Conduct Books and Women’s Social Bodies: Gentlewomen’s Dress in late sixteenth-and early-seventeenth century England

Joséphine Le Men just completed her Master’s degree in Early Modern British History at the University of Rouen (English Studies Department). Her dissertation focused on the way conduct books influenced gentlewomen’s social and material bodies during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century in England. Affiliations: MA student, ERIAC research group, Rouen University (Normandy).


The way religion influenced people’s lives in seventeenth-century England differs a lot from today. There was then a general desire to seek God that has become alien to today’s secularized society. The norms of good behaviour prescribed in conduct books played a key role in the way people – especially women – envisaged their duties as Christians.[1] Conduct books displayed a whole range of duties according to a certain hierarchy: God (whose commandments men and women had to follow), husbands, wives, servants and children. Everything had to be purposeful, even people’s physical appearance. Generally speaking, one dressed according to one’s social rank, but “there was a further requirement for women, regardless of the fact that at the day of judgement all people would be made whole: godly women, and especially wives, had to have a pleasing appearance, and look clean and wholesome.”[2]

Lady Anne Clifford (1590-1676), Countess of Pembroke, after Sir Peter Lely, oil on canvas, c. 1650 based on a work of c. 1646. Original Painting: National Portrait Gallery, London.

To understand the way people saw their bodies in seventeenth-century England, three Bible verses are essential:

I like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with braided hair, or gold or pearls or costly clothing (Timothy 2:9).

Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel (1 Peter 3:3).

For you were bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit which are God’s (1 Corinthians 6:20).

The body was mankind’s vessel, something which represented who people were on earth and it therefore had to reflect their souls and their piety. Women’s garment were to reflect their personalities, which is why plainness of attire was called for. “The lightness of apparel is a plain demonstration of the lightness of mind; so that whatsoever woman delight in gorgeous garments, she setteth forth herself to sale, and declareth evidently her incontinency both of body and mind”, wrote Reformation cleric Thomas Becon (1511-1567).[3]The concept of spiritual equality (i.e. men and women were equal before God) indeed appears to have been quite significant at the time.

This, however, does not seem to fit into Swiss scholar Thomas Platter’s account of English women in 1599, which underlined a discrepancy between perceptions and reality, at least among some women. Platter wrote:

[They] have far more liberty than in other lands and know just how to make good use of it, for they often stroll out or drive by coach in very gorgeous clothes and the men must put up with such ways and may not punish them for it.[4]

Although fashion was more important in London than in the provinces, this account of Platter still seems quite revealing.

Women often went to London to follow the latest fashions; and the capital seems to have been less regarding on women’s choice of clothes. Being fashionable in London was not seen as a weakness. As a result, Jane Martindale, from Lancashire, the sister of Presbyterian minister Adam Martindale (1623-1686), may not have been the only woman wishing to move to the capital in order to have more freedom of choice regarding which clothes she could or could not wear. This would either suggest a greater influence of conduct books, religion and the norm in the provincial areas than in the capital – or large cities – or simply a fear of stern looks, a fear of being looked at, of getting one’s reputation stained, which would have more impact in less crowded areas, where rumour may have spread quicker. This is very interesting as it shows, that although people were very and truly religious, peer pressure was also an important factor in the way people acted.[5]

Just as clothes were the mirrors of one’s soul, the veil was an external sign of one’s virtue and piety. According to the doctrine of Saint Paul, it was natural for women to be covered in public spaces and churches at least:

And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonours her head, for it is just as if her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, let her hair be cut off. And if it is shameful for a woman to have her hair cut or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God ; but the woman is the glory of the man (Corinthians 11 : 5-7).

A woman’s appearance should radiate modesty and humility. Both qualities were symbolised by the veil, thus a desirable item of clothing to wear.

Plus, a good woman was to be submitted;and this was indicated by her veil. For Puritan clergyman William Gouge, the veil was the continuation of women’s natural submission, as was their long hair : “An husband…is his wife’s superior…The very attire which nature and custom of all times and places have taught women to put on, confirmeth the same: as long hair, veils and other coverings of the head.”[6]

The veil also appears to have symbolised sin, or the quality of being a sinner. There was almost a notion of shame in it. According to poet and polygrapher Richard Brathwaite (1588-1673), it was through woman’s own (original) sin that they had to wear a veil: “Shee must…endure that with patience, which she procur’d to her selfe and second selfe, through disobedience, and put on what before she needed not, a Vaile to cover her Nakedness, and subject herself to these necessities.”[7]

Finally, in Genesis, there is a strong link between clothes and sin – as Adam and Eve only realise that they are naked once they have both sinned against God – and women’s veil seems to have been further proof of this. Women, as descendants of Eve, were to atone for her sin (a sin that they bore too), and the veil was a visible sign of their repentance.

