Sunday, March 8, 2015

Project Complete: Early 15th Century Townswoman Outfit

A layered outfit in the style of early 15th century French townswomen.

Throughout the dozens of French manuscripts produced in the first few decades of the 15th century, a particularly typical clothing silhouette can be seen on what I would describe as urban townswomen. Broadly, these women were non-nobles, most often among the lower or working classes (though not exclusively or necessarily "peasants"). It appears in the available imagery, primarily looking at manuscripts, that these townswomen relied on a pretty straight-forward formula to create outfits that typified their class ideals of what was fashionable and appropriate. I have way too many favorites to show them all here, but here's a selection:

From The Comedies of Terence (BnF MS Latin 7907A), Publius Terencius, circa 1400-1407, fol. 81v.
Sostrata, a widow, with her servant, Canthara (in the purple "townswoman" outfit), and slave Geta.
Adelphoe (The Brothers).
From The Decameron (Arsenal MS 5070, reserve), Giovanni Boccaccio, 1432, fol. 337r.
A man and his wife offer room and board to 2 traveling men. Tale 6 from Day 9.
From De mulieribus claris (BnF MS French 598), Giovanni Boccaccio, circa 1403, fol. 100v.
Marcia, a roman sculptor and painter.
The outfit, on the basic level, is made up of two dress layers and an open hood. The lower layer could plausibly be a supportive dress with a front or side lacing. The top layer is a body-skimming fitted gown devoid of visible lacing or buttons.

Taking the whole selection of images I have of this type of outfit together, I believe that both dresses are long-sleeved. When the top layer's sleeve is worn down, I can find very little evidence that supports buttons in use in the manuscript depictions. In many images, however, the top layer's sleeves are rolled or pushed up, and in some cases, either buttons or the indication that the sleeve was opened at the wrist are present. 

From Saint John Altarpiece, by Rogier van der Weyden, circa 1455.
Wearing the sleeves in this "pushed up" manner is seen later in the century on a servant woman in the Saint John Altarpiece, by Rogier van der Weyden. In that case, though a bit later than the years I'm looking at, the outer dress sleeves appear to be looser, allowing them to simply be push up. The lower sleeve is clearly buttoned. Since this type of buttoned sleeve was developed in the 14th century, and still appears to have been in use by at least some women by the middle of the century, I think it's likely that one or both of the dress sleeves in the 1420's townswoman's outfit would or at least could have been buttoned.

Both dresses conform to the fitted ideals established at the end of the 14th century. This type of fitted gown had already been abandoned by noble women around the start of the 1420's, but certainly enjoyed a second life as the favored style among the lower ranks of society. Sleeve style is really the only true difference between what peasant/working women were wearing as compared to the bourgeois/middle class were wearing. For wealthier women, a flap-style, tippet-like sleeve was considered more stylish.

While I'd like to be able to state that the two styles of dress (long-sleeve and flap-sleeve) could have been interchangeable (meaning that they are simply two different takes on the same dress), there isn't much evidence for that. The secular imagery available in the contemporary manuscripts show that seemingly minute style differences occurred between the clothing of different classes, ranks and occupations of women. That's not to say that a slightly wealthier woman with her foot in the middle class (such as my persona) would not have owned and worn this particular "townswoman" outfit, but rather that it would not have likely been her preferred outfit for social appearances, as it would have conveyed her station to be somewhat lower than her actual affluence allowed.

So this outfit, with two long-sleeve fitted dresses worn with an open hood, is in my eye the very specific uniform of a woman engaged in some for of working or laboring activity from the era between 1400 and about 1450. Whether the woman falls into the category of free citizen or indentured servant doesn't make a big difference here- we're looking at a woman who had either an occupation or was required to perform some variety of physical task.

I'm not going to go into too much depth on how I put these together, since I already outlined a bunch. I shared the hood last week. The lower dress is made from a ginger-colored linen. I experimented with a symmetrical pattern for that. The outer dress is made from a navy wool I held on to for way too long. I used the same symmetrical pattern for that. I also used my prototype sleeve drafting method for the wool. I ran into significant difficulty, however, when I discovered that the wool was extremely elastic on the bias. The fault wasn't in my sleeve draft, just in the nature of the wool on the curved armscye. I ended up removing about 3" from the shoulder seams and another 2" from the side seams to account for the stretch. After that, the sleeves fit perfectly.

