Friday, March 8, 2013

Achieving a plus-size medieval silhouette

I'm a bit delayed in getting my lining re-fit, since I want to make sure I capture as much info during the process as I can to share with you, so while you're waiting on that, I thought I'd talk a bit about what I mean when I say "a medieval silhouette" when we're looking specifically at fitting plus-size bodies. Since I'm focused specifically on the early 15th century for this current project, that's the time period I'm going to speak directly to.

From BL MS Harley 4431, The Queen's Book, Christine de Pizan, 1410-1414.
Modern women, particularly those in the United States, come in a huge array of shapes and sizes. Our diets and lifestyle contribute to that in many ways. Not many of us live a hands-on existence anymore, performing every daily challenge from scratch, the hard way. If you own a car, for example, the trek to your local grocery store is made infinitely easier. Women who are lean are typically so because they work specifically to be that way- not necessarily because their genetics and lifestyle naturally aligned that way from birth to today. There are always exceptions, but those women are a lucky few.

Medieval women probably didn't have a metabolic advantage to good health across the board, but if the surviving imagery is any indication, there certainly wasn't an obesity crisis in 1420 France.

Sway back posture, round abdomen, high small breasts, small waist, long, lean arms and neck, narrow build. These are the features of the ideal female body as depicted in early 15th century manuscripts. There were real women out there that looked at least somewhat like this, and every other woman did her best to look as close to it as possible. Not much has changed on that front, really. Not everyone was successful, and a few examples from the era give us some clues as to what non-ideally framed women may have looked like.

From BnF MS Latin 7907 A, The Comedies of Terence, Publius Terentius, circa 1400-1407.
It can be a bit tricky to recognize plus-size medieval women, since they are often depicted in a very similar manner to pregnant women. In many cases, looking at the context of the image will give the answer. In the case of the two images above, from a book of comedies written by the Roman poet, Publius Terentius, the women are both of a lower class and more advanced age than the main characters of their stories. The woman on the left, Sophrona (from the play Phormio), is the nurse of a well-born Athenian girl. The woman on the right, Lesbia (from the play Andria), is a midwife.

As a large woman, it is encouraging to find these images. While they are most definitely not intended to be complimentary in the context of the medieval manuscript (nor are they particularly offensive), they do offer a great point of reference. Their size -the fullness of their breast and bellies and their number of chins- is not an obstacle to their attempts at wearing the newest fashions appropriate to their rank.

Sophrona wears a pretty fashionable outfit for the time (sometime around 1405). Her winged hood indicates that she is aware and on top of civilian fashion trends, since that particular style of hood came into use right at the turn of the century. Her dress is obviously a fitted gown, showing her curves and tight on her arms. Her belt indicates her class- peasant women wore belts to facilitate hiking their skirts up when needed. She is also wearing layers- a pale green skirt is seen where she's lifted the outer skirt.

Lesbia, at a lower rank than Sophrona, wears a veil in a fashion more typical of the 14th century. Her dress, however, is still fitted. You can see that the fabric around her torso is not very tight, but that is also appropriate to her station and occupation.

These women are not rejects of fashion. They are not wearing "plus-size" costumes because they do not fit within the perimeters of the ideal or norm. So neither should the modern plus-size woman doing medieval recreation!

I think the depiction of Sophrona is a great plus-size ideal for recreating the medieval silhouette. Her bust, is supported, but not gravity defying. Her trunk is defined as best it can be as a narrowing just under her bust. The roundness of her belly (perhaps the only portion of her body even close to the ideal) is highlighted in a flattering manner (though it is hard to tell just were the flaring of the skirt starts because of her belt). If you'd like to see what this silhouette looks like on a recreation, I urge you to look at this photo.

Going into my fitting, Sophrona is my muse. She may not be the ideal, but her shape is still lovely, and more importantly, attainable.


  1. Thank you for the post. The images you show are very interesting and I like your analysis of them.

    I was going to write something about the modern woman and plus-size women in my not-very-often-updated series on the 14th C silhouette but have been a) busy with work and b) feeling rather inadequate for tackling such a subject, being one of the 'lucky few' who (even when they put on weight) keep the hourglass shape.

    If/when I write a bit on recreations and the modern woman, would you mind if I linked to this article?

  2. This is so great! I have tried to help so many ladies to sew 15th century and so many of them look at the ordinary pictures and just go "No that will never work for me!" But it does, and they all look fabulous in fitted kirtles.