‘Yet oft to show her skill in curious peece,
She for her husband works a cap or band,
To make him more honor’d in the land…’
I first saw this embroidered Jacobean bonnet, labelled ‘Gentleman’s Cap’, in a Sotheby’s auction catalogue - kick-starting one of the designs for my ‘Wallpapers 8’ collection.
It is a typical example of informal headwear for a wealthy man, the gentleman’s equivalent of the ladies coif.
Covering the head for both men and women was an important sartorial custom. From a health perspective, head coverings were considered necessary to protect from chills and disease. In literature and paintings, to be bareheaded often signified emotional distress or even insanity.
More commonly termed ‘nightcaps’, garments such as this were actually worn in the evening, after the formal public attire of the day, rather than being worn in bed. Although only worn in the privacy of the home, they are nevertheless luxurious garments, most probably used for semi-formal entertaining.
They can be seen in formal portraits of distinguished male members of society. The portrait of Lord Howard of Effingham (1536-1624), Commander of the Fleet in 1588, is a fine example.
As with other examples of the period, the cap is made of linen, the crown constructed of four shaped pieces, and turned up at the brim. It is elaborately embroidered with coloured silks and gold metallic threads, the ground sprinkled with metal spangles (17th century term for sequins), all of which would have reflected the light of candles and fire-places.
Many of the embroidery designs of the period were often copied from the herbals, botanical picture and emblem books popular at the time, and patterns were often specially adapted for the shape of a nightcap. Here, typical of the early 17th century, berries, strawberries, harebells, leaves, tendrils and giant buttercups all jostle for their place, in a rambling tangle of hedgerow growth.
Embroidery, for the well-bred young woman of the time, was considered not only a suitable activity, but was also highly desirable. Much of the time allocated to her education was given over to acquiring and developing these skills. This treasure of domestic embroidery provides an insight into the lives of those who spent much of their time with the needle…