Friday, December 10, 2010

The Problem with Houppelandes

So, to start getting my mind around the whole mid-15th century houppelande idea, I decided to type "houppelande" into Google image search to see what was out there. Obviously I take anything I find through Google with a major dose of skepticism, but I've always found it helpful to get a visual reference on an idea and to see what others have done (correctly or not). I did locate a few beautiful gowns that, to my knowledge, are fairly accurate at least in concept.

Morwenna's green houppelande is a good take on the Rogier van der Weyden houppelande. Then there is this green damask houppelande that has a lovely shape. Also, sevenstarwheel's houppelande and Catrjin's simplified houppelande are both wonderful examples.

I think I'm in good company here, but I also think that the houppelande (of the mid-century variety I'm aiming for) poses two major challenges that these examples, as well as countless others out there, show. First, houppelande recreations tend to be very bulky. I'm not just talking about heavy materials. I'm talking about an amount of fabric (when the fabrics are period ones) that does not seem to show ease of wearing. I get the impression that, besides being weighty gowns, the houppelande makes it difficult to move around, or even comfortably put your arms down to your sides without the feeling that they're still 5 inches away from your body. This is doubly true of fur lined examples.


Yet period images of houppelandes lack that feeling of bulk. Sure, Mrs. Arnolfi is wearing yards and yards of fur lined fabric in that gorgeous green houppelande of hers, but there's still a light-weight feeling about it. It doesn't look thick. Or how about the Magdelan's beautiful houppelande that looks casual and comfortable, as if the dress was just a summer sweater thrown on for the sake of wearing a sweater? I certainly will give the artists props for adding their own stylizing to these garments, but I've seen this time after time with different artists.

The second issue with recreation houppelandes, especially the earlier variety, is that it makes the chest look larger. I don't need any help in that department, thankyouverymuch. But the feminine ideal of the time was a small chest- high, small round breasts. So why would a dress that created the exact opposite effect as what the ideal called for have been so popular? Unless, in period, it didn't have that effect. Look at the artwork again- the two ladies above have small chests. Could they have been painted with the ideal body shape, even if the model looked different? That's certainly a possibility, but perhaps there's also something to be said for the cut of the dress. Which is more likely- no woman in the 15th century had breasts larger than an A cup, or garments were constructed in a different manner than what we've been using for our recreations? I'm inclined to lean towards the latter.

So what does this mean? Primarily, it entails going back to formula and building the silhouette from scratch. The fit of the houppelande and the supportive dress underneath can not be successful recreations if they don't provide the same qualities we see in the period examples (artistic license aside). The dress needs to be constructed so that it is light in appearance and minimizes the size of my chest. Could this, perhaps, open the door to the case for using silk? I look forward to finding the answer.