|Notice something missing? (Source)|
Point #2: Early 15th century French women's fitted styles primarily lack front openings.
One note before going forward- I mean this new point to be taken in conjunction with last week's point. A huge chunk of medieval fashion lacks a front opening. What I'm talking about is the lack of this detail in the context of Gothic fashion following the introduction of the fitted cote.
Before I dive into the evidence, we need to go back a bit. When the new, tight-fitting cote style came into use in the late 14th century, a long opening made absolute sense. In terms of innovation, the use of an opening that allowed the wearer to get the garment on then tighten it around his or her body is pretty revolutionary. Up to that point, almost all clothing was simply pulled on over the head (with some exceptions). So the use of an opening that would be closed to create a tight fit was a really new approach.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to the use of lacing. The first school states that lacing was not included in miniature paintings because it was meant to be overlooked. Basically, in painted form it was just ignored. The second school of thought (and the one I generally fall into) is that lacing wasn't painted in because it either wasn't there or wasn't noticeable.
There is about 30-40 years between the widespread introduction of the fitted cote and the styles of the early 15th Century. That's a good amount of time to improve and evolve an idea. We can see this evolution when we go looking for openings. Manuscripts aren't the best place to look for this in the 14th century. Most manuscripts are still too stylized. Instead, we can turn to effigies and brasses.
There's a brief period of time, about 1360-1375, where the still-new cotes are shown with laced front openings. There are extremely few examples of this from France. English effigies, however, offer some fantastic examples. Two famous effigies are below. Philippa of Hainault from 1367 (left) and Catherine of Warwick from about 1370 (right). These are amazing examples, and they have gone a long way to reinforce the idea that these dresses were laced in the front.
|Philippa of Hainault, 1367 (source) | Catherine of Warwick, c. 1370 (source)|
Which begs the question- After a brief trend of being considered fashionable, did the stronger laced cote become an undergarment? When we see dresses with buttoned or no opening after 1375, is a laced cote hidden below them? (Tasha Kelly over at La Cotte Simple also posited this same thing in her lacing article.)
My instinct, for whatever it's worth, is to say yes, for the most part. I say yes, because by the 1400's, women's fashion is dictated by the a 3-layer mode: body linen + base layer + fashion layer. We see this play out time and time again with only two exceptions. The first is that lower class women, particularly those at the very bottom of society, almost always lack a fashionable layer. The second exception is when the long sleeve fitted cote covers the body with no indication of a layer below it. Which is not, in and of itself, evidence that it's the base layer.
Let's also not overlook that early 15th century fashion takes a hugely divided split through the middle class. On the lower end, we see the continued development of cote fashion, occasionally with some playing around with sleeve styles. On the upper end, we see the advancement of both the houppelande and the fitted cote.
The houppelande evolved out of an entirely different fashion concept (that of excess) in the late 1300's. It was also not supportive, not even remotely. So in order to achieve the curvy high bust we looked at last time, there would have to be a supportive cote doing that underneath.
I've talked about in the past the idea that we have to cast a smaller net. We can't point to Catherine of Warwick and say "oh look, lacing", and use that as evidence to wear visible lacing for the dress styles of 30+ years later. We can't look at the extremely famous example below of woman working the field on the June page of Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, and completely overlook her context and class.
|Detail, June calendar page, Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry, circa 1416.|
When I found lacing, it was always on the side. All of the examples I found come from BL MS Burney 257 (Thebais and Achilles, circa 1405), below, which were done in a drawing-like style rather than the typical, colorful manuscripts that dominate this period. In this particular manuscript there is no other location of lacing shown- it only appears on the sides.
|BL MS Burney 257, fols. 81 (left) and 72 (center & right). (Source)|
|BNF MS French 598, fols. 93v (left) and 134v (right) (Source)|
But here's an important point. If we go back to the 3-Layer concept, and apply it to fashionable dress (versus what the lowest classes were wearing), that middle "base" layer is the one responsible for shaping. That layer is the laced layer, either with the lace at the front or side. It didn't really matter where that lacing was, because it wasn't meant to be seen. It's also really key to note that with the materials in use at this period, you can't achieve 100% bust support without lacing. No matter how much like octopi your boobs are, if the underbust isn't completely fitted, there's a weakness in the support. (Just read all my past blog posts of dress patterning to find out how I know this.)
This means that the outer layer, whether it's a fitted gown or a houppelande, has no supportive requirement. It can skim the body, and be a little looser, and still slide onto a supported bust. The biggest exception to this is a specific body type in which the shoulders are much wider than the underbust. There are likely other exceptions with a similar problem- that the shoulders/upper chest are too large to fit through a narrow band of bust support, even a sort of loose one. It is in these instances when the use of the side lacing on the gown make practical sense (and may be the only way that fitted style can be worn.)
One other point, that I'll make in the form of a rhetorical question: If lacing was a visible detail on the front of women's dresses, why would artists routinely ignore it, while simultaneously showing details like dagging on men's sleeves, seams and buttons on hoods, wood grain on doors, and other inconsequential, minute details?
So here's my early15th Century guideline: Ask yourself two questions. Is this my base layer? If the answer is yes, lace away. If it's not, can you get the garment on without needing lacing? If the answer is no, opt for side lacing.
I'm not going to go so far as to say that anybody with a front lacing on their outer gown is doing it "wrong", mostly because there's absolutely no way anybody can claim that kind of hard and fast rule for this period. The trick is to minimize the visual detail of that lacing. Make it was inconspicuous as possible by selecting a matched lace color, and eliminating gaps the best you can. Be aware that loose lacing that shows the layer underneath is never shown as a fashionable or appropriate mode of dress in the early 15th century France (been guilty of this myself).
Just one final note. I didn't talk about how this is different from the later 15th century styles because by the 1440's, variations on the houppelande are what most women are wearing. Basically, the rules of fashion have changed, and the dress is so different, the details of something like dress openings offers almost no comparison.
Next time, we'll look at the third and final thing that helps us distinguish early 15th century fashion- headdress.