For my class in 17th century metaphysical poetry, I was asked to find information on the clothing described in a poem by John Donne. I thought you might enjoy reading this as well.
For Elizabethan courtly outfits, check out "Putting on an Elizabethan Outfit," a great resource site on 16th century clothing. In fact, you might enjoy looking at the gallery of 16th century woman's clothing on the website. For an expemplary portrait of the typical Tudor (as descrbed in the first link), you may want to look at this Portrait of Lady Jane Dudley.
In Elizabethan times, the makeup was toxic. They actually put lead and vinegar on their faces to make them whiter! In fact, you will find an interesting resemblance between our modern concept of a clown and the makeup of Elizabethan women. Perhaps this is because clowns originated during this period -- they may have originally worn a parody of courtly dress.
They did have Corsets even though one is not mentioned in the poem.
But we're in the early 17th century, looking not at a Tudor queen, but at a Stuart King, James I. Elizabethan wear was probably a bit out of fashion by the time Donne wrote this poem in the early 17th century.
For an overview of the cultural, political, and religious influences on the clothing of all classes in 17th century England, read about Late 16th and Early 17th century garb for the Middle & Lower classes.
Much of the information we have on women's clothing in the 17th century comes from the etchings of Wenceslaus Hollar. Notice how the drawings of Wenceslaus Hollar show a considerably different image of women than do the Elizabethan pictures. Women had to wear much less. (Also, notice the second image on the previous page -- girls were wearing words on the front of their shirts back then too -- but the second image is from Belgium, not England.). A page on about.com shows the engravings Hollar made that depict 17th century English clothing styles.
It wasn't all simplicity, however. In another gallery on 17th century fashion, we see the broad range of styles, from "Lady with a Hat" to Mary RadCliffe to Woman with a Lute. All of this depended on what part of society the woman was. In fact, it should be possible to determine the socioeconomic status of "his mistress" by her clothing. During the reign of Henry VIII, sumptuary laws forced people to wear certain clothing so Henry could tell their class from outward appearance. But even by the 17th century, as in today, social status was still a big part of dress.
The pieces of clothing
Here's my best stab at what's going on. Let us use as an example the woman shown in this image from the spring fasion of 1654. This woman probably doesn't wear what the poem calls a breastplate. The "breastplate" reminds me of the partlet shown on the 16th century clothing page. The thing with the laces is probably this woman's buske, which *was* a sort of decorative, outerwear corset, which did have whalebone and possibly iron to shape a desirable figure. Note how fashion changes. In the 16th century, the gown is on the outside of the corset. But in the mid-17th century, the corset-like thing is on the outside of the gown. The woman in this picture has a bumroll on, although not the one in the poem. The gowns, are, well, the gowns. Notice how the woman in this picture shows her natural hair, tied to some sort of hair band. This was not always the case. People of nobility in particular would wear coronets. You can see a replica of a baron's coronet a halfway down this page of reproductions.
Notice how the shoes come after the gown. A woman would not be able to take off her shoes while in one of these costumes, partly for fear of making the material dirty (they wore capes to keep the grease from their infrequently-washed hair from harming the delicate fabrics), and partly because she might not have been able to bend down until her buske and gown were off. Putting on and taking off clothes must have been a horribly time-consuming task. Some examples of mid and late 17th century shoes can be found on the Northampton Museum's shoe collection page. Back then, shoes were often hidden underneath the gown.
Heels became important during Elizabeth's reign, though it was certainly not to highlight the legs. Notice how one set of woman's shoes on the museum site is intricately embroidered. About the only time I can imagine ornamentation being is important is *ahem* when the gown is taken off in the presence of another. Other shoe images, from all around Europe, can be seen on the website of La Couturiére Parisienne , in the gallery entitled "Hidden Fashion: The Shoe Special".
The final piece of clothing is the smock, which looks remarkably like the kind of costume used to depict angels in a play.