Sunday, November 29, 2015

Girdling Your Skirts, Early 15th Century Style

The early 15th century seems to have had a dual personality when it came to skirt length. On the one hand, pooling skirts were quite vogue, and fashionable for any woman who could afford to have her gown made with the appropriate skirt length. On the other hand, this was an era in which many women performed any number of laborious tasks including housekeeping, artistic pursuits, weaving, and general labor. For these tasks, pooling skirts would have been ridiculous. But many of these women had a limited number of gowns in their possession, so it was not feasible to have gowns with pooling skirts and separate gowns with shorter working skirts.

The compromise, therefore, was to girdle long skirts when needed, reducing them in length when work was the order of the day. The manner, or rather manners, in which they did this likely varied from woman to woman, town to town, etc., resulting in a mixture of methods shown in contemporary artwork.

What's interesting (at least to me) is that belts were not that commonly depicted. When the dress is hiked up, it was fashionable, it appears, to conceal the girdle. There's a possibility, therefore, that belts with buckles were not used by a fair number of women. Instead, ropes, sashes, or strips of cloth could have done the work and saved the expense of an actual belt.

When I'm planning on doing a good deal of walking or carrying, I try to pack a belt in order to girdle my skirt. For me, the girdling is symbolic, just as it appears to be in manuscript illumination. Essentially, by reducing my skirt length, I've freed up my hands, and I'm visually stating, "I'm ready to work."

I thought it would be fun to share a few how-to instructions for creating similar girdling as some of the examples from early 15th century France. I did photo instructions for some of the more common ones I've come across. 

The Simple Girdle
BL MS Harley 4431, The Book of the Queen, fol. 183
Sometimes seen on older women wearing slightly out-of-date fashions, the skirt is simply pulled up into a loose over-hanging droop over the girdle. This is the fastest way to girdle a skirt, but isn't the most fashionable for this time. 

The Spare Tire
Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, The Decameron, fol.84
For this look, I took two lengths of trim and tied them both around my waist. I then worked the skirt out between them all the way around. I tucked the fold into the top of the higher girdle all the way around, letting it droop to cover the lower girdle.

The girdles need to be really tight, and it was tricky to get the lower girdle covered. With continued practice, I think it would be easier to figure out how much skirt to pull out between them to more easily get the desired effect.

The Low-Rider
BnF MS Latin 7907 A, The Comedies of Terence, fol. 42
This one exposes the girdle, you can use a belt or an alternative girdle that looks okay. Place the girdle around the waist. It should sit on the hips, and be very slightly loose. Reach between the belt and skirt, grab a handful of skirt, and pull it up. The girdle should ride up a bit in the front when you do this, but the rest of the girdle should still sit low on your hips.

The Hand Warmer
BnF MS Latin 7907 A, The Comedies of Terence, fol. 8
Using one girdle, I pulled the skirt up like the simple girdle, letting it cover the girdle. I then reached down and grabbed the hem of the front of the skirt. I pulled it up and tucked it into the girdle. Then re-positioned the loose droopy bit.
The Gravity Defier
BL MS Harley 4431, The Book of the Queen, fol. 124
In this curious case, the front of the skirt is taken a few inches below the waist and pulled neatly up (note the near-perfect box pleat that results), and is affixed using some invisible method. I suggest that the skirt is pinned into place with a closing or locking pin, like a cloak pin. I've tried a similar look with a plain straight dress pin, and it fails.

The Sheet Fold
Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, The Decameron, fol. 333
There are two ways you can do this. Both use an exposed girdle, so I'm using my leather belt.

For version one, I grabbed my skirt close to the bottom, but not too close. I pulled it up and tucked in into the top of the belt. The biggest trick here is to have your belt tight enough and to tuck enough in so that the weight of the skirt hanging down the front doesn't dislodge the whole thing.

I also located the version below that exposes the whole belt. Note also that the woman in red, whose dress style is not a working class style, has gone for The Spare Tire, as she is also involved in moving the body, and needs use of her hands.

Arsenal MS 5070, reserve, The Decameron, fol. 176
For version two, I moved the belt buckle a bit to the side. I grabbed the skirt the same way, but this time, I tucked it up under the belt from the bottom.

The Houppelande Hike
BL MS Harley 4431, The Book of the Queen, fol. 126
Girdling was primarily done on fitted gowns, but I did locate an example of a girdled houppelande. This is most likely a simple girdle worked below the high broad girdle using a second belt or alternative girdle.

The Flood Wader
BnF MS French 598, De claris mulieribus, fol. 12
There was apparently a fair amount of finesse employed in doing this one, since the results are always depicted with an almost origami-like artistic effect. For this look, I took one of my lengths of trim and tied it into a loop. After I started tucking, I realized I could have gone tighter with the girdle, and this whole look can be altered based on how high or low the girdle sits. I grabbed the skirt in two spots and tucked in it. Then worked the skirt into the girdle the rest of the way around. I was also able to do a simple girdle to raise my cotte skirt as well.
I'd like to note that these are just some of the girdling techniques I've found in the French manuscripts I've been studying. There are others out there. There are also others that are being created by re-enactors out "in the field" which are, I feel, just as valid if they effectively get the skirt out of the way and free up the hands.

1 comment:

  1. Great demonstrations. I am in the middle of making a layered skirt to do the same. I need this help to figure out how it is done. Thanks!