Bookmark and Share

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Jazz Age of the 17th Century

Under Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, there had been little spending. No gambling on horses, no visits to the theatre, no music or dancing - even Christmas Day was banned. One of the broadsheets of the time lamented,

We are serious people now and full of cares,
as melancholy as cats, as glum as hares.

But after ten years of gloom, how did England celebrate? Well, with an intensification of all the old delights. Fashion was at its most outrageous, with new styles brought from France and Spain, in an outburst of feverish spending.

Charles II tried to bring in a standard costume for men at court, described by John Evelyn in his Diary of 1666 as "Eastern fashion of vest, changeing doublet, stiff collar, bands and cloake", but Pepy's wagered that it would be less than a year before the court was back into French frippery, and he was right.

The country was tired of restraint and wanted ostentation - the more extreme the fashion, the better. Clothes were adorned with ribbons and lace and plumes. Wigs came in, and the carrying of fancy-hilted dress swords.

Pastimes became not only frivolous but positively juvenile. A favourite indoor sport of the young townspeople was pillow and cushion fighting.
Pepys reports:

"anon to supper; and then my Lord going away to write, the young gentlemen to flinging of cushions and other mad sports till towards twelve at night."

Another popular pastime was playing cup-and-ball - see all the ladies and gents playing it at the head of this page. Blind-man's buff was a fashionable indoor game, as was building houses of playing cards. The second Duke of Buckingham was apparently very skilled at this, and would spend hours erecting his elaborate "card palaces".
(left 18th century painting of a boy with cup and

Dancing was no longer stately as it had been before Puritan rule. Nobody wanted the dull old dances any more. New italian jigs and corantos were danced at a more lively tempo. It must have been the equivalent of the Jazz Age in the twenties after the staid waltzes of the Pre-war era.

And all at once three new beverages - tea, coffeee and chocolate, were imported within a few years of each other and at once became extremely sought after, despite their expense. Coffee houses became fashionable places for men to meet and discuss state affairs, so much so that the King became scared of what might be being said behind his back, and issued an order to ban them. But so numerous and popular had they become that enforcing the order was impossible and the King finally gave up the attempt.

And thank goodness, for we still use coffee shops as a place to meet and gossip with our friends, or to discuss the latest news.


  1. A fascinating post! It does seem to be true that a period of repression or hardship is followed by an outburst of frivolity.

  2. Hi Debbie, yes perhaps when the recession is over we can all enjoy a period of fabulous fashion, mad games and frantic dancing!