Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Basics of French Women's Clothing 1400-1440 : Part 1

As I've been looking deeper into my collection of French manuscripts from the first 3 decades of the 15th century I've gained a better understanding of the layers of dress and their relationship to class. This is just the very tip of the iceberg to the entire topic of women's dress in France at this time, but as far as primers go, it seems like a good place to start.

All women, regardless of class or occupation, would have aimed for a complete outfit of 3 layers as a "best case". That's not to say that they would have always worn three layers, or that their three layers were good for year-round wear, but it was the guiding principle of fashion that applied fairly uniformly across the entire social strata. Today, we'll look at the first two layers.

For the sake of clarity, I need to get us all on the same page about what the social class groups were at this time. Unlike the fairly straight-forward "rich and poor" delineation of previous centuries, 15th century France had more nuanced class groupings.
  • Royals - Houses of Valois, OrlĂ©ans and Burgundy; Queen Isabeau (Royals are often also depicted from stories in manuscripts)
  • Nobles - women of title by marriage or birth
  • Bourgeoisie - wealthy women without title
  • Townswomen - working class women who may or may not have had occupations
  • Indentured/Poor - women who worked for estates or households under contract or under forms of slavery, or whose income was significantly low

Skin Layer

A white linen garment worn directly against the skin was the first item a woman would dress herself with. In France, the word "chemise" was used for this item, but you might know it as a smock or shirt. In very basic terms, the chemise was an underwear garment. Sporting long sleeves, the chemise was anywhere in length between just below the knee to just above the ankles. The purpose of this item was to create a barrier between sweat and oil on the skin and the outer wool garments that were not going to be washed often (and may in fact, only get aired out between wearings throughout most of the year.)

The chemise was most likely (and most often) created using straight-seam or rectangular construction. One reason for this rudimentary sewing technique still being used on the chemise in the age of fitted clothing is because it was a private garment, made in the home by whoever was tasked with their creation. In larger, wealthy households, someone may have been given that task more exclusively, allowing them to cultivate a greater skill set to create chemises with better craftsmanship. In smaller, poorer homes, however, the task would have gone to whoever had free hands to do it.

Source (Note chausses on women in the back)
In addition to the chemise, the skin layer included chausses (pronounced similar to "chose"), which for women at this time were two separate socks made from bias cut wool or linen. They can also be called hosen. Unlike the chemise, chausses were more likely created by a tailor or dressmaker who had a deeper understanding of the properties of cloth to be able to make the chausses as fitted as possible and still be able to get them over the heel. They were held up by either tying strips of cloth around the uper calf, or with woven garters. It is very rare to find exposed chausses on women in imagery from this time. The fit and quality of a woman's chausses would have been dependent on her means.

Supportive/Base Layer

All women above the Indentured group (and even women in that group depending on situation) would have worn a cotte. Alternative names for this dress are kirtle or "gothic fitted dress". The cotte was used as both a fashionable dress layer and a body-shaping garment. I use the term "supportive" because the garment not only created bust support, but also acted as a foundational layer for garments with a potentially looser fit worn over it. I have talked about this dress type at length on this blog in the past, so I'm not going to get into the details of construction here.


It can be a little difficult to tell, when looking at manuscript images, if the fitted dress we see is the woman's cotte or a fitted dress layered over a cotte, but the look of either is generally the same. That look as a low, wide scoop neckline, long skirt reaching at least to the ground, and long fitted sleeves (most often shown without buttons.) There is also rarely a visible lacing depicted on the center front which could mean one of two things. Either the lace was not painted, or the dress laced at the side (which you can see depicted below.)

I don't think it's necessarily accurate to say that the supportive cotte didn't have front lacing in this period, but there may be something a little bit more to the story. I think it might be true to say that visible front lacing wasn't fashionable. If a woman's supportive cotte used front lacing as opposed to side lacing, perhaps she would have worn her third layer if she was going to be seen publicly. This might account for the higher number of Townswomen depicted wearing visibly layered fitted garments (below) than any of the higher classes. With lower incomes, it would have been harder for these women to obtain fashions that were more in vogue, and would have had to rely on styles that were perhaps out of date in detail if not in fit. That's mostly speculation on my part until I can get more concrete evidence in my research, but right now it comes down to the fact that manuscript artists would go to the effort to paint minute details in other places, so why would they then consistently ignore the lacing on the front of a woman's dress?

If a woman did not have access to the more fashionable supportive cotte, she would have worn a tunic. The tunic was a looser-fitting garment that was typically secured around the waist with a belt. The garment likely used straight-seam construction, just like the chemise. In general, a woman depicted wearing a tunic can be seen as either a woman of little means, or an older woman who has not updated her fashions. Or both. Context and the relating text can help determine the interpretation.


In either case, whether the woman was wearing a cotte or a tunic, the garment would have been wool. I have yet to find depicted evidence in the group of manuscripts I'm studying from France at this time that this layer was lined. Since we can find lined depictions in other areas in Europe or in other art forms, it's a reasonable assumption that the supportive cotte at least was also lined.

Next week we'll look at the third layer, which is where the class groups start to separate out from each other.


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  2. If the lacing is not on the front, nor on the sides, is it possibly in the back?

    1. Excellent question. It is certainly possible and we have no absolutes. I did eventually explore the topic of lacing in further detail in this post, which you might also find useful:

      In more recent months, I've located some images of women shown from the back from this period. Back lacing is not present. Unfortunately lack of evidence isn't evidence of, since we can't see the front AND back of these women at the same time. Here's two examples: and

      Also, and I discuss it in that other post, an outer fashionable dress can skim the body and does not NEED lacing. It's the supportive layer that is the most likely to need that opening, and by the early 15th century, it appears that there was a potential difference between in shape and construction of the supportive layer which was not meant to be seen, and the fashion layer. For the layer that was meant to be hidden, it makes a lot of sense that the lacing would be at the front- because it's the easiest solution, and it would be covered anyway.

      Like I said, though, we don't have evidence for back lacing in this period, but we still can't automatically rule it out simply because it's not being shown.

    2. Another factor would be that, except for the nobility, who used wet nurses, all mothers would have exclusively breastfed, and would need easy access to their breasts for the babies.