Sunday, October 23, 2016

What Makes an Outfit Early 15th Century: Part 2

Notice something missing? (Source)
Last post, we started looking at what makes early 15th century clothing different and distinguishable from the clothing styles before and after it. In Part 1, I talked about the basic difference in silhouette. The early 15h century ideal shape was generally curvier. In this post, part 2, I want to talk about another distinguishing feature that makes early 15th century women's fashion distinguishable. Actually, it's the lack of a feature we're going to be talking about.

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)
Except that after the introduction of the laced opening, the buttoned opening very rapidly came into fashion. After 1375, if there's an opening on a cote, it's more likely buttoned, rather than laced. That's not to say laced examples aren't out there, just that they are difficult to find. What's important to note is that the function of a buttoned opening and that of a laced one are different. Ever try to put a great amount of stress on a buttoned shirt? Under strain, buttons will pop. Linear button holes will stretch out. Buttons and lacing aren't really interchangeable closing techniques. An opening that is being closed by a lace is stronger and sturdier than one closed by buttons.

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.
So I went looking for dress openings. I went to my 500+ image collection of women from French manuscripts in the first portion of the 15th Century. It's not an exhaustive collection, it's not the be-all, end-all of this topic, but it's a fairly good representative sample size.

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)
I did also locate 2 examples of front buttoned openings. They both come from BNF MS French 598 (On Famous Women, circa 1403).

BNF MS French 598, fols. 93v (left) and 134v (right) (Source)
That's it. The vast majority of images showing fitted dress styles lack any indication that a lacing was used. With the evidence we do have, there's certainly a case that if lacing is present, it's on the side. Even then, that evidence is tenuous.

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.


  1. Very interesting post; thanks for writing and publishing it!

    The question of whether so-called women's "cotehardies" ever actually button down the front has caused some controversy among historical costumers, as you no doubt know. I think your explanation (that by the early 15th c. a laced layer supported the breasts, but was not seen except on lower class women, and was not meant to be seen on "fashionable" women) makes a *lot* of sense.

    I know you are very busy, but do you think you would be interested in publishing a more formal paper on this (if only on the Web), identifying some of the sources you examined in reaching your conclusions? I think it would be useful to the general debate, and might even be of interest to archaeologists and "official" clothing historians.

    1. Right now I have the basics of my current research available at It's not the best format there, since it was originally developed as a presentation. I'm still working on getting into a nice user-friendly document for the general public. I have also just recently considered getting it into more scholarly venues. I am grateful for your encouragement to look into that too. All I'm waiting for is time. ;)

    2. Thanks! It's good that the lozengia materials include images. Very very interesting. Good luck finding the time to press on with this.

  2. Great information. It's hard to figure some things out, they assumed everybody just knew, and now we can't really assume, we have to theorize.
    My thoughts on laced or buttoned come from a costuming background. It's the "Why we don't put zippers in ballet costumes," or why we don't put them in most costumes and hooks or buttons are better, is that if a zipper fails, or a lace breaks, it's a very big "OOOPS." Especially with zippers, your sunk. If a hook and eye or button goes, it's just the one. True, if a lace breaks, in an emergency you can tie the pieces together, but then you probably have to cut the lace when you change, and you'll have a fairly large opening until you can get to it.
    Also, on the front or back question, it's more about social standing. In other words if you have a maid to do up the back lacing, OK. If not, and you need to do it up yourself, it needs to be in front, which means a lower class. That would be very important to make clear on a tomb or portrait. It was the same in Japan with the obi being tied in back. If it was in front, you were in the "pillowing" business which was prostitution. The poor couldn't afford to even have an obi. It wouldn't end up in a portrait.

  3. Another excellent post.

    I am exceedingly impressed with the level of thought and the focused research you are bringing to this topic. Bravo!

    1. Thanks! I'm really enjoying this journey. The real trick is to take all this information and walk the talk moving forward. ;)