Saturday, December 11, 2010

Garb Quest - More Houppelande Inspiration

Though the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden was painted about 10 years after the year I'm aiming for (it was painted between 1445 and 1450), I've found some inspiration within it. There is, of course, nothing wrong with shifting my goal to be a costume of the 1440's at this point, but I've yet to decide what finished look I'd prefer to have in my wardrobe. [On a side note, I'm doing some research into the 15th century to present to our local A&S group that has brought to light several changes I must make to my persona story. Since my persona is currently in flux because of this, my garb quest may in fact steer me to a different year range altogether.] So here's what I've found:

The altarpiece is an interesting piece of art in that it not only contains a large number of well-dressed figures, but those figures represent a fairly wide range. There are members of the royalty, nobility, wealthy classes, peasant classes, and of course Christian figures involved in the crucifixion scene at the center of the composition. We are lucky that (for the most part) Weyden stuck with contemporary costuming for this scene, as was the trend in the Northern Gothic period. Therefore, we are given a pretty nice view of fashion across the range of classes represented. Two women in particular stand out to me in my search for houppelande inspiration.

The young woman on the left above appears in the right hand panel of the altarpiece in the "extreme unction" (or "last rights") nave of the cathedral- perhaps a daughter or other relative of the dying man, reading her bible for comfort in her grief. Her houppelande is the type I often refer to as a "transitional" gown between the closed necked early houppelande and the later, open v-neck houppelande. In fact, the wider collar, typical of the v-neck, is clear evidence that the style was on its way in at the time this was painted. There is also no pleating on this gown- a mandatory feature on houppelande's before this point- though there is some gathering caused by the cinching of her wide belt. I've always liked this figure, for many reasons beyond her gown, primarily because she looks very comfortable. She's not encumbered by her clothes, and she wears them with ease. Given that she's clearly a member of the fashion-forward, given the transitional nature of her gown, she still appears approachable. I'd always imagined that a chat with this woman might consist of topics on music, fine foods and harmless gossip about what so-and-so said the other night.

The woman on the right above is one of the holy women in the central scene. She's not wearing a transitional houppelande, but instead wears one typical of the fashion leading up to this time. There is not really a collar here- it's just the fur lining peeking out. The pleating on the torso is clear, stretching from the cinched waist up to the shoulder seam. I would have to say that in comparison to the other woman, this one represents a lower social class- a non-indentured peasant woman with enough means to keep up with fashion. There is one thing about this houppelande that I find very interesting- the fur lining.

From left to right above, a detail from the wealthier woman, the holy woman, and just for comparison's sake, the Magdalen from The Magdalen Reading (which I posted yesterday, and which is from the same time- 1445). The fur lining on the left has been pieced together- you can see the seams and the changes in nape. It is a light fur, and the color is consistent and even. The fur on the left is the same way. These furs are short hair, whether naturally or trimmed is hard to say. The central fur, however, shows that several pelts of the same animal (with the same coloring) were squarely cut and pieced together in a grid, turning the natural coloring on the animal into a pattern. Is this fur treatment indicative of a cheaper method? I'm not sure, but I can see the logic behind saying yes. In order to create a fur lining with even color throughout, the craftsman would have had to inspect each pelt and cut out any portion that didn't match. This left him with a series of odd shapes that then had to be pieced together like a puzzle. The grid method uses straight seams with no regard for imperfections in the color- if it occurred within the squared piece, it as included. And lets face it, sewing straight lines is always easier.

Another thing to note is that the under dresses worn with the left and right gowns are patterned. The Magdalen's is a clearer pattern, and on close observation you can see a tone-on-tone damask-style pattern on the wealthy woman's dress as well. The holy woman? Her under dress is solid colored. Yet another indication of the different social classes in play here.

So what does this mean to me? Well, my goal is to produce a gown for a middle class woman- not a leader of the fashionable trends- so I must put aside my love of the wealthier woman's gown style for something more akin to the holy woman's. There are many examples of this style houppelande- the Magdalen's being one of them- but it's the nature with which is was crafted that provides valuable insight into its proper recreation. A grid-style fur lining that doesn't cater to even coloration, a solid colored under dress, and a gown neckline that is typical of those seen in the previous years, not a trendy alternative, are characteristics to match.

There is, however, one question I still need to answer- wool or silk? I've developed a theory that silk might be appropriate for my persona as a wedding gown, in which case the craftsmanship described above may or may not apply. I pulled out the chapter on silk fabrics in the Museum of London's Textiles & Clothing, to try to get more information on the use of silk, and will hopefully start finding the answers I need in order to move forward.