Sunday, October 9, 2016

What Makes an Outfit Early 15th Century: Part 1

The Book of the Queen (BL MS Harley 4431) fol. 290
You might recall at the beginning of the year, I laid out the basics of women's clothing as depicted in French manuscripts from the first portion of the 15th century. Through that quick outline, it was easy to see the styles of dress appropriate to different classes of women, and also to see how layering was used during the period to create more depth and style. The thing that exercise didn't identify, however, was where those styles might differ from the period of fashion directly ahead of them, as well as those directly behind. What makes those styles distinguished (and distinguishable) from other fashions in the Middle Ages?



There is a certain argument to be had that fashion didn't just up and change between centuries, which has been a sore spot for almost all fashion historians. We like the easiness of being able to say "12th Century" or "19th Century". Yet if we study any clothing trend, we discover evolution and change that cares little about the current year. There's no denying that referencing the century is a clear and easy way to get people in the same book, even if not on the right page. When you study clothing more closely, this "meshing together" of a whole century's-worth of fashion, regardless of whether it was present in other centuries or not, can be quite irksome.

Using the term "15th Century", in particular, is rife with problems. Not only was there a massive difference between clothing in the Northern countries of Europe and the Southern (where the Renaissance was occurring), there are differences from one end of the century to the other, and even in between. The 15th Century, if we just look at the fixed point of the Franco-Flemish region, holds three distinct and unique periods of fashion: Gothic, Burgundian, and what we typically call Tudor.

These fashions build on the previous, sometimes very clearly, but not in the way that the 13th Century tunic evolves into the 14th century fitted cote. In that case, tracking the fashions chronologically, the clear transition of tighter fit, more shapely sleeves, and the eventual need for openings is fairly in-your-face. (I recommend Margaret Scott's A Visual History of Costume: The Fourteenth & Fifteenth Centuries for an excellent introduction to that.)

Instead, each successive fashion era in the 15th Century builds upon the innovations of the one before it, not the styles. The Burgundian style turned the Gothic style into little more than underwear. The Tudor style turned the Burgundian style into something more like outerwear. These are not styles that should be grouped together.

So back to the point at hand. Early 15th Century clothing is Gothic clothing, but it's not 14th Century Gothic. It's not even "transitional", which is something I had previously thought to be the case. It's a later evolution- a new look based on the follow-through of an idea. That idea isn't just embedding support into the construction of the garment. It's shape. It's the realization than cloth can do more than tighten around a body, squishing it flat. It can shift the curves and highlight a new form- a different figure. This, more than anything else, is the distinguishing element of early 15th Century women's fashion- the careful treatment and display of what was considered back then a new concept of femininity.

So that's point number one: Early 15th Century French fashion champions a curvier silhouette.
It's incredibly hard to pinpoint when this shift in body ideals happened, but it happened sometime close to the turn of the century, on the 14th Century side. It also appears to have been adopted by some manuscript artists early, but not all, so two manuscripts produced around the same time may show the two different ideals respectively. Take the examples below, both produced around the 1380s.

Roman de la Rose (British Library Yates Thompson 21), fol. 8v.

Grandes Chroniques de France (BNF Fran├žais 73), fol. 163


I also want to point out that I mean curvier in relation to the flat, more rectangular look of the 14th Century. Large, busty, rounded frames were still not ideal (and won't be for quite some time). The 15th Century ideal was a trim waist, high bust that was rounded but not overwhelming, and a round abdomen- something like an hour-glass figure. Long limbs and wide shoulders were also still in fashion.

The example above from the Grande Chroniques is one of the more extreme examples of the curvier ideal. Which isn't really that surprising, since it's possible that this manuscript, produced for a selective upper class audience, may have been one of the first manuscripts to show and champion the new curvy look. From here on out, the look mellows.


By the time 1410 rolls around, a mildly curvier shape is the favored look across most French imagery. Take the example below. Note that all the curvy pieces of the Grande Chroniques figure are still there, but are less pronounced. This curvy, not buxom shape is the ideal early 15th Century body.

De claris mulieribus (BnF MS French 598), fol. 83v.
What's really interesting is that you can see this shifted fashionable ideal at play in secular works such as the 1407 Comedies of Terrence. Some characters still sport boxy torsos. Others, in higher social stations, sport the rounded bust. I don't believe this to be the artist still catching on to the new ideal. Instead, it's perhaps the visual representation of how fashion travels through classes like a delayed time capsule. Lower class women perhaps really were wearing the older type of cote, with the flattened chest, because that's what they had.

Which is an important point. What makes an outfit early 15th Century is different than what was worn in the early 15th Century. What was considered correct and fashionable for the period was founded upon an altogether new shape, so while the details of the dress itself may be similar, the fact that it does something completely new to the body defines it right out the gate.

St. Eligius in His Workshop, Petrus Christus, c. 1449
Moving into the middle of the Century, where Burgundian fashion takes center stage, this ideal changes once again. Cotes begin to flatten the chest out again, to better accommodate the v-neck opening of the new style houppelandes. Compare the two images above and below. See the curvier ideal in the shape of the young woman's bust in the top painting from 1449. Note the reduced curve on the bust of the woman in the bottom painting from 1460. This reduction continues to happen until the torso becomes a flat trapezoidal panel under the fur collars of the high Burgundian fashion.

Detail, Justice of Emperor Otto III, Dieric Bouts, c. 1460.
Shape is by no means the only thing that distinguishes early 15th Century style, however. Next week, I'll talk about the next major point: dress openings.

1 comment:

  1. Amen, a thousand times over.

    Curviness (though not necessarily *bustiness*) distinguishing 14th C from 15th C is something I've been banging on about for ages. I don't tend to look into the 15th C so the reversal of that trend back towards flat-frontedness is not something I'd noticed before, but I totally agree with your assessment.

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