But although there seems to have been a consensus on the necessity of the veil as representing women’s submission, in a post-Reformation period context, the veil became more and more problematic. Whereas Catholic women had to be veiled, “Puritans could be at odds with themselves if their reading of St Paul led them to favour veils for women when their objections to popish remnants led them to reject them,” wrote historian David Cressy.[8] “Making a woman wear a veil, they argued, was much too suggestive of the white garment worn in penance”, he explains.[9] In fact, women’s place in society was not at the centre of the debate for Puritans, as there was a consensus on the subordination of women. If the veil was put into question, it was due to the religious tensions of the time.

The veil was discussed because it was seen as a reminder of England’s direct rivals: the Catholic kingdoms of France and Spain. The veil was especially seen as something Spanish towards the end of the century, as some seventeenth-century travel journals about Spain show.[10] Once again, it can be noticed that abandoning the veil was not a question of emancipation, but, rather, a question of rivalry between Catholicism and Protestantism on the one hand and between England and its continental counterparts on the other hand (the rivalry between England, Spain and France partly fuelled the rejection of the veil as part of the anti-Catholic polemic).

However, as alluded to before, women’s length of hair also seems to have been, in itself, a token of women’s obedience. In Puritan politician and polemist William Prynne (1600-1669)’s words, it was “their natural veil, their feminine glory, and the very badge and character of their subjection both to God and man.”[11] Women’s submission being still apparent without the veil, it may have been for this reason only that Puritans increasingly agreed, over the years, to do away with it.

[1]NB : Catholic women are not dealt with in this study, as conduct literature was not really compatible with the way the Catholics envisaged their duties. Catholic people would usually rather inspire themselves from the lives of saints and martyrs. Even though sorts of replicas of conduct books existed, Catholic “conduct books” were more about the rejection of Protestant beliefs than they were about the reflection of what it was to be a good woman. For more information see Alexandra Walsham, Catholic Reformation in Protestant Britain (Surrey: Ashgate, 2014), esp. pp. 250-282.

[2]Anne Laurence, “Women, Godliness and Personal Appearance in Seventeenth-Century England”, Women’s History Review, 15.1 (2006), pp. 69-81 (p.71). The laws which restricted what people could wear and established that people should dress according to their social status were called the sumptuary laws. Here is an extract from statute “Who Wears What I”, issued at Greenwich on 15 June 1574 about “women’s apparel”: “none shall wear any cloth of gold, tissure, nor fur of stables: except duchesses, marquises, and countesses in their gowns kirtles, partlets, and sleeves…&c.”. Maggie Secara, (14 July 2001) “Elizabethan Sumptuary Laws”, [Online].
Available from: <> [Last Accessed on 29/01/2019].

[3]Thomas Becon, “The Sixth Part of Catechism: Of the Office of All Degrees”, in The Catechism of Thomas Becon (c. 1560) (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1844), pp. 302-410 (p. 370).

[4]Thomas Platter, Thomas Platter’s Travels in England 1599 (trans. by C. Williams), cited in Anthony Fletcher, Gender, Sex and Subordination in England 1500-1800 (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995), p. 3.

[5]Jane Martindale’s decision is further discussed by her brother in his autobiography. See Adam Martindale, “Chapter I, section VI”, in Rev. Richard Parkinson (ed.), The Life of Adam Martindale (England: Printed for the Chetham Society, 1845).

[6]William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (London : Printed by George Miller, 1634), p. 272.

[7]Richard Brathwaite, The English Gentlewoman (London : Printed by B. Alsop and T. Fawcet, 1631), p. 2.

[8]David Cressy, Birth, Marriage and Death : Ritual, Religion and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford : Oxford UP, 1997), p.217.


[10]Two examples : Madame D’Aulnoy, Memoirs of the Court of Spain in two parts (London : Printed for T. Hern, p. 1692), esp. pp. 182-3.
Philip Ayres, The Revengeful Mistress (London : Printed for R. Wellington, 1696), esp. p. 80.

[11]William Prynne, The Unloveliness of Lovelocks (London, 1628), cited in Laurence, p. 77.

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