When two of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer’s sons, Jan Baptist and Jeremias, came to New Netherland in the 1650s, they kept in close contact with the Netherlands. They had to keep their family and business contacts informed about their work in the colony. Throughout the letters are requests to their mother Anna van Rensselaer, who was still in Europe, for clothing- not just to trade or sell, but for Jan Baptist and Jeremias themselves.
This seems counter-intuitive. Many desired items could not have been made in New Netherland, but high-quality fabrics were not difficult to get, and even as good-quality deerskins were shipped out of the colony to make leather clothing in Europe, Jeremias wrote to his mother in 1657 asking for “a pair of chamois breeches” from the Netherlands. (Van Rensselaer 48) Having your clothing made on another continent wasn’t even convenient. In March 1655, Anna Van Rensselaer scolded in response to a request for a hat, "You should have sent me the size of your head for I do not know that.” (Van Rensselaer 16) In 1656 she failed to send stockings “as you do not write whether you mean woolen, sayette, or yarn stockings, or whether they are to be with or without feet.” (38) By 1658 Jeremias seemed to have learned his lesson as he sent elaborate instructions for the suit and cloak he wanted his mother to send. (Van Rensselaer 109)
New Netherland’s records show tailors making clothing out of cloth brought into the colony from Europe. Women were paid to sew linen shirts, shifts, and other items. There were shoemakers and even a hatter who could re-dye and reblock hats. Residents of New Netherland could dress well while having most of their clothing made, conveniently, right in the colony. Why would these two young men get so much of their clothing from Europe when they could have had it made for them locally with much less delay?
Part of it was social status. In Austen’s novel Persuasion, the foppish Sir Walter Elliott cries out when faced with cuts to his personal budget, “A baronet must be seen to live like a baronet!” It’s a sentiment that the people of the seventeenth century would have understood. In the 1670s Jeremias wrote to his mother, “I am very sorry to hear that cousin Jan van Twiller is so careless in rendering his accounts . . . He did . . . go about slovenly dressed and I suppose that he must have been equally slovenly in his accounts.” (Van Rensselaer 169) Although this might seem like rude nitpicking, Jeremias and his readers would have understood that “outer appearance such as clothing, a large and well-appointed house, and possession of servants (and in New Netherland, slaves) were important ways to show that one was reliable.” (Venema 224)
Good clothing could represent status as well as respectability. Social rank could be considered divinely ordained, and sumptuary laws were made to keep people from dressing above their station. The Puritans of New England specifically prevented people from wearing certain items unless they were rich or had been rich, educated, military persons “in time of military service,” magistrates, and public officers. The restricted items included gold and silver lace and gold and silver buttons, both of which are mentioned in the Van Rensselaers’ letters. (Van Rensselaer 12)
There were no sumptuary laws in New Netherland, which was just as well as most sumptuary laws were completely ineffective. Nonetheless dress obviously represented social status there as well. In 1655 Anna Van Rensselaer sent over some kersey- a rough English wool- with the note that it would do well for the common people. (Van Rensselaer 17) It was certainly not for her own sons!
There was an important economic aspect to dress as well. Miserliness was a social wrong: failure to spend money meant failure to support those who produced or imported luxury goods. A century later, before the French Revolution, Montesquieu wrote,
“Were the rich not to be lavish, the poor would starve. It is even necessary here, that the expenses of the opulent should be in proportion to the inequality of fortunes, and that luxury, as we have already observed, should increase in this proportion. The augmentation of private wealth is owing to its having deprived one part of the citizens of their necessary support; this must therefore be restored to them.” (Montesquieu 97)
The Van Rensselaer brothers were supporting the producers of Spanish leather shoes, silk stockings, handmade lace, fine linen, silk ribbons, and perfumed gloves. The stylishness of their clothing was also important. In a letter of 1659 Anna Van Rensselaer wrote to Jeremias that she had had his new suit made with short lapels, which was the style, and was sending a black hat instead of a gray one, “such as are now worn a good deal." (Van Rensselaer 131) Both extravagance and modishness were visible links of the van Rensselaers’ ties to the Netherlands- and by extension, the whole colonies’ ties to the fatherland. The two brothers were also young, unmarried, and probably ready to enjoy some luxuries in life.
What, then, did Jan Baptist and Jeremias Van Rensselaer look like?
These illustrations by Gesina Ter Borch, from the Rijksmueum website, show the dress of middle-class to upper-class men. Black clothing was especially popular. It was both distinguished and expensive, as the cloth had to be dipped into multiple dye baths to get the desired shade. When Jeremias wrote asking his mother for a new suit and cloak in 1658, he specifically requested black cloth.
