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RH209 - Netherlandish Working Women's Outfit

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Step out of that Aertsen painting with our Netherlandish pattern!

Get our full-size paper patterns with complete instructions and historical notes for Netherlandish Working Woman's smock, kirtle, jacket, stomacher, sleeves, partlets, aprons, and caps.  Everything for the perfect outfit in this single pattern.

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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:


16th century Netherlandish Working Women


Typically, when one looks to period art for information on clothing, one finds the garb of the nobility and the wealthy, not the clothing of the people.  Yet when we portray this era, we need to represent the lower orders as well as the upper class.  What is one to do when information of the clothing of the lower orders isn’t forthcoming?

Thank God for Dutch painters!  Except for the particular headdress worn by some of the subjects, the lower class women depicted by Netherlandish artists Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer are not dressed much differently from than working women in 1560s England.  

That being said, their clothing is distinct from the clothing of the real peasants (country people) painted by Pieter Brueggel the Elder in the same decade.  This is not surprising since Aertsen and Beuckelaer were born and lived in the large cities 

of Antwerp and Amsterdam while Brueggel was a country boy who settled in Brussels.  It is important, therefore, not to mix the styles of working women of the towns and peasant women.  Even a cursory glance will belie any similarities.

It has long been suggested that the only difference in the clothing of the nobility and the common people in the Elizbethan period was the sumptuousness of fabrics, accessories, and accoutrements.  However, the paintings of common women by Netherlandish artists Pieter Aertsen and Joachim Beuckelaer show wealthy women wearing typical 1560s Elizabethan dress standing alongside lower class women in underbust laced kirtles, partlets, aprons, and pin-on sleeves.  One of Aertsen’s Market Scenes from the 1560s (illustrated at left) shows a noblewoman and a common woman in the background.  The noblewoman wears the fashion of the time — shoulder rolls, contrasting sleeves, a partlet that discreetly covers the chest, a gown with a stiffened bodice and split skirts revealing a decorative forepart over a farthingale.  On her head is a coif, in her hands gloves, and the typically Dutch heuke  (not shown in the illustration at right) covers her like an aura.

Her common companion — more likely a delivery girl than a servant (who would have been dressed better by her mistress) — wears a sleeveless red gown that laces center front.  The round shape of her bust indicates that the gown stops under her breasts.  The partlet, open at the neck, covers but does not hide her shape.  She wears no pin-on sleeves and her smock sleeves are rolled up above her elbows — hardly decent!  She wears a black veil on her head but does not appear to have her hair covered in any other way.

Beuckelaer’s depiction of a village feast also shows common people and the nobility side by side.  In one section of the painting, a lady and gentleman stand between a common woman with a basket and an embracing common couple.  The lady and gentleman wear the same styles we would expect to see anywhere in Western Europe in this decade.  Behind them to stage right, a common woman in a dark green laced bodice and red skirt wears yellow pin-on sleeves, a collared partlet worn open, and a rectangle of white linen tucked around her as an apron.  On her head, a straw hat and on her right hip, a market basket.

To the other side, a woman in profile stands in her man’s embrace wearing a coif on her head and a partlet over her bust.  The same type of apron is in evidence, and her skirts appear tucked up in front, showing an underskirt or petticote.  She wears yellow sleeves, but not much else about her dress can be seen.

Obviously the dress of women working as cooks and market vendors cannot be the same as that of the upper classes.  Boned bodices, farthingales, elaborate headdresses and sumptuous fabrics only get in the way of the work.  Working in the hearth, the number of layers upper class women wore would be a liability.  Working women’s dress had to be above all functional.

This lesser number of layers and encumbrances is perhaps the reason we have so many pictures of working women.  Art historians tell us that these pictures of lower class women (commonly thought to be lustier than upper class women) working with food (a visual euphemism for “the flesh”) were meant for titilation, even when the stated subject of the painting was a biblical scene.  A typical posture seen in these pictures is with the body in profile, showing the full roundness of the bust.  Unlike their wealthy contemporaries, it is obvious that these working women are not flattened and stayed.  The shape of their breasts is quite visible under their partlets.  Often their pin-on sleeves are missing and their smock sleeves rolled up to their elbows and above, revealing white and fleshy commoner arms.  Possibly the best depiction of this phenomenon is “Cook in Front of the Stove,” a 1559 picture by Pieter Aertsen, illustrated at left.  Aertsen’s cook wears a red dress tightly laced across her abdomen.  Although obscured by the partlet, neither the lacing nor the dress reaches no higher than under the bust.  It is fairly apparent that the cook’s bust is only held back by her smock and partlet.

In the foreground of Aertsen’s “Christ and the Adultress” from 1559, a woman bending over in the middle of the foreground wears no partlet, showing us the low, round neck of her smock and the shape of her uncorseted breasts.  Other women in the picture wear partlets, but it is obvious on those in profile that the only garment covering their bust is their smocks and partlets.