I used a set of faux-brass buttons (they're actually plastic) for the sleeves on the ginger cote, and stitched the button holes with 100% silk embroidery thread. I literally just happened to have the matching color. I used the buttonhole sewing tutorial at La Cotte Simple, and I'm truly better for it. My previous buttonhole are not even remotely as pretty. The wool dress buttons are fabric using my tutorial, and again, 100% silk thread for the buttonholes.

At the last minute, I decided that I did not want the front lacing on my linen dress. I have several reasons for this (one, admittedly, being that I didn't have a lot of time to do eyelets), but I'm really happy that I made that decision. I have been increasingly frustrated with the performance of lacing on many of my dresses (too much gaping). My bottom-most layer is a laced supportive piece which is doing an excellent job. On top of that, non-laced dresses are really working well for me. I know this isn't supported in the period evidence, or a viable option for most people, but it gets me where I want to go better than any other options I've used.

Not sure what's going on with the color here. It's not really this gray.
The linen dress is entirely handsewn. I had less time for the wool, so the construction seams are machine sewn on that. The finishing on both the linen and wool dress are felled, using overcast (or hem) stitch to tack the seams down. I really prefer the look of that over using running stitch which can snag or break more easily. I hand stitched the skirt hem on the linen as well, but the wool hem is machine sewn (again, a time issue). The necklines on both dresses are finished with a strip of their respective materials and running stitch. The ginger linen neckline is a bit more decorated with three rows, versus the single row on the wool.

Both of these dresses had issues during their construction. On the linen dress, when I decided to skip the lacing, I left the twill tape intact. This was probably not the best move, but so far I'm not irritated with it enough to do anything about it. I also showed the seam finishing on the sleeve seams in two different directions (one going into the sleeve, one going onto the shoulder.) I've decided that I'm just going to consider that an inside joke. With the linen dress, the reality is that the body portion of the dress was never meant to be seen. In the future, I may snap a few photos of it to share with you, but it really isn't anything special or different from what I've shown in the past. I do feel sort of guilty not showing the dress on it's own, but I'm so much more excited about the outfit as a whole, I hope you're willing to forgive me.

The wool dress took an incredible amount of time out of my life. I didn't want to make any more compromises with it than what made sense, so the finishing was a very long process I hadn't really planned for. It was all worth it, though, since the seams look great, and the whole dress is solidly built. As they always say, good things take time.

I didn't line either of these dresses in order to give myself the opportunity to wear them into the spring as long as possible and to have them available to wear earlier in the autumn. If I was favoring authenticity over the practical needs of my personal comfort, I would have lined them both.

Bottom line is that, with everything else ever, there's room for more improvement. But I'm still going to pat myself on the back here. These dresses have taken me further into the realm of accuracy and skill than I've previously gone.

Just look at the wings on the hood!
This project really just proves to me that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Back at the start of 2011, I developed a complete outfit that was meant to eventually be an A&S entry. I called it my "Garb Quest", and the image above was the original idea I had for what the outfit should be. I stalled out on this project (an unexpected pregnancy derailed me as a start), and eventually realized that the goals of the quest were no longer in alignment with my personal goals. So two years ago, I officially purged it from the project pile.

The thing was, I still had all these materials. And while I still had a ton of research and learning ahead of me, I already had mostly the right idea with my original drawing. So I'm really not surprised that when I put everything on when this outfit was done, it all looked familiar. So I'm going to call it- Garb Quest is DONE.

I'm incredibly happy with this outfit, which I'm sure is not news to you. It's comfortable, and despite the single layers pieces, was warm enough when we stepped out into the snow for these photos. The wool is soft and it's a great deep color. I think it will work very well as the middle layer I need for the outfit I'm assembling for the Manuscript Challenge.

 As always, you can see more photos either on Flickr or over at Facebook!

On to the next!

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