Sunday, February 7, 2016

The Basics of French Women's Clothing 1400-1440 : Part 2

Last week, we took a look at the bottom layers shared by all French women in the early 15th century, the skin layer of chemise and chausses, and the supportive or base layer of a cotte or tunic. This week, we'll begin to take a look at the third layer- the fashion layer.

When it came to the skin and base layers, the class groups of women were not particularly distinguishable from each other, except that the loose tunic was nearly always worn only by women in the indentured class or by older women. For the third layer, however, the groups begin separating out from each other even more.

Before we get into it, I want to mention that there can be a considerable amount of blurring between the social groups. They aren't hard and strict distinctions. A woman's social group at this time was as much about her community and local situation as it was about her money and title (or lack thereof). The point of this, therefore, is more about the distinctions between those on one end versus the other, rather than between adjacent groups.


A woman at the bottom of society would have had fewer options for a third layer, but that doesn't mean it wasn't possible for her to have one. The gown may have been reserved for colder weather and/or special occasions. Or it could have been very outdated. Women in this group could have had access to hand-me-downs, or could have purchased second-hand clothing from peddlers or simply inherited clothing items. Some indentured women could have also had a gown (or at least the cloth for one) included in her contract every year. (See #3 and #20 in my list or References if you're interested in the interesting topic of clothing that changes hands in these manners.)

The style of the third layer would have varied widely among these women, from cuts that were fashionable not that long ago, to garments that were never considered fashionable. It all depended on what she had access to, and what she did. For example, in the two images above, the turbaned scarf headdresses of the two women indicate a low rank, but both are in service to women of considerable rank. The woman just above wears an out-of-date but once-fashionable bell-sleeve gown. The other woman, at the loom, wears an obviously fitted gown (over her red cotte). In both cases, these women are not wildly out-of-fashion. Their situation accounts for that. Contrast that with the woman below.

Here we see the same woman, a slave in the service of a wealthy family, in two instances from the same miniature. We can see that she's wearing a third layer on the left. On the right, with her arms out of the way, it's revealed that her third layer is a loose dress, rather than a highly fitted gown like the weaving woman's above.


This group encompasses a very large collection of women, from those in the employ of noble or royal households, all the way down to wives or daughters of laborers or tradesmen. Interestingly, however, their third layer options are pretty pointedly limited. The primary fashion layer for this group was a fitted gown. As I said last week, this layer and the cotte layer are nearly identical. In the case of the fitted gown, however, a lining (mostly appearing to be fur) is often observable, such as on the woman below.

Another distinguishing feature of this group was that they were often shown with the sleeves of their fitted gowns pushed or rolled up (seen in the example below). It's not exclusive to this group, but it comes pretty close. Styling the fitted dress this way reveals the sleeve of the cotte layer. It's possible that the showing off of her layers was the illuminators way of showing that a depicted townswoman was above the indentured/poor group. Girdling is also very commonly seen among this group, and may have served a similar purpose.

The only other third layer option I've been able to pin to the Townswoman group is a fitted gown with a short streamer sleeve. The woman in pink below sports this type of dress. Since this particular dress type appears further up as well, it's possible that women with short streamers on their sleeves in this group may be considered to be at the higher end for whatever reason. The streamer is a frivolous detail on a gown, and frivolity in dress is only possible for women who could afford it. It's also possible that these women actually belong with the next group up.


The term "bourgeoisie" generally applies to wealthy women without title, but women with low-ranking titles possibly found themselves in this same style group, even if they would never have associated with bourgeois women. This is one of those areas where my grouping is highly generalized, and should be seen as a level, not a true label.

The fitted gowns we just looked at (long sleeve and short streamer sleeve) are worn among this group as well. In fact, the basic long sleeve fitted dress continues as a style all the way up the classes. Among the bourgeoisie, however, style of dress plays a much bigger and more important role. Women in this group were highly concerned with their position. Comprising the "middle", they were keen to not be confused for the lower townswoman, but would also avoid appearing above their means, which would land them in trouble, possibly even in jail, depending on the sumptuary laws that applied to them. In the late 14th Century treatise, Le Menagier de Paris, the narrator tells his bourgeois wife:
"...You will consider and pay attention to our status and our means, attiring yourself with respect to the estate of your family and mine, amongst whom you will mingle and dwell each day. Make sure that you dress decently without introducing new fashions and without too much or too little ostentation."
I think the most interesting thing to note in that quote is the phrase "too little ostentation."

To really take advantage of their ability to show their wealth through their manner of dress, bourgeois women adopted the horned veil as their headdress of choice. While open hoods are also acceptable for many of these women, and the horned veil was not exclusive to this group, it does make it a bit easier to spot the Bourgeoisie in illuminations, once you get a handle on their context.

In addition to their distinctive headdress, a third option of dress for this group was a fitted dress with long streamer sleeves. These streamers come in two basic formats. The sleeve could be just a long panel attached at the shoulder and open all the way down, or a sleeve that opened at the elbow into the floor-length streamer. In either case, the streamer is often lined in what comes across most of the time as fur.

When we move to the end of the time period I'm focusing on, to the 1432 Le Decameron, we can also find bourgeois women in a very specific houppelande. The full gown has a v-neck where the fur lining pokes out as a trim, and large, straight sleeves. This style is a step along the way to the Burgundian v-neck. In the 1430's, however, it's not considered highly fashionable. It is, however, a sign of the times to come and the greater blurring of social class because women in the middle can afford greater ostentation than at any time before.

I'm going to break here until next week, when I'll finish up the third layer by looking at the nobility and royals.


  1. Even though this isn't a period that I make clothes for, I am finding this series fascinating. Thank you so much for publishing it.

    1. I'm happy to hear it. I'm really enjoying getting it out there ;)