Delight in Disorder

Okay girls, it’s time to get serious. Let’s talk about clothes.

Disorder – or, if you like, ‘scruffy-smart’, is very much the look of the year. Especially if the year in question is sixteen-thirty something, and you’re moving in court circles, more particularly if your suitor is Cavalier poet in the court of Charles I, Robert Herrick.

Although it’s publication date is much later (1648, the year Charles was executed), this poem surely belongs to an earlier part of the era, the ‘Halcyon days’ that Herrick’s fellow Cavalier poet Tomas Carew wrote of, where:

Tourneys, masques, theatres better become

Our Halcyon days. What though the German drum

Bellow for freedom and revenge? The noise

Concerns not us, nor should divert our joys!

Those ‘German drums’ bellowing, were the sounds of the Thirty Years war, taking its vicious course on the continent. England (aside from a few mercenaries) was uninvolved in that bloody religious war, leaving the court, and indeed the land, free to enjoy the merriments the age had to offer, and poets, once their illustrious patrons were happily eulogized, free to write about important matters, like women, how delightful – or how mean – they can be, and how alluring they look in a certain aspect. Herrick’s tastes ran as so:


Delight in Disorder


A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness;

A lawn about the shoulders thrown

Into a fine distraction;

An erring lace, which here and there

Enthrals the crimson stomacher;

A cuff neglectful, and thereby

Ribbons to flow confusedly;

A winning wave, deserving note,

In the tempestuous petticoat;

A careless shoe-string, in whose tie

I see a wild civility;–

Do more bewitch me, than when art

Is too precise in every part.


(a lawn: a kind of linen used in dressmaking)


I think I share certain tastes with the good poet here, not least the ‘tempestuous petticoat’, and that promise of ‘wild civility’ – that is one sexy oxymoron! All those loose laces and strings dangling about, just begging for a court poet, for example, to pull them must have scandalized the Presbyterians at court.

Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, disorder did indeed become a la mode in the 1640s, as an argument about the imposition of the common prayer books and the prelacy in Scotland spiraled into a full-blown, bloody, multi-sided civil war across all three of Charles’s Kingdoms. Charles left his London court never to return as ruling king, and several Cavalier poets found that this noise did after all ‘divert their joys’; puritanism held sway in the capital and Charles’s supporters (among them Herrick) lost their livelihoods and sometimes their freedom. Charles, in the end, lost his head. Never a good look for a monarch.

From a fashion point of view, the outcome of the war was disastrous. The parliamentarian army won – they were known as Roundheads for their unimaginative haircuts. Christmas was banned, having a good time generally frowned upon, and fashion set back a generation


1 Comment

Filed under History, Poetry

One response to “Delight in Disorder

  1. Pingback: To Meadows | sweettenorbull

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