Upon a quick glance, you might say that she's wearing a turban. While it's true that turbans were well known to Western Europeans because of the Crusades, and turban-like headdress can be found on religious figures in paintings of the era, it was not a particularly favored style. There are a handful of portraits featuring treatments that look like some sort of messy turban- Van Eyck's "Man Wearing a Turban" obviously comes to mind- but these are men. There is speculation that these examples aren't turbans at all, but instead are chaperons that have been twisted up on the head. Are these real examples of fashionable male headdress? Probably not. Art history 101 teaches us that artists tend to contrive things to show off their skills. A headdress with lots of folds and complex twists would certainly do that.
There is, however, something to be said for the practical aspect of converting a chaperon, or hood, into a turban, and this is where the young woman from the altarpiece comes in. I wasn't able to locate a file large enough to really zoom in on her head, but hopefully this is detailed enough that you can see where I'm headed with this. The black "turban" has all sorts of flaps- not what you think of when you conjure turban images in your head, right? That's because this is not a turban- it is an open hood.
If you've been reading my blog for some time now, you may already know about the prevalence of the feminine open hood in the 15th century. (If not, you can use my "open hoods" tag to see what I'm talking about.) The open hood is remarkable as being probably the only fashion item of the 15th century to start with the lower class and work its way up. The open hood found its greatest supporters among the peasant population because of its practicality in many different work-related scenarios. By the mid-15th century, however, we begin to see open hoods on wealthier women- starting with the peasant middle class such as what is seen in certain copies of Boccaccio's Decameron, many examples of which can be found in the "Women's Hoods" section at Larsdatter.com.
Try to see the tree through the forest (to reverse a cliche). In the image at left, I've highlighted the portion of this headdress that is the "dead-giveaway" that it's an open hood. It bears the short neck and folded-back wing-like brim that is the primary characteristic of the 15th century open hood. This detail is easily lost in the look of the headdress as a whole, in part due to the dark coloration, but also because our eyes aren't expecting to see an open hood with that overall shape.
Let's go back to yesterday. Remember that in my analysis, I concluded that this woman was no doubt on the fashionable side based on the transitional nature of her gown? It makes sense to me then that she would be wearing an open hood- after all, it was the trend. Yet she's wearing it in a different manner that what fashion dictated. Rather than wearing the liripipe down along her back, she's wrapped it around her head. This serves a practical purpose in that it prevents her from sitting on it. If we are to assume that she's stationed herself at the bedside of her relative until his death, the accidental sitting on her liripipe (which might dislodge it from its proper position on her head) might be a terrible inconvenience. But let's also assume for a moment that she's seen peasant women wearing the hood in this manner. There are a handfull of examples out there that show peasant women doing this, including this one. I have a parallel to draw here that I've presented in a few of my headdress classes and it goes something like this:
Blue collar workers have been wearing sleeveless "wife beater" under shirts for decades, and they have been stereotyped to always be wearing one, often with nothing over it. This stereotype is not a pleasant thing- it groups those laborers with "white trash". Yet a few years ago, a young woman named Brittany Spears showed up outside her house in a wife beater. Granted, not everyone thought it was a good idea, but that didn't stop 16 year old girls the world over from filling their dressers with wife beaters. A celebrity- the fashion elite of our time- made that style trendy and removed (or at least made us forget) the stereotypeI suspect that this is exactly the scenario that caused the low-class open hood to become a high-class fashion. (I am basing all this on a survey of images I've collected showing the open hood through the 15th century. When laid out in chronological order it is easy to see that the open hood climbed the ladder of fashion.) If this young woman is part of the fashionable elite, then she would have had no problem with "stealing" this look, and as other portions of her attire demonstrate an understanding of where fashion was headed, she could be confident that this turbaned hood would come across as fashionable, not a faux pas.
My black open hood is cut somewhat different than hers, so I can't recreate it exactly, but in the photo above I'm wearing it in the turban style. All it takes is twisting the liripipe around the head. Hers may be so bulky on top (compared to mine) because her liripipe is longer and/or thicker. And to take this one step further down the practicality road- I'm not using any pins. The turbaning process secures the hood on its own, and without the chance of accidentally sitting on the liripipe, there's little that would move the hood once in place.
So there you have it- the Turban-Style Open Hood. Both fashionable and practical.