17th century Leaves

This post is about leaves in the decollete of 17th century ladies.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I’ve been browsing through pictures of historical clothing for years, and in the last week started to look at the 17th century again. This is a period I don’t know so much about, but there’s a drama to 17th century dress which is lovely. When browsing, I stumbled upon this portrait:


Catherine Bruce (d.1649), Mrs William Murray, Date painted: early 17th C Anthony van Dyck


It’s a lovely dress, with the huge over-sleeves, low neckline and jewelry. What confused me, were the little green things sticking from her decollete. They seem like little green leaves. It struck me as interesting, but I first dismissed this as something specific about this portrait. Maybe because she’s working with flowers?

But then I saw this portrait:

Margaret Stuart, Lady Mennes, Great-Great Granddaughter of Mary Boleyn, attributed to Cornelius Janssens van Ceulen, ca 1620


There’s only one leaf this time, but it does look as if those little leaves were more than something weird. Both paintings are  by different painters and of different women. One’s an oddity, two is a trend. So I started looking for more portraits, and I found two more portraits in which the ladies wear leaves. I must’ve looked through at least 40 portraits, so it’s definitely not very common, but it’s there.


French School , Portrait de la dame de Noixces de Venese , ca. 1600



Girl with fan by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1612-14

Girl with fan by Peter Paul Rubens, circa 1612-14


By now, I’m more certain that this is a fashion thing. But where does it come from? I’ve Googled a bit, but I haven’t found any reference and the 17th century fashions are generally a bit under-represented in online research. What I can find in common is that they’re all portraits of wealthy ladies between 1600 to 1620. 3 of the 4 portraits were done by Dutch painters. The first two portraits are of English ladies though, and their painters also worked in England. So we have two examples of English fashion, one French and one unknown, but probably Flemish (given the date 1612 and a bio of Rubens’ life). That’s an indication that the fashion was quite international. That is about all I can say about it though. So for now, the mystery remains unsolved. I’m very curious though, so I’ll keep looking, and maybe come back with some new information some day.