This agrees with the only extant common woman’s dress from  the period, the Shinrone Gown.  This 16th century gown found in an Irish bog laces from the waist to under the bust.  The rest of the bodice skirts the outside of the breasts, leaving them uncovered but by the smock or leine.  Many have argued that a decent woman would not go in public thus attired.  This may be true.  In 1620, Luke Gernon describes a dress that sounds very similar to the Shinrone Gown and seems to answer the question:  “theyre bodyes come no closer but to the middle of the ribbe, the rest is supplyed with lacing... the ordinary sort have only theyr smockes between, but the better sort have a silke scarfe about theyre neck, which they spead and pinne over theyre breasts.”  Thirty years before the paintings of Aertsen and Beuckelaer, Germany painter Lucas Cranach made famous the dress of Saxon noblewomen that laced only under the bust.  In 1530s Germany, the breasts were covered with a brocade strip of fabric called a Brustfleck.  Such a garment is not seen on Aertsen and Beuckelaer’s working women, only linen partlets.

In most of these paintings, behind the lacing across the abdomen, there is something coloured, indicating that there is another garment on top of the smock.  It has been posited that another gown -- a back-lacing one -- was worn underneath.  It is far more likely that this coloured object is a stomacher, not a full dress.  In fact some of the paintings show these stomachers disarranged.  Beuckelaer’s “Five Elements -- Water” from 1569 shows a woman wearing a red stomacher under the lacing of her green dress.  The red stomacher is crumpled and overlapping the front of the dress above the lacing.  The ends of the partlet stick out from behind the stomacher.  An older women in the same painting has her obviously soft and unstiffened yellow stomacher is pushed so low that her breasts show over its top.  

It is possible that the women in these paintings are not completely dressed.  Performing manual labour near the hearth fire as they are, it would not be surprising to find that these working women had removed the top layer of their clothing either to remain cool or to protect it from soil.  Looking at their disarranged partlets, their missing or gaping sleeves, their bare heads, and their wrinkled stomachers, one gets the impression that an upper layer is missing.

A clue may be found by looking at the other women in the paintings.  Older women in the same paintings are shown more covered.  They wear black pin-on partlets over their white linen partlets with ruffled collars.  They also cover their heads, either with linen Flemish hoods or simple straw hats.  

Black partlets are not limited to old women.  Young women wear them as well.  It is significant that the shape of the breasts is not visible on the young women wearing black partlets.  Aertsen’s “Women at a Vegetable Stall” (left), “Fowl Vendor”, and “Peasant’s Hearth” all show young women wearing black partlets.  This black partlet does not replace the white linen partlet but is worn over it.  In every case, the ruffled collar of the white parlet can be seen above the neckline of the black partlet.

Another overgarment exists in the pictorial record.  Young women wearing jackets are often present in the painting along side the women in partlets and sleeves.  The ruffled partlet collars stand up nicely above the jacket collars.  In Beuckalaer’s “Five Elements -- Fire”, a working woman’s burgundy jacket appears very similar in cut and construction to the English Jacket so popular in the first decades of the 17th century.  Upon closer inspection, howvever, the sleeves are far fuller than the English Jackets and we cannot see the front in this particular picture.  The lay of the back of the jacket indicates that the front is not closed all the way to the bottom.

Rather than the sophisticated cut of the English Jackets popular at the turn of the 17th century, it is more likely that a working woman had a jacket made along more simple lines -- a rectangular cut that wastes no fabric.  The cut of these jackets more likely resembles the cut of an embroidered jacket in teh Victorian and Albert Museum in London.  This jacket, dating from the last decade of the 16th century, has no gores or center back seam and its side seams are under the arms instead of rotated to the back as they are in the later jackets.  Although covered in intricate embroidery, this specimen is much more simple in cut and may indicate the fabric-conservative way the jackets of common women were constructed earlier in the century. 

Another picture by Joachim Beuckalaer gives us some idea of the shape of the working women’s jackets.  In his 1569 painting “Five Elements -- Earth”, one of the women wears a burgundy jacket over her laced gown, partlet and stomacher.  The front of her jacket is unfastened and hangs open.  This indicates a straight-fronted jacket, not one curved to conform to the curve of the bust.  The jacket may even wrap closed like a bathrobe.  This closure method would allow the garment to be worn during pregnancy as well as allow access for breastfeeding.  However we have no pictures of wrap-fronted jackets so this is purely conjecture.

Although too small to discern much detail, both jacket and double-partlet options are seen in Aertsen’s Market Scene from  1550.  In the many people in the painting, only one woman appears in a white partlet with no covering garment, and even she wears a long black veil on her head.


Arnold, Janet.  Patterns of Fashion: The cut and construction of clothes for men and women c1560-1620.  1985:  Macmillan, London.

Arnold, Janet.  Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d.  1988:  W.S. Maney & Son, Ltd., Leeds.

The Web Gallery of Art - http://www.wga.hu



For more, purchase this pattern.

This information © 2007 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History


Easy pattern and fun to do. I sewed the complete outfit, except fot the shift and jacket, by hand in under 18 hours while conversing with friends and family. And even had a cat on my lap at one point while we were playing cards. Yes, I was sewing then.


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