Jeremias really only wanted the cloak, but he was savvy enough to know that the way he wanted it cut would waste cloth unless a suit was also made:
“In order that the cloak may have but one seam in the back, I take the suit with it. (Otherwise I do not need the suit. If it so happen that brother Nicolaes or Ryckert needed a black suit, I should like to have the cloak without the suit, for my suit is still fairly good.) My cloak was stolen this summer from my chest, out of the house, and from the gray cloak I have had clothes made, so that I have no cloak.” (Van Rensselaer 109)
Half-circle or full-circle cloaks were a way to prove your refinement: a gentleman could manipulate his cloak, draping it over one shoulder or wrapping it around his body in elegant folds.
Suits and cloaks could be decorated with braid or with dozens of buttons. At the time buttons were a sign of wealth as they were made individually, either cast in metal by a smith or worked by hand in silk or linen thread. Crailo has two seventeenth-century metal buttons on display; one is decorated and made of brass.
Doublet or jacket sleeves could be slashed to show the fine white linen of the shirt underneath- no doubt a factor when Jeremias asked his mother in 1657 for “6 new (shirts), but of three of these the sleeves must be somewhat finer than the body and somewhat wider than they are usually made, for in the summer I am to wear them daily . . .” (Van Rensselaer 104) These were to replace shirts that Jan Baptist had borrowed from Jeremias and not returned. In spite of this, Jan Baptist and Jeremias remained close.
Breeches were loose and knee-length and often trimmed with loops made from yards and yards of silk ribbon. In 1657 Jeremias wrote to Jan Baptist, who had returned to the Netherlands, “Be kind enough . . . to send me my white sayette stockings with the silver ribbons which were attached to my black [breeches?]” (Van Rensselaer 60) Hats were also decorated with ribbon loops or with colored plumes. Like cloaks, they had to be worn and handled with a flair.
Men also wore ribbons on their shoes; in 1656 Jeremias and Jan Baptist received a pair of shoe bows made of ribbon (24), and a few years later Jeremias ordered black shoe ribbon (105). Gentlemen could also wear boots that could be pulled up to thigh-level, but more often they preferred linen or knitted boothose turned down around their calves, and worn over colored silk stockings. The overall look was one of restrained excess. A description of men’s clothing of 1665 has the note that “(t)he mass of ribboning, the elaborate sleeves of the shirt, together with lace frills flounces, and ruffles, dictate flamboyant gesture and movement to set off a very showy wardrobe. The art of dancing and deportment, part of a man’s education, influences behavior and is seen in the studied turn of the leg, point of the toe, play of the hands, etc.” (Hill 102)
Fortunately there are many examples of men’s clothing from this time. Several suits of Karl X Gustav of Sweden are preserved in the Livrustkammaren in Stockholm. Although Karl X Gustav was older and probably somewhat stouter than Jan Baptist and Jeremias, his suits of the 1640s and 1650s look just like the ones worn by Ter Borch’s gentlemen.
After reading their letters, it’s easy to imagine Jeremias and Jan Baptist wearing similar suits along with their silk stockings, their spotless white linen shirts, their gold and silver trim, and their Spanish leather shoes. Compared to the clothing of the “common people”, the clothes of the van Rensselaers would have marked them unmistakably as symbols of their family’s importance.
For more information:
The Cut of Men’s Clothing 1600-1900, by Norah Waugh, features information and cutting diagrams for men’s clothing. A .pdf is available at http://www.reenactor.ru/ARH/PDF/The_Cut.pdf
Isis’ Wardrobe features a collection of links and posts on 17th-century upper-class clothing and beauty. http://isiswardrobe.blogspot.com/
Patterns of Fashion 4, by Janet Arnold and Jenny Tiramani, has numerous examples of 16th-century and 17th-century shirts, collars, cuffs, boothose, and other garments.
Reconstructing History at www.reconstructinghistory.com has patterns for seventeenth-century clothing. The patterns often include historical notes; however, their quality has been criticized.
(2012, August 8) An amazing extant wardrobe from the 17th century. Retrieved from http://isiswardrobe.blogspot.com/2012/08/an-amazing-extant-wardrobe-from-17th.html?_sm_au_=iVVqWsjQWjHsnj2k
Colonial Laws of Massachusetts, 1651: Sumptuary Laws http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/sumptuary.html
Charles Baron De Montesquieu. The Spirit of Laws. Thomas Nugent, trans. Cosimo Classics, Inc. 2011
Venema, Janny. Beverwijck: A Dutch Village on the American Frontier, 1652-1664. State University of New York Press. 2003
Van Rensselaer, Jeremias. Correspondence of Jeremias Van Rensselaer, 1651-1674. A.J.F. Van Laer, ed. University of the State of New York, 1932
Hill, Margaret Hamilton, and Peter A. Bucknell. The Evolution of Fashion: Pattern and Cut from 1066 to 1930. Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, New York, New York. 1967