Sunday, June 30, 2013

15th Century Day Dress, Linen version

A "day dress"-style gown worn by French women in the early 15th century, in linen for summer.

What it is:
Back in February, I came across an image that caught my eye. It depicts Helen and Paris (of Troy fame) alone in a hallway, having a secret interlude. The composition is lovely in terms of telling a very deep story in a very small amount of space, and is helped considerably by the fact that Paris is quite obviously goosing Mrs. Sparta.

BL MS Harley 4431, fol. 129, detail.
The Book of the Queen, Selected Works of Christine de Pizan, 1410-1414AD.
What really caught my eye, however, was the simplicity of her gown. Up to the point that I found this image, I had believed that the simpler the gown, the lower the class. So here was a solid-colored gown with long fitted sleeves and nothing at all fancy about it worn by a queen. I wondered where else I might see it.

I had some criteria for what I was looking for. First, I wanted to be able to find this type of dress on a range of classes (though I was willing to exclude the lower peasant ranks) to see if it made sense as a gown used beyond class distinctions in a practical manner. Second, it had to be worn in a domestic, secular, or casual environment, but not necessarily all 3 of those at the same time. The idea there was to exclude as much clothing symbolism as possible. Finally, the dress had to appear to be worn as a "fashionable" layer, and not as a fitted/supportive kirtle that was simply uncovered. The distinction in my mind was that a kirtle might purposefully be shown with visible lacing as an element of the dress style, whereas this fashionable gown excluded it.

I came across many examples, but here are a few:

BnF MS Latin 7907 A, fol. 44v.
The Comedies of Terence, Publius Terentius, circa 1400-1407.
Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, fol. 137, detail.
The Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio, 1432.
BL MS Harley 4431, fol. 107, detail.
The Book of the Queen, Selected Works of Christine de Pizan, 1410-1414AD.
BL MS Harley 4431, fol. 140v.
The Book of the Queen, Selected Works of Christine de Pizan, 1410-1414AD.
BnF MS French 282, fol. 276v.
Facta et dicta memorabilia (Memorable Deeds and Sayings), by Valerius Maximus, 1400-1425.
There are a LOT more out there, so this is just a cross-section sampling. My theory on this dress, and why it is what it is, is that women required a simple gown style that would still be considered fashionable to wear in public (around men), but not inhibit their mobility for regular, daily activities. That's not to say that women weren't wearing houppelandes in their embroideries, but rather to suggest that these regular gowns were used in tandem with "higher" fashions (as appropriate per class) to get a woman through life. You don't typically wear a prom dress on laundry day.

If I had to make some statements about the exact elements this style has, they would be:
  • solid-colored cloth, most likely wool
  • low, wide neckline
  • fitted, long sleeves with no fasteners
  • full skirt just to or just past floor length
  • tight torso to promote a high, minimized bust
That last element, though, needs further clarification. I do not believe that this style is simply a fitted dress with no lacing. I believe that, like all 15th century fashionable layers, this day dress requires the use of a shaping garment underneath, and does not provide any type support on its own. This is in keeping with the evolution of the fitted dress style from the 14th century and the introduction of gowns (houppelandes as well as fitted gowns) worn over once-fashionable cotes (cote hardies).

What is interesting to note about this particular style, however, is that no underlayer (be it a kirtle/cote or a chemise) is seen. It's also worth noting, along with that, that the dress is most often not girdled or held up in which to show a contrasting under skirt. When we begin to see those sorts of treatments, we also begin to see a narrower class range, different sleeve styles, and a wide range of contexts. That's certainly not to exclude the day dress being worn in those situations, but instead to suggest that, when worn in an alternative manner, it's meant to be construed as an altogether different style. Which is what makes the diversity of 15th century women's fashion, despite having a small range of actual garment styles, that much more fun to study!

How I made it:
You can read about the construction of this dress in a dedicated post, here. I went on to make a minor adjustment to the width of the left shoulder (by letting the seam out about a .25"). I'm in the process of finishing the seams, and I also plan to take the top back seam in just a bit to get rid of some of the excess fabric at my shoulder blades.

For this version, I chose to use a single layer of linen specifically for the purpose of having one of these dresses for hot summer events. While linen wouldn't typically have been used by most women as the cloth of choice for a fashion layer, I beg your modern-day indulgence.

I made it to wear over a "short cote", which is also made of a single layer of linen. That garment has front lacing, no sleeves, a wide, low neckline, and a knee-length skirt. And it's really shoddy in terms of construction, since there's no possibility of it being seen in public. I might someday snap a picture of it for you all.

What I think of it:

Considering how quickly I made it, and realizing that there are certainly things I would have done differently if I'd had more time, I love this dress! Not only is it an awesome color, but the single layer linen is incredibly comfortable in the heat. With only a single layer linen fitted cote underneath, the whole outfit performs exactly as intended.

And I'm very happy with my overall shape. It certainly doesn't mask my size, but it handles it gracefully. For one of the first times ever, I really like the way my bust looks. The low, wide neckline was the key to giving me just the right balance of coverage and cleavage. The full skirt is awesome, and makes me feel rich- all that sumptuous leg room!  It's long, which can sometimes be a pain to walk around with, but the pooling effect is appropriate to what's seen in the source imagery.

This one will get a lot of wear through the rest of the summer, so I'm very glad I took the time to make it. It gets me one step closer to that ellusive medieval look I've been searching for!

To view the Flickr set, click here, or to see on Facebook, click here.

I should also mention that my headdress is composed of my huvet, my antenna veil wire horns, a 16" square linen veil, 6 straight pins.

1 comment:

  1. This is an amazing dress, I love the way you've met practical needs without sacrificing history or looking sharp. The walkthrough of how you made it was really helpful to understanding what a beautiful work it is, too.

    I wonder--have you heard about that discovery made in Austria recently? I ask because of your mentioning foundation garments, and my own delight at the fact that we finally found some medieval underwear (omg!), and apparently the bra isn't as new as we thought?

    Anyway, I'm off to look at more of your blog, as it's terribly fascinating and one of my favourite things about the SCA.