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Historic English Costumes and How to Make Them

Historic English Costumes and How to Make Them

by Kristina Seleshanko (Introduction)

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As an early-20th-century English artist with an interest in historical subjects, Talbot Hughes began collecting clothing for accuracy in his paintings — and the pursuit grew into a labor of love. His magnificent costume collection was eventually displayed in Harrod's and has become a permanent part of the collection of the venerable Victoria and Albert


As an early-20th-century English artist with an interest in historical subjects, Talbot Hughes began collecting clothing for accuracy in his paintings — and the pursuit grew into a labor of love. His magnificent costume collection was eventually displayed in Harrod's and has become a permanent part of the collection of the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum in London. In this well-researched guide, Hughes traces the evolution of English fashions from the grass-cloth wraps of prehistoric times to the luxurious gowns of the Victorian era. 
Arranged chronologically and by British reigns, this splendid compilation includes over 300 illustrations of period fashions for men and women and 94 photos of historic garments. Pictured are tunics and tights from the thirteenth century, Elizabethan gowns with starched ruff collars, Charles I cavaliers with lace-collared jackets and breeches, a five-century array of boots and shoes, an assortment of elaborate wigs, embroidered waistcoats, quilted petticoats, plumed headdresses, and other dashing designs of the past. More than a history of British style, it's also a dressmaker's delight, with scaled-down patterns for 67 authentic costumes — and a perfect reference for fashion designers, stylists, and historians. 

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Fashion and Costumes Series
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Historic English Costumes and How to Make Them

By Talbot Hughes

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2009 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13635-6



THE woman's attire would have been chiefly a shortish skirt or wrap of coarse linen, wool, or leather, gathered in front or folded at one hip; grass cloth may also have been in use in most primitive tribes. Probably the upper part of the body was kept bare, except for many ornaments and necklaces, but a bodice or jacket cut in the same simple form as the male shirt, with a heavy belt or girdle, would have been used, and certainly a large shawl, which could be wrapped over the head and round the figure during inclement hours, Dyed or painted patterns on the cloths might well have been also in use, their chief designs being stripes, circles or dots, zigzag lines, diamonds and plaid squares, rope patterns and plaited patterns. The hair would have been loose, plaited, or coiled on top, held by bone pins or circlets of bronze.


We have little description or illustration to certify the actual dress of the early inhabitants of Britain, but we can draw conclusions with pretty certain assurance, from the knowledge of their mode of living. From their attainments in artistic design and handiwork, it is clear they had arrived at a very high state of savage culture before the Roman invasion; and we have only to study the better types of savage life still in progress, to picture how our own primitive race would be likely to dress under the conditions of climate. The thousands of "finds," which accumulate evidence every year, give us a closer acquaintance with their customs and work. The rest we must imagine from our general knowledge of what they had to contend with in climate, forest, cave, and floods.

These early people, it is presumed from certain discoveries, had long known the art of coarsely weaving flax and wool, which must soon have been in general use, from its being healthier and cleaner than the garments of skin. And very probably a coarse linen, with simple dyes of red, blue, yellow, and brown, was in use here when the Romans came.

The head-dress consisted of a cap of fur or wool, probably decorated with a feather, over loose and most likely very unkempt hair falling to the shoulders. The Gauls cut their locks from the back of the head, often tying up the remainder in a tuft on the top; no doubt the hair was sometimes plaited or pinned up with wood, bone, or bronze ornaments. Bone pins, teeth, and boar tusks were carried in the ears, as well as studs of bone or stone in the underlip, and even the cheek may have been so decorated, as it was amongst the Esquimaux. The face and body were painted with red and white ochre and a blue stain. The neck was adorned with strings of teeth, stones, amber, jet, bronze, and probably beads of glass or baked clay coloured. Amulets and tokens, armlets and bracelets were all in use. Also the torque, a twisted rod of gold flattened or curled together at the ends, was a mark of dignity. A wristlet of wood, bone, or leather was worn when the bow and arrows were used. The arms were a spear of flint or bronze and a dagger of the same, a hatchet or heavy club, a mace studded with flint or bronze spikes, and the sling, which would have necessitated a leather wallet to carry the stones; fish spears and snags. Also the bolas for felling cattle seems to have been known; in fact nearly all the usual implements appertaining to savage life were in use.

The first item of male attire was of two skins fastened at the shoulders, and from this we get the early chasuble form (which may be so beautifully treated, even to the present time), girt with a leather thong or strap at the waist. One skin lapped the other, and hardly needed sewing together at the sides, while thus it was easier to throw off; it may also have been tied up between the legs. The fur was worn both inside and out, according to the weather; this large skin wrap would also be worn crossways with the right shoulder free, and the simple cloak of various lengths with a hole for the head to pass through was no doubt one of the first discoveries in costume.

