Monday, September 4, 2017

Houppelandes of the Early 15th Century

Like most things clothing-related in this period, the sumptuous overgown we call the houppelande (usually pronounced HOOP-lawn in the circles I run with), has a layered evolution that has to be understood through both time and class. The houppelande style of gown may have been brought north from Italy in the later 14th century. It can be seen in the imagery of the Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscripts produced at the end of the 14th century, such as this striped example below, possibly from Milan.

Detail from Tacuinium Sanitatis, (Nouvelle acquisition latine 1673), fol. 81v, c. 1390.

The style, with a high, tight collar and folds of excess fabric cinched high on the waist, was quite different from the also popular, provocative fitted cotes. In the hands of the French right at the turn of the century, they became prohibitively expensive for all but the noble classes- a sign of the era's trend of "conspicuous consumption"- and was established as an ideal canvas for excess. In the first third of the 15th century, women are purchasing extra ells of cloth and having their tailors find ways to include the extra into their gowns. This resulted in gowns with excessive pleating around the torso, long angel wing sleeves, extremely high collars, and full, pooling skirts.

Detail from The Queen's Book, (British Library, Harley 4431), fol. 376, c. 1410-1414.
The most excessive houppelande was ridiculous for the wearer. However, the "regular" houppelande still was not "tame" in any regard. See for example the similarity between the houppelande below on a character meant specifically to symbolize grandiosity:

Detail from Le Decameron, (Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, Ms-5070 réserve), fol. 120r, c. 1432.
And this houppelande on the Queen of France, contemporary to the time of the manuscript:

Detail from The Queen's Book, (British Library, Harley 4431), fol. 3, c. 1410-1414.
As easy as it is to assume that more fabric is "better" when it comes to houppelandes, nothing that made life more difficult was likely to be too popular. These opulent and excessive gowns, therefore, where not going to be practical for most women, even those who may have been able to afford them. Which leads us to looking less at how sumptuous or excessive they were, and more at the different types and who was wearing them.

There are 3 basic types of houppelandes in this period, collared with angel wing sleeves, v-necked with angel wing sleeves, which show up in the later 1420's, and v-necked with straight sleeves, which begin appearing in the 1430's. Examples of all 3 can be found in my favorite 1430's manuscript, Le Decameron.

Details from Le Decameron, (Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, Ms-5070 réserve), fols. 173v, 222r, 362v, c. 1432.
A rule of thumb is that gowns with angel wing sleeves belonged to the noble classes or to the absolute highest echelon of the middle class. The two houppelande styles sporting them, therefore, belong to the most affluent women of society, and dominate the first three decades of the century. These gowns would only be worn by women who lived relative lives of leisure, and for whom the visible statement of the ability to spend on frivolity was important to the authority of her station. As the century rolls on, however, the straight-sleeve style begins to appear with more frequency, and on more classes of women.

It is this less-extravagant houppelande that I'm most interested in as a middle class woman. While the layered fitted gown had been the fashionable choice for the bourgeois class in the 1410-20's, by the 1430's, this simplified houppelande was the "it" fashion.

Marginal detail from The Hours of Marguerite d'Orléans (BNF, Det. of Manuscripts, Latin 1156B), fol. 89r. 1426-38.
With a girdled full torso, reasonable straight (not fitted) sleeves, no collar, and no extra length, the middle class houppelande was a statement of ability for many women who had earned their place in affluent society with many decades of working and networking alongside their husbands. These houppelandes came to symbolize the wealthy middle class in the decades that follow, and are featured prominently in the works of Rogier van der Weyden.

Detail from "Deposition of Christ" by Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1435
This middle class houppelande was also a catalyst for the nobility to adjust to the changing economy by looking for different ways to show their station that would be difficult or impossible for the middle class to copy. Expensive silks and furs, rather than excess cloth became their weapon, eventually giving birth to the new "Burgundian" style, open-v-necked houppelande of the 1450's. One great example of upper class houppelandes in that "adjustment" period is in Petrus Christus's "A Goldsmith in His Shop".

A Goldsmith in is Shop, Petrus Christus, c. 1449.
The straight-sleeved houppelande can be found on nobility as well as middle class women in the 1430's, so understanding the context of any given depiction is important, but I've noticed that class rank can be initially determined by looking at headdress. Padded roll style headdress were higher in class than horned veils, which in turn were higher than open hoods. Which makes the simple houppelande and open hood combination exactly correct for the daily wear of a middle class townswoman in the 1430's.

Detail from Le Decameron, (BNF, Dept. of Manuscripts, Français 23), fol. 212v, possibly c. 1430's.
The bottom line with all this is that while the houppelande is an extremely important element of women's fashion in this period, we can't place it neatly inside the idea that they were excessive garments worn only by the wealthy. With all things in the 15th Century, fashion was in a constant give and take between the classes as society rearranged itself to account for a different distribution of wealth, and a different economic framework as it raced toward the Renaissance. When we look at the houppelande in context and in the wider picture, we see that things aren't so black and white, and we should never overlook the middle class' ability to drive the engine of fashion simply by their desire to "keep up".


  1. Excellent research, as always. Thanks for the fascinating post.

  2. I agree with Miriam, it is very well researched and written. Thank you.