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Costumes Of The Midle Ages - 14th-15th Centuries

( Originally Published 1926 )



"How is a fashion born? Who mothers it? Who nurses it to fame, and in whose arms does it die? High collar, low collar, short hair, long hair, boot, buskin, shoe who wore you first? Who last condemned you to the World's Great Rag Market of Forgotten Fads?"

The second period of the fourteenth century was one full of artistic instinct and interest. The home life became more refined among the upper classes. Beautiful castles were built and more comforts were found in the homes. There was little change in the condition of the poor, although they did have more furniture in their homes and more utensils with which to prepare their food.

In the castles and manor-houses the social life of the women had changed. Evening parties, fetes, and feasts became quite common, and women received much more consideration, chivalry toward them being at its height. Troubadours, or minstrels, went from castle to castle singing songs and reciting romantic legends, and even the children were being thought about; they were given picture-books for the first time and the little girls had dolls. The women sat together and gossiped at their embroidery-frames or spinning-wheels; they were allowed little intercourse with the men at that time, even though they were held in great respect and honor.

Owing to their great wealth the middle classes were dressing quite as elaborately as the nobility, and sumptuary laws continued to be passed prohibiting their extravagance, and limiting the number of gowns and the amount paid for them, according to the income and station of the wearer.

Materials.—"The arts of weaving and dyeing had made extraordinary progress, and a taste for handsome materials had developed, even among the lowest ranks of society." Much of the silk worn was made in the city of Rheims; the manufacturers there were not much more honest than the silk manufacturers of the present day. They introduced threads of wool and linen into the materials they sold for all silk. They also used poor dyes, and much of the silk did not hold its color. The origin of the proverb "he lies like a dyer " may be traced to that day.

The writers of the day and the sumptuary laws give the names and kinds of many materials used at that time. Cendal and samite were silk, much like that of the present day. The former came in all colors, either plain or striped. Samite seems to have been heavier; it is described as having six strands, and was made in white, green, and red. A dark-blue cloth much used was called "pers." Camelin and bureau were made from camel's hair, as their names imply, and were probably used for capes and other garments. Molekin was a linen cloth, and isambrun, galcbrun, and brunette were all brown cloths of different textures. A strong cotton worn by the lower classes was called fustian. In 'serge material of diagonal weave wool was sometimes mixed with thread; there must also have been a fine linen cloth, as we find numerous references to it in connection with gimpes, chin-cloths, and veils.

The expense of the costume was very great; scarlet cloth for the coat of a duke or baron often cost 400 francs the ell, and two and one-half ells were used for the coat, making the total cost for cloth alone $200. Add to this the amount paid for embroidery and other trimming and we get a much higher price than would be paid for a coat at the present day. The life of these coats was, however, much longer than one of the modern coats manufactured in such quantities. Cloth of gold was 1800 francs an ell, and leaf gold was often used over silk for the pattern, with rich effect. Women's gowns were more expensive than those of the men, more material being required to fashion them.

Little change had been made in the costume of women during the first half of the fourteenth century, except that it was, more heavily ornamented. It still had a tight-fitting waist ; the shape of the neck was at first round, then raised or curved, and finally it formed a deep V reaching nearly to the belt. Some robes were open to the waist in front, over a petticoat which had a train and was trimmed with a band or border.

The distinguishing garments of the latter part of the century were the surcoat and the cotte-hardie; this latter, according to Mrs. Rhead in her Chats on Costume, developed from the supertunic, and was worn by both the men and women of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Challamcl speaks of these garments having been worn for some time in the thirteenth century, and Calthrop says that "the transition from tunic and cloak and Oriental draperies is so slow and so little marked by definite change that to the ordinary observer the Edwardian cotte-hardie seems to have sprung from nowhere." But he places the development of the surcoat in the reign of King John, 1199-1216, and states that it is the key-note of costume at that time.

