Wednesday 3 July 2024

Women's nightgowns

Following on from the blogpost on men’s nightgowns, a blogpost on women’s nightgowns. As with men’s nightgowns this is not something that was worn in bed. It was a garment that was worn informally, for example in a bed chamber, but often simply when a formal gown was not required or expected. In 1597 Andre Hurault, ambassador from Henri IV of France, met with Queen Elizabeth I in the Privy Chamber. She said she had been ill and “excused herself because I found her attired in her night gown, and [she] began to rebuke those of her council who were present, saying what will these gentlemen say to see me so attired.” (1 p. 7)

Figure 1: Woman nightgown/loose gown. 1610s. V&A Museum


 What did a nightgown look like? It has been shown that Queen Elizabeth I had many nightgowns made, and that when they were listed in the Stowe and Folger inventories the same garments were referred to as loose gowns. (1 p. 139) The Victoria and Albert Museum has three loose gowns from the beginning of the seventeenth century in their collection, these might be considered informal nightgowns. All three date from between 1600 and 1620, in two cases parts of the garment have been removed later, all have had patterns taken from them. The first is of Italian brocaded silk which has been slashed between the brocaded motifs, it is sleeveless, A pattern for this was taken by Janet Arnold. (2 pp. 50, 118-9) The second is of claret coloured velvet, cut and uncut in three heights of pile, in a pattern of pomegranates and gillyflowers, the left side of the front and most of the back is missing, as is the silver lace which once decorated it. [Figure 1]A pattern for this is in Women’s Dress Patterns, book 2. (3 pp. 18-33) The final gown is of olive-green silk plush, again large sections, the sleeves and the silver lace which decorated it have been removed, and the pattern is in Arnold. (2 pp. 52, 120-1) [Figure 2]

Gown top image
Figure 2. Olive green loose gown. 1610s. V&A Museum


Early nightgowns rarely appear in documentary evidence, and when they do it is among the gentry and nobility. In 1604 Elizabeth Jenyson, left her sister her nightgown in her will. (4 pp. 3-6) Elizabeth was the widow of the Auditor General of Ireland and, living at Walworth Castle in Durham, had the previous year entertained James VI and I on his way to London. Lady Anne Clifford writes about her nightgowns in her Diary. In 1616 she wrote, “All this time since my Lord went away I wore my black taffety night gown and yellow taffety waistcoat”, and in December that year, “Upon the 28th I dined above in my chamber and wore my nightgown because I was not very well.” The following year she wore her nightgown out of the house, “I went to Church in my rich nightgown and petticoat.” (5 pp. 42,44 & 83)

By the second half of the century the nightgown had been influenced in the same way that men’s nightgowns had, copying the styles coming from the far east. Pepys mentions nightgowns on several occasions, buying one for his wife at the Exchange which cost him 24s shillings, and the following month his wife bought one for herself from a shop on the Strand. (6 pp. 1667, 7th September & 1st October) Nightgowns were still something to wear mainly around the house, when Lady Castlemaine “ran out in her smock into her aviary looking into White Hall garden; … thither her woman brought her her nightgown.” (6 pp. 1667, 27th August) In a 1703 play Octavio wishes his lady would “come along pat, pat, pat in her slippers, with nothing on but a thin silk nightgown loose about her. (7 p. 12) The 1690s doll, Lady Clapham, has a nightgown that matches that of her husband [Figure 3], the fabric of this may be similar to that in the play The Perjur’d Husband, where Lucy the maidservant asks “But, Madam, what's to be done with your Brocade Night Gown you tore last night? it can ne're be mended handsomely.” (8 p. 23)

Figure 3. Lady Clapham's nightgown 1690s V&A Museum


There was a fashion in the second half of the seventeenth century for women to be painted “en deshabille.” It was William Sanderson who said that it was Van Dyck "that e're put ladies' dress into a careless romance". (9 p. 39) As a result many women appear to be painted, either in their smock with some draped fabric, or wearing something that may well be a loose nightgown. Pepys wrote of Mrs Penington that she was to, “undress herself into her nightgowne, that I might see how to have her picture drawne carelessly.” (6 p. 1665 20th December) Mary Beale’s self portrait, [Figure 4] shows her wearing something that is kept together with a couple of clasps at the front, and the full length portrait of Frances Stuart, has four pairs of clasps at the front.  When Giles Moore had a nightgown made for himself in 1669, he purchased for it “a paire of silver clasps 1s 4d” (10 p. 123)