difficult to tell, though textile historian Griet van Duijn considers them most likely wood.

Her under gown is nearly obscured by these discs. And she's holding onions and possibly parsnips. Of all the paintings, only the Enchuser Vrou and Enchuser Maecht also have these discs on the bodice.

Examining the entire set of paintings, a few things are clear. First, there were likely pairs, Vrou and Maecht, for each city. Some of these are now missing, which makes picking out what costume differences have what meaning more challenging.

Six of the 24 have blackwork embroidery on the collar of the hemd. Six have a white partlet with a ruffled collar, much like the English version, instead. One lady has both. Five have elaborate belts with what appears to be exstensive rivet patterning or other metal work. Nineteen have black aprons - the other five, more utilitarian white linen.

The Munkedamer Vrou is from the set of paintings now in private hands. It's less refined than the Alkmaar paintings, but very similar to it's mate in that set. Likely, it's a copy, but dated to the last half of the 16thmunkedamer century.

Colors vary amongst the painted ladies, but tend heavily toward red and black, with green, grey and brown also represented.

For those ladies wearing a visible hemd, it appears most likely to close in the back. Though this seems to be a rare method of construction in the 16th century, it makes somewhat more sense than supposing the pictured garment to be a back-closing partlet or closing on the side. I find it easiest to construct this garment as similar to the smocks found in Patterns of Fashion 4. It is unlikely to be a voluminous garment, given the tightness of the succeeding layers. So, simple rectangles for the front and backwith some triangular gussets to make walking easier make up the body. Tapered sleeves fit better under the rather snug oversleeves. Square gussets between the sleeve and body, as well as triangular ones in the shoulder seams where the collar joins the body are also helpful in improving drape and comfort.

The next layer is the under gown. There are two main possibilities for this garment. The first, and in my opinion most likely, is that it is a kirtle. It's the supportive garment for the outfit. It could also be a pair of bodies and a petticoat, but this would make for a lot of layers. And the Flemish costume, which is structurally similar, lends more evidence to the kirtle theory. Mistress Drea's pattern works well for this, especially if constructed to open in the front-side seams, as in this painting:

Getting up close and personal with this painting you can clearly see that the neckline is ever so slightly scooped, and that the red kirtle, lined in blue, has brass lacing rings up each side. vancleveThis would work well with the Noord-Holland gowns, as the front panel would show under the open laced over gown. The A-line cut would reduce bulk at the waist. And the fairly wide shoulder straps offer an ideal surface to pin on the contrasting sleeves. Thus, it fulfills most of our requirements for this middle layer, even though we can't see very much of it in the paintings. The lining of this gown is interesting, as well. It makes me more confident in making a kirtle lined in a contrasting color in such a way that it's more or less reversible. I get more "bang" from a single garment this way.

There is some indication that the ubiquitous Flemish peasant kirtle might close this way, as well. There are a few paintings that show a strange cut to the front of the kirtle or a pinned on garment that looks similar to this. The most obvious is this one by Beuckelaer, where the kirtle is pulling out under the lacing in an intriguing way. The yellow apron obscures exactly what is going on here, but it's consistent with a double front-side seam opening, especially with the front cut as a single piece.

The outer garment is a little more of a problem. It could be a single piece, or a skirt and separate jacket. If a single piece, the next question is what happens to the skirt, given that the bodice does not meet at center front. It may be open all the way down, open in a "v" down a length of the center front of the skirt, or constructed with a placket or partial4elements waistband, as conjectured for the Cranach gown. While the museum has some reconstructions of the dresses than treat them as two pieces, other elements of these garments are so wildly incorrect that I consider them impossible to rely on for any degree of accuracy. Again, these dresses are closely related to the more widely represented Flemish gown, and are more likely to follow that structure.

The sleeves may be sewn with the cuff attatched, or as two separate pieces. The gowns from different cities vary widely in the degree of decoration on these cuffs. In her piece on the development of the regional costume of Enkhuizen, Griet van Duijn supposes them to be separate. If fur, this would be a sensible construction. And some later etchings tend to support this conjecture, as well as showing the pointed back of the partlet.

Note also the trellis pattern at the hem of the apron. These etchings were made toward the very end of the 16th century, and show a variety of ladies at work. Thus their skirts are fairly short, and they wear simple leather shoes.

The parlet itself is trimmed with velvet, onto which a silk braid has been stitched. Some of edam2them are lined in red, while others are not. It closes with two finely worked filigree metal clasps, the upper often a little smaller than the lower. The etchings imply that the partlet is pinned on in front, and possibly has a loop that the apron string passes through in back.

Two of the ladies don't wear one of these partlets, because their outfits are utterly different. They wear what is more likely to be a skirt and jacket. This dress has puffed sleeves, rather unlike the set-in flat headed sleeves of the other gowns. It's trimmed in black, and she wears a matching black hat.

There is a general agreement that the local costumes of the 19th century that the Dutch today work hard to preserve are rooted in the 16th century costumes noted in this artwork. Changes occur over time, but this costume has become highly conserved as a "folk art."

Dutch costuming can be somewhat difficult to study. The southern provinces had more contact with and therefore more strongly resemble their Flemish neighbors. Occupation by Spain for a large portion of the 16th century meant that much of the nobility was Spanish or influenced by the Spanish. In fact, the Dutch had little sense of national identity or a native noble class until fairly late in history - having been ruled largely from outside. Not until the establishment and success of the Dutch East India Company right at the turn of the 17th century did the country truly encounter wealth and power. Most people probably had more provincial than national identity. This is especially true in the Province of Friesland, an entirely separate ethnic group with a separate language. Therefore, care must be taken to realize that people from different towns may have had relatively disparate modes of dress.

Bibliography, image sources, and other useful information:

The Kaasmuseum, Alkmaar: http://www.kaasmuseum.nl

Exhibition catalog for the Etchings by Willem Buytewech, Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen 20 Nov 1974-12 Jan 1975

van Duijn, Greet, "Het Enkhuizen Vrouwenkostuum 1550-1650," Kostuum, 2004, pp 43-44, 65-70.

"The Memory of The Netherlands," digitization project of the Rijksmuseum: http://www.geheugenvannederland.nl/?/en/homepage

Kirtle image courtesy of Katelijne van der Ast, An Tir, mka Mona Boucher

Many thanks to MaƮtresse Katrine de Saint Brieuc (mka Katherine Barich) for pointing me at many of these sources.