The cotte-hardie was the undergarment, the tight waist of which buttoned down the front and reached halfway down the thigh; sleeves were attached to this. About the waist was worn a jewelled girdle. The surcoat was put on over the cotte-hardie and was usually made of heavy brocaded material the same width front and back. It hollowed out under the arms and at the neck and slipped on over the head. It reached below the hip-line, where sometimes a full skirt was fastened to it. Fur was used extensively as a trimming. These beautiful and artistic coats often had skirts a yard longer than the height of the wearer, in which case they had to be carried on the arm when walking.

Women's Dress.—The cotte-hardie, when worn by the women, was a tight-fitting tunic reaching nearly to the feet. It had tight sleeves buttoned from wrist to elbow, and often had a few buttons at the neck. A girdle of silk or cloth of gold confined it at the hip. This garment opened at the neck and showed a sort of collar or embroidered chemisette. Ladies of rank or high birth emblazoned the skirts of these gowns with coats of arms, their husband's on the right and that of their own family on the left.

Over this gown a second was worn, reaching a little below the knees; this had sleeves to the elbow; they were wide and in time became very long, and eventually developed into the hanging sleeves which were a feature of the fourteenth century. The surcoat, similar to that of the men, had wide sleeve-holes, and was worn over either or both of these garments. As a variation the sleeve was often cut open from elbow to wrist and an extra piece of stuff hung in.

Materials.—These surcoats were often of cloth of gold with a pattern of birds and beasts and foliage mingled in arabesque; the undergarment was of velvet, cloth, or silk, generally in plain colors, green and red being the favorites. Ermine and other furs were used as borders, and a tippet or long streamer of fur was attached to the arm above the elbow.

The individual was beginning to count, and fashions were designed to accent beauty or to cover defects. It is probable that the long skirts were brought into style because the daughters of Louis XI had misshapen legs and feet, and wished to cover them. Most of the styles originated in France, but the English adopted them, changing them sufficiently to conform to their ideas of conservatism in cut or decoration.

The fourteenth century shows the beginning of grotesque head-gear, which reached its zenith in the next century. In 1326 Isabelle of France is described as wearing a sugar-loaf head-dress of prodigious height, with a veil of fine gauze or tissue hanging from the point, the hair being concealed under the veil. Some of the head-dresses were ornamented with feathers, others were shaped like bushels, large or small, and occasionally the hair was confined in a net called a "crestine," "crepine," or "crespinette."

Another favorite fashion was a metal bandeau, or fillet, which encircled the forehead and had two metal cylinders of gold fretwork set with jewels attached at the sides over the ears. The hair was parted from front to back and brought to the front, where it was tucked into these metal cases. The hair was also worn braided, close to the front of the head, with the braids turned straight up or slightly on an angle, and held in place with a fillet. Sometimes the hair was worn flowing, or the side-locks were shaped into horns. It was often dyed with saffron, as yellow hair was much ad-mired. Much false hair was also worn. The women of France left off the veil, and used a sort of coif or hood called a "cornet." Hats called "couvre chefs" were made of a frame of parchment covered with fine cloth, silk, or velvet. For a few years they were very fantastic in shape. Another fashion was a straw hat worn over a white gimp which encircled the face. In stormy weather hoods, called "ammusses," were used; they were similar to those of the men, with a peak which fell to the nape of the neck and an opening in front for the face. In fine weather the ladies carried them on their arms. Women of all classes dressed alike, al-though they were strictly forbidden by law to do so.

Shoes.—Shoes were fitted to the foot. The points were not so long. Some buckled at the instep, some laced at the sides, while others buttoned up in front.'

Men's Dress.—Calthrop likens the development of men's dress in England to the growing up of a boy. He claims that there was very little fashion before 1066, when the babe, as he calls it, arrives in swaddling-clothes from France. It remains in this state "enveloped in rich cloaks and flowing draperies until 1240," when the boy begins to "show a more active interest in life," and had a desire to rid himself of the heavy coats and draperies which hampered his growth. In 1270 he developed a cloak with slits through which he could put his arms, and attached a hood to this garment. At the beginning of the fourteenth century "our boy shot up, dropped his mantles and heaviness, and came out from thence slim and youthful in a cotte-hardie."