A loin cloth or skin may have been worn alone, caught up through the legs and fastened at the back of the waist with a heavy belt, and set well down the hips. This would hold a number of personal necessities, in the shape of a wallet and dagger. The legs would be wrapped with skins, tied up or crossed by leather or sinew thongs, or with hemp or grass rope. Skins may have been also used on the feet, gathered and tied above the instep and round the ankle.

The enumeration of these items will give a pretty definite idea of how the early race would appear in their more or less attired form. In fighting, they cleared for action (as it were) and discarded all clothing, their only protection being a shield of wicker or wood covered with leather; it may have been studded with bronze plates or painted with grotesque characters, as were their own bodies, in true savage style, to strike fear into their enemies; it is even possible feather decorations formed part of their "get up."



THE female head-dress consisted chiefly of flowing hair banded with a circlet of various shapes, but a development of braiding plaits is found very early, and the hair was probably arranged so before the Roman era. These plaits were generally brought over the shoulder to the front, the hair being parted in the centre, thus making an oval forehead. Various caps began to show originality, and jewels were set in the centre of the forehead on the little crown-like hat, which must have been most becoming. Squares of coloured stuffs were draped over the head and shoulders, sometimes upon white linen squares, and many ladies began to bind the face and head, shutting out the hair, in the 8th century. The kerchief draping is very important to study, because it was the general mode amongst the people.

Heavy collars of ornament and strings of beads, hanging even to the waist, are noticeable features of these centuries, also large ear-rings.

A full cloak, with a large clasp or brooch, opened in front, or was turned to free one shoulder; there was also a long "drape" thrown round over the opposite shoulder or brought picturesquely over the head.

The ecclesiastical form of cloak as described in the male attire was also formed about the 6th century; its graceful line was frequently bordered completely with a band of ornament, and it was clasped just across the breasts.

The complete circular cloak, with a hole for the head, is seen very early, decorated with a pinked edge, which may also be noted on some of the short dresses of the middle classes. Aprons are no doubt of the earliest origin. A loose tunic falling to the hips was girded rather high up the body, as in the classic dress, and bands passing both outside or crossing between the breasts and going over the shoulder came from the same source; these were with, or without, short sleeves to the elbow. A long loose robe was the chief attire to the 6th century, belted rather high in the waist, and caught up with a girdle at the hips; these girdles gave a great interest to the early centuries, with the art of arranging the fullness of skirt into its hold.

From the 6th century the dress became closer fitting, and a short bodice is seen; the neck was cut very low, either square or round in shape, and this style had short tight sleeves or tight sleeves to the wrist. The later tunic of the 9th century marked the beginning of the slit-open upper sleeve, and a greater length of the neck opening, which came to be fastened down the front to the waist.

The early skirts (to the 6th century) were hung from the hips, and were often attached to a heavy girdle band, the fullness was gathered mostly at the back and front; other skirts hung from a higher belt and were again caught up in the girdle. A V-shaped neck setting was worn by the Franks, from which probably came the shaped front piece that will interest us in the 13th century. The shoes were similar to the male shapes described later, and the same mode of binding the stockings was sometimes imitated.


In taking the long period from the Roman occupation to the 10th century, we can discover a real development of style in costume, as with the system of vassalage a distinction of class arose. No doubt the Romans introduced a finer tuition of weaving, needlecraft, decoration, and dyeing; and later the various peoples coming from the Continent, when settled under Alfred in the 9th century, produced a solid style of barbaric splendour.

The male hair dressing, from the rugged mass of hair, soon became well combed and trimmed square across the neck: ear-rings may still have been in use by some nobles till the 11th century, and chaplets were worn upon the hair. The Saxon beard was divided into two points. Small round tight caps of wool, fur, or velvet, and rush or straw hats of a definite shape were in use to the 10th century. Tight caps, with lappets tied under the chin, and hoods appear on the short capes about the 8th century, or probably earlier. The garment was of the simplest form, cut like a plain square loose shirt to the middle of the thigh, and this was put on over the head. The opening to pass the head through was the first part to receive a band of decoration. The sides were sometimes opened to the hips and the front caught between the legs and held at the waist. A garment opened down the front, and another wrapped across to either shoulder is also seen. A belt girt the waist, and the tunic was pulled loosely over it. This also carried the essential requirements in the shape of a pouch, dagger, knife, comb, sword, &c. The neck was ornamented with chains of bronze, gold, beads, and charms, and up to the 8th century a bronze ornamental armlet was worn, besides a wristlet.

The men of the ruling class from the 8th century were clothed in a long garment of simple shape, falling to the ankle, richly bordered at the hem and neck. This generally had long tight sleeves, and often over this a shorter tunic, reaching just below the knee, sometimes sleeveless, or with rather full sleeves tightening to the wrist.

A plain square chasuble shape was in fashion from the 8th century, reaching to the bottom of the calf of the leg, and richer materials began to be used; no belt was passed round this, as it was allowed to fall straight.

