"Antique Costume"

On Pinterest, I have boards set up for every decade.  Because I use them to get an idea of what people were wearing in that decade, I like to filter out paintings showing people in clothing that would not have actually been worn.  (Also, I've seen enough people with the impression that all portraits depict actual clothing, trying to figure out how the painted garments work, that I want to help out by marking them as costumes.)  I have a board set up for specifically "exotic costume", meaning the Turkish-inspired robes, often fur-edged, which are not very common among the specifically-for-painting costumes, but several types of dress get lumped together under "antique costume", as they were intended to be historical dress.


Lady Mary Fairfax, Philippe Mercier, 1741; Fairfax House PC1994/370
The most common (I don't always even pin them anymore) are the seamless "Classical" gowns.  With no visible openings and sometimes no waist seams, these were most likely not even costumes kept in the studio, but totally imagined - some artists, like Joseph van Aken (1709-1749), were employed just to paint clothing, and it's very possible that they would be practiced enough to be able to produce realistic-looking clothes and drapery from their imaginations, realistic enough to fool the viewer into thinking they're real and trying to interpret them that way.

Portrait of a Lady, John Vanderbank, 1737; York Museums Trust YORAG : 1470

The common aspects of this dress are deep, pointed necklines that show the shift; wide sleeves with no cuffs, often pleated up and pinned over the arm; no or few seams; loose hair with pearls wound into it; and billowing lengths of drapery.


Bridget Williams, Thomas Hudson, 1755; Llyrfrgell Gendlaethol Cymru PZ03977
I recently discovered the BBC's Your Paintings website (through Old Rags), and have been pinning and pinning and pinning like crazy - I think I added over a thousand pins within the last couple of weeks.  At some point, I went through everything tagged "portrait" (really), but as many paintings are still untagged, I started looking through the full works of various artists I'd already tagged for a couple of paintings.  When I hit Thomas Hudson, I started coming across many variations of this outfit.  A fitted, dark bodice with Tudor-ish jeweled chains wrapped around and pinned to it; sheer, full sleeves, held in at the elbow with ribbons, sometimes over fitted sleeves of a contrasting color; a lace medicis collar; pearls wound in the hair; and a cocked hat with plumes.

Frances Hort, Mrs John Parker, Thomas Hudson, ca. 1759; National Trust 872275
The caption for the above portrait was illuminating.  "Van Dyck dress", as it was reportedly called, although the first uses of this term that I've found are in the nineteenth century, was meant to specifically resemble seventeenth century clothing.  This sort of costume could have possibly been worn by sitters and by participants in masquerades (see Aileen Ribeiro).  Unlike the Classical fitted-but-drapey gowns, these have realistic seams and wrinkles that make them seem to have been on a real body when painted.

Phila Franks, Thomas Hudson, ca. 1745; Jewish Museum London JM 871
The Honourable Anne Howard, Lady Yonge, John Vanderbank, 1737; National Trust 653164

Rhoda Apreece, Mrs Francis Blake Delaval, attr. Enoch Seeman the younger, ca. 1730; National Trust 1276716

Anne Parsons, Daughter of Alderman Humphrey Parsons, Brewer and Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Hudson, 1753; University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education 6
This gown/type of gown falls under "Van Dyck dress" (and is more accurate to the seventeenth century than the previous).  It looks as though Thomas Hudson had a real masquerade costume in his studio for sitters to wear, since these appear to be the same outfit: a gown with slashed undersleeves and wide oversleeves (en canon in the Galerie des Modes parlance), front lacing over a stomacher, a parfait contentement bow on the chest, and a needlelace collar and cuffs.

Frances Hunt, Thomas Hudson, ca. 1755; National Trust 884948

Martha Tyrrell, Lady Drury, and Her Daughter, Mary Ann Drury, Later Countess of Buckingham, attr. Thomas Hudson, 1754; National Trust 355608

The Honourable Mary Howard, Mrs George Venables-Vernon, John Vanderbank, 1737; National Trust 653153
Then you have another Van Dyck dress, the type that is the most historically accurate.  A back closure, separate bodice and petticoat, and very large sleeves.  The only really glaring inaccuracy is the low waistline and the slightly domed skirts - waistlines and skirt shapes being the most common areas that end up matching contemporary fashions in costumes and art that are meant to be historic.

Lady Susannah Poulett, Enoch Seeman the younger, ca. 1740; National Trust 872249

For comparative purposes:
A Lady of the Spencer Family, Sir Anthony Van Dyck, ca. 1635; Tate Collection T02139
Portrait of an Unknown Lady, Called 'Mrs Somerville', attr. Jeremiah Davison, ca. 1740; National Trust 1219973
This last type confused me at first, but I realized that it's a hybrid of the classical and Van Dyck dress: solid-colored taffeta with wide uncuffed or pleated-up sleeves and extra pieces of drapery like the classical/antique costumes, and the front lacing of the second type of Van Dyck dress (III).  Mrs. Somerville's outfit is more involved, but Lady Vernon's below incorporates the front lacing in a more straightforward and less realistic way, though both appear as imaginary garments.

Martha Harcourt, Lady Vernon, Enoch Seeman the younger, ca. 1744; National Trust 653146


  1. I am suddenly in mind of proposing that someone--a favorite model of mine--pose for me in historical costume....


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