Like the cotte-hardie of the women, this garment was a sort of vest, made of cloth or silk; it fitted tight to the body and close over the hips, and usually buttoned up the front. The length was determined by the fancy of the wearer; it might be either long or short. The sleeves fitted the forearm closely to the elbow and hung from there in a long, narrow point; later they were closed to the wrist with buttons. The tights were of cloth or silk, cut in two pieces and carefully fitted, and were often parti-colored. There was a belt at the hips, whose sole use was to carry the pouch and two daggers, there being no need to confine the fulness at the waist with this style of dress. Over these garments was worn the surcoat, made of some rich brocaded materials and trimmed with fur. It was in one piece, nine or ten feet long and twenty-two inches wide, with a hole cut in the centre for the head; it was held in place at the waist by a leather belt with a long end, and was often embroidered with heraldic design. In the fourteenth century this garment became shorter and was fastened together from the waist-line down. The sides were hollowed out to form large armholes, and pockets or slits appeared on each side of the front. The parti-colored effect was often carried out in this garment.

A circular cape with a hood, or a great oblong piece of material, was used for outdoor wear in cold or rainy weather. The men wore the tippet, made of silk and fastened on the lower part of the sleeve like a detachable cuff. Toward the end of the fourteenth century the houppelande, a long coat with a tight waist and very voluminous skirts, developed; some authorities think it was introduced from Spain. It was worn both in France and England and by the women as well as the men. It was usually lined with fur and had long, loose-hanging sleeves. A girdle which was sometimes ornamented held it in place. Clinch says that its principal characteristics were its "comfortable proportions and the looseness with which it fitted the body of the wearer." The high collar came well up in the centre of the back and was buttoned up to the chin in front.

Head-gear.—The hood or chaperone is most typical of the dress of this period. The principal changes that had taken place since the last century were that the cape to which it was attached had become longer and was cut in strips or long points, and the point of the hood had developed into the laripipe and was wound around the head in a fantastic manner. They also had caps of soft material, either wool or silk, with an upturned brim; these were often put on over the hood. The hair, which was cut square at the nape of the neck, seems to have been curled, as it stands out at the ears somewhat similar to that of the women.

Shoes.—The boots and shoes still showed sharp points and were buttoned at the instep or laced at the sides, and some were of red-and-white checked leather.

Women's Dress, Fifteenth Century.—The fifteenth century shows some definite changes in dress, the most notice-able being the normal or raised waistline. The surcoat had shortened and become a waist or form of corset separate from the skirt. The front was stiffened with bands of fur or metal and cut away at the sides to show the undergarment and girdle. Ladies were beginning to think that there was beauty in small waists and were using a sort of corset to obtain the desired effect.

By 1480 the neck of the waist was very low, and was out-lined by a wide turned-down collar which reached almost to the arms and finished with a point at the short waistline. The sleeve was tight from arm-hole to wrist. Velvet as well as fur was used as a trimming, and bands of that material finished the collars, sleeves, and skirts, and was used as a foundation for the gold-embroidered girdles which fitted the tight waists. The skirts were so long that they had to be carried on the arm when walking, and they were often ornamented with a deep band of fur. Toward the end of the century the waists became very short, and a strange fashion started of giving an abnormal development to the front of the figure by means of skirt draperies and a small cushion ; this style has been made familiar in the paintings of Albert Darer and Holbein. The houppelande similar to that of the men is also a feature of the costume of the fifteenth century.

Isabelle of Bavaria was "the sovereign arbiter of dress; she had fanciful ideas which became laws to the other ladies, both in the matter of head-gear and of toilet generally." One of the most interesting innovations was the introduction of the linen chemise into the wardrobe of a lady. Up to this time the women of France, and probably England, wore a coarse wool undergarment; Isabelle was the first to wear this garment made of linen, and she had only two in her wardrobe. She was copied by all the ladies of the court, and they cut slits in their waists and skirts to show the linen underneath. Linen must have been much more expensive than wool, as only the parts that showed were made of it, the rest of the garment being still of wool; or perhaps the ladies did not like the feel of linen next to their bodies. These garments were a luxury until the reign of Louis XI, and were probably the means of introducing the slashed garments of the next century.

