Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Basics of French Women's Clothing 1400-1440 : Part 3

So, today we come to the last leg of our look at women's clothing in the early 15th century, as depicted in the handful of manuscripts I've been studying. In part one we looked at the two dress layers all women shared, in part two we looked at the fashionable dress layers for the three lower groups of women on the social class ladder. Today, we'll look at fashionable dress for the noble and royal classes.

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Nobles & Royals

The women who make up the top two class groups are sometimes difficult to differentiate from each other. It doesn't appear to have been the fashion for royals in this period to wear crowns or coronets except for ceremonial purposes, so when they are shown in manuscripts (which isn't all that often), it's really only the context of their appearance that allows us to distinguish them. One of the best examples is the scene below from The Queen's Book (British Library MS Harley 4431) showing Queen Isabeau of France receiving the book from the author, Christine de Pisan, among her daughters, and attendants.

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The other interesting thing about the nobles is that there can be a fairly good amount of fantasy or general uniqueness in the depictions of this group across the board, so it's important to take into consideration the contexts of the manuscripts within which they appear. In two stylistically different copies of The Comedies of Terence, noblewomen are depicted in a way that suggests an almost comical sumptuousness. And that makes sense when you consider the source and that the characters are peripheral to the townsman/bourgeois context. That said, the gowns are still mostly categorical. For example, below are two examples of a noblewoman wearing a fitted dress that falls into the long-streamer sleeve category, but with dagging, which is not typical.

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Possibly more realistic depictions appear in the manuscripts in which noble women (or women of note who may have been regarded as noble) are the general subject. The biggest problem there is that women of ancient times, or women from mythology or biblical stories dominate these types of manuscripts. For my purposes, I've weeded out depictions in which the female subject was obviously allegorical in nature (nondescript robes and halos being the biggest giveaways), leaving me with a selection of depictions of women at the top that are either shown with a crown or without. While it may not reflect reality, there are definite categories that appear over and over across different manuscripts with these two groups. Combined with what we see in the rare images like that of Queen Isabeau above, we can be reasonably sure that, allegorical or not, these are the ways that women of nobility were seen to be ideally dressed.

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In addition to the fitted gown, with either long sleeves or with long streamer sleeves, noble women introduce another category of fitted gown- the angel wing. Long, open sleeves don't appear until you reach this level on your way up the social strata, primarily because of the cost of fabric. It takes a lot of extra yardage to create sleeves of that volume compared to the tightly-fitted long sleeve seen across the classes. It is almost always worn with a bourrelet (padded roll) headdress or crown, or less commonly, a horned veil.

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It is also in this class that we see the pinnacle of 15th century fashion- the houppelande.  At this time, the fashion, which is only a decade or so old, is pretty exclusively about extravagance. Where the angel wing fitted gown stops, the high-collared, full-bodied, angel wing houppelande picks up. This gown is depicted as a fur lined garment belted high, just under the bust, making the hips look full. The collar is fashioned in several ways. Buttoned up, it frames the woman's chin. Unbuttoned, the collar flairs open slightly, creating a deep, narrow V. In some cases, we see collars worn flat against the shoulders. The affect of this look is that the collar was so sumptuously high, it can't stay up on its own.

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Symbolic Royals

When the depicted woman is a royal of fame, usually crowned royals of the past, she may be shown wearing a sideless surcoat over a long sleeve fitted gown. The medieval fashion historian Robin Netherton has theorized that by this point in time, this iconic garment is only meant to be seen as symbolic and was used to designate a monarch. This sort of visual tagging exists in other ways throughout the period (and throughout the manuscripts I'm currently using), but the sideless surcoat sort of takes the cake. There are, however, lots of beautiful examples of this garment, and it's worth counting it in with a caveat.

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So that completes the quick tour through early 15th century French women's clothing. Please keep an eye out for much more on this topic and the full findings of my research later this spring.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, an excellent series!

    I am very impressed with how your understanding and interpretation of costume has progressed and how you've become much more focused and precise in terms of dates, location and class. ^_^

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