Loose breeches were worn from very early times, and a loose trouser to the ankle, being tied there or bound crosswise from the boot right up the thigh. The same binding was done even with the bare legs, and later tights, close-fitting short breeches and woollen tights, became a feature in the 10th century, and with the latter an ornamental knee-piece or garter below the knee sometimes finished the strappings.

The cloak was the "grand garment," heavily banded with ornament and fastened with a large clasp on one shoulder, or in the breast and centre. Long circular cloaks of varying lengths, put on over the head, were much favoured, and when caught up at the sides on either shoulder gave a fine draped effect.

Another cloak of ecclesiastical character, sloping in a curve from the neck and not meeting in front, is seen on many notable figures from the early 8th century, large clasps bridging the width low down on the chest.

No doubt the sandal of various forms was much used for footwear through this period, also a simple low shoe, which was held on by the leg-strappings, as about the 8th century shoes are seen with loops at the upper edge, these being attachments for the binding, and this was no doubt a method from the prehistoric times.

There was also a soft boot reaching to the calf, laced up the front; and, after the 8th century, a rather pointed shoe, open down the instep, laced, tied, or gathered into a buckle about the ankle.



THE head-dress of women now began to show a preference to confine the hair with nets and to close in the face, which continued till the 15th century. The circlet and long plait or plaits and the flowing hair remained till the 14th century. In the 12th century we discover the hair gathered in nets at either side of the head, covering the ears. A low-crowned hat was bound over with a band of lawn or fine material passing underneath the chin, otherwise the plaits were looped up under a circlet which was also worn with the flowing hair.

A square effect was aimed at in the 13th century with tight side-plaits bound into a shape or netted hair was strapped to the head as in Fig. 11 (see p. 65). A fall of fine material softened the hard effect, and many ladies of quality bound the face, neck, and head in the wimple of fine linen, sometimes gathering this to the same quaint shape of the netted hair. I give a variety of these settings on page 65. A kerchief of linen coming round the neck was brought up tightly round the face and festooned on the top of the head, while another piece was pinned close to the brows and fell loosely to the shoulders, being often held on by a circlet as well.

This character was maintained till the early 14th century, when a style of high peaked hats came into evidence, one shape of which became the most imposing feature of historic costume in the 15th century. It was still but a simple form in the middle of the 14th century, for another shape first gained predominance. Early in this century also may be noted a curious shape like the cap of liberty, usually with a long tail at the back as drawn on page 59. This carried design to the eccentric forms of the pig-tailed hood, and then the rival of the high peaked hat took its place towards the end of the 14th century—a cushioned head-dress, which rose and divided in a hornlike structure. It started as in Fig. 25, and I have illustrated its progress; the veil draping was a great feature, giving plenty of scope for individual fancy. It was, as a rule, richly decorated with gold and jewels, and the hair was completely enclosed in a gold net and a tight-fitting cap to hold this erection. Large drop ear-rings were much worn, and a fine chain of gems encircled the neck or fell to the breast.

In the 10th century a long close-fitting robe was in fashion, sometimes with a deep V-shaped neck opening, though usually the neck was cut to a round form. The sleeves were tighter with a small cuff, but usually it was a falling sleeve with a square or round end over a tight under-sleeve. The outer sleeve varied much in length, from the elbow or hand dropping even to the ground; it was narrow and widened through the 14th century, when its edge was cut into various patterns as in Fig. 18 (see p. 79). In the 13th century we notice a long sleeve opened at the elbow for the under sleeve to come through, which beautiful style continued to the middle of the 17th century.

With the 10th century came the first corselet from the waist to the hip, clasping a loose tunic with an under-dress taking a long pointed train. The manner of tucking the tunic under the corselet when it was worn over it, and so creating festoons, is worthy of notice as interesting in arrangement and design.

The 13th century parti-coloured and striped dresses foreshadowed the heraldic fashion, which must be studied for its proportion and treatment of decorative colour-values in counterchange to get the true value of its noble effects.

A great feature now appears in the chasuble-shaped front or setting to a closely cut jacket. This ultimately becomes the decorative stomacher through the later periods, and it is very interesting to note its development.

In the 13th century this jacket was a fur construction of a long simple form opened at the sides to the hips for the sleeves to come through; it had a straight hem or was rounded at the front points, and a chasuble form of it was treated as in Fig. 13 or in conjunction with a short cape; it was chiefly a decoration of ermine. It grew into a complete jacket, and in the 14th century it was heavily ornamented with gems; and the simple front, from being a feature outside the jacket, was later often enclosed at the sides. The jacket itself is beautiful in form and proportion, and the curved band of design over the hips makes a nice foil to the curved front. This pattern is plainly derived from the effect of the rich girdle that was at first seen through the side openings and few jackets are without it, the usual shaping of the neck with most of these was square.


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Meet the Author

Talbot Hughes was a painter and designer whose historical costumes were exhibited in London's Victoria and Albert Museum. He was the author of several books on fine art and costume design.

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