Head-dresses.—There had been a gradual development of fantastic head-dresses since the period when women began to conceal their hair under the chin-cloth and wimple, and by the latter half of the fourteenth century and the beginning of the fifteenth these head-dresses reached a point where they were ridiculous as well as fantastic.

The caul, a popular one, and the forerunner of the hennin, was a bag made of gold wire ornamented in various ways, the pattern of which was usually diaper set with jewels. It was shaped like an orange, with a hole cut in one side for the face, "and was cut straight across the forehead and bound all round with a stiff jewelled band." It gradually developed into the horned hennin. The sides became like boxes, with points from four to fourteen inches high, the whole surrounded by a veil or wimple.

The heart shape was another popular one. This began by winding the hair on each side of the head and covering it with a net or caul. A flat pad with the sides slightly turned up was placed on top and the whole covered with the veil. The sides of this pad were gradually turned up sharply to form a V, and lengthened until they reached a yard above the head. The veil of gauze or silk, cut in points, was still worn with this. The sugar-loaf or tall, pointed hennin was another favorite. It became so exaggerated in height (three feet seems to have been the limit) that the doorways in the Castle of Vincennes had to be widened and raised so that the women could pass through, and a short woman looked as though her waist was in the centre of her body. Gold cloth, rich brocades, gold wire, and jewels were used in the construction of these hennins, and they must have been very beautiful and artistic, even if they were fantastic.

Isabelle of Bavaria, wife of Charles VI, wore a two-horned hennin, which reached three feet above her head. The women vied with each other as to who could wear the handsomest or most grotesque form of head-dress, and went to any expense to get ahead of their friends; they also shaved the hair at the back of the head and plucked their eyebrows.

The men were very bitter against hennins, and the Church tried in every way to prevent the women from wearing them. A monk called Brother Richard preached in Paris from five o'clock in the morning until eleven at night for several days, but had little effect. Thomas Connecte, another monk, preached in the French provinces, and had a little more influence; after hearing him some of the women took off their hennins and made a bonfire of them, but they soon returned to the fashion with even more exaggeration.'

Taken in connection with the long, flowing draperies, pointed sleeves, and pointed shoes, and the color, this style of head-dress is most artistic, from the point of view of decoration, and is a distinctly popular one for stage-setting. Any one who saw the Russian ballet of "Till Eulenspiegel" will remember how very decorative the costumes were, with their exaggerated head-gear and the brilliant coloring of the garments worn by the men and women.

From the standpoint of health this fashion of hennins must have been very injurious, the great weight which was placed on the head being a strain on the neck and back, although Calthrop speaks of them carrying themselves very erect. How they were held in place is difficult to understand, unless they were constructed in connection with the chin-cloth and held in place in that way.

Men's Dress.—Very little change seems to have been made in the costume worn by the men, except that it also had become more exaggerated in some ways. The houppellande was still in vogue, but the sleeves had become longer and were pointed, with the edges cut in jagged points. The skirt of the short tunic was plaited and held in place at the normal waist by a tight belt without ends. The collar was high with a rolled-over top. The hose or tights were still parti-colored, and the long, pointed shoes, or poulaines, were chained to the knee.

The cape and laripipe had gradually changed into a cap more like a turban, with a full cockscomb, or rosette, at the side. This probably came about by the opening for the face being used for the headsize, while the long end was bound about the head like a turban, leaving the fulness of the cape to form the crown of the cap, and fall over the side and form the cockscomb. Gradually, as the winding of this cap took time, it was made up in a hat with a crown and round, padded brim, a long end of silk being added as trimming. This end was the last remnant of the laripipe.

The latter half of the fifteenth century saw many changes: the invention of gunpowder had revolutionized warfare, and the invention of the printing-press had opened up the treasures of the older civilizations to the modern world. The spirit of the Middle Ages was being transplanted by the Renaissance, and the old order of things was passing away. As the Renaissance had its beginning in Italy, we may expect to find that country having its influence on the dress and manners of France and England for the next two centuries.



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