Early Aristocratic Dress for Women

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Early Aristocratic Dress for Women


During the period when court costume was evolving, the clothing of aristocratic women mirrored the men's layered look, although women did not wear braies or underpants. Throughout the entire period treated in this chapter, noblewomen wore a chemise or camise (Anglo-Saxon, "smock") next to their bodies. The aristocratic version of the chemise was similar to the one worn by peasant women, but in the late eleventh century this basic undergarment became more elaborate; the neckline was gathered with cords within a decorative band of piping that was secured at the front, later replaced with a button and loop fastening. The wrists of the sleeves were similarly decorated, and the embroidery of both the sleeves and the neckbands was allowed to show when the lady was completely dressed. The fabric at the shoulder and upper arm and just above the wrist area of the sleeves was pleated or gathered to ensure a close fit. Such garments were usually made of linen, but fine fabrics such as wool or silk were also used to make a chemise, a variation which, along with the careful fitting and elaborate decoration, emphasized the aristocratic woman's access to materials and labor, as well as the use of servants to help her with dressing and undressing. While peasant women wore a single dress or cote over the chemise, aristocratic female outerwear consisted of a series of gowns. Directly over the chemise was worn a second long garment known as the undergown. It, too, was made of fine fabric, but was more closely fitted than the outer gown and had tight sleeves. The over-gown was long, reaching at least to the floor, although in periods of costume excess, these gowns sometimes dragged on the ground or extended behind the wearer in trains that also required servants to manage during court appearances. In the second half of the eleventh century, women wore gowns arranged with easy folds of fabric encasing the body; both upper and lower portions of these gowns were generously cut. The outer and most formal garment was a mantle, fastened with cords or a brooch (jeweled pin).

The Shaped Gown.

By the late twelfth century, though both men and women wore several layers of gowns, a definite difference between the male and female silhouette began to appear in representations of these garments in works of art. Women's robes now fitted very tightly at the waist and were made to outline the figure through tight bodices with a row of ornamental buttons, tight sleeves, and the girdle, a wide belt-like accessory that went round the hips several times and then was tied off in front with the ends or tags often elaborated to considerable length, even touching the feet. It was during this period that women's costume was amply represented, and sometimes exaggerated, in the newly fashionable medieval romances—long episodic narrative poems describing the adventures of knights, both amorous and military, and their rescues of women from oppressors. The romances often detailed what women were wearing and described ornamentation, such as the embroidery on belts and coifs or head coverings. The Romance of the Rose, in its continuation by Jean de Meun (born c. 1237), also discussed the newest styles and fashions for women. Such works showed women how to wear their clothes. They provided instructions on how to make the waist of a gown appear smaller by the way the mantle was held, how to lift the skirts so as to reveal a small foot, and how to swing the hips slightly while walking. Notable among mid-thirteenth-century authorial comments was Jean de Meun's observation that the contemporary woman "through the streets [should] go/With most seductive motion, not too stiff … / So nobly sway her shoulders and her hips/That men no motion could believe more fair" (Robbins, 282). In this period of increased awareness of the female form, the ease of the older styles disappeared and the waistlines of the gowns themselves were tightened, first by the use of stiffer fabric, and later by means of a laced corset worn under gowns made of more delicate cloth. These robes were called bliaut, a term which could refer either to a knight's outer tunic, or a lady's outer dress, both of costly cloth. Sometimes, especially in Middle High German, the term could simply mean rich fabric, such as silk, satin, or velvet imported from the Orient. This cloth was frequently woven with gold thread and embroidered with gems. In its most distinctive use to refer to a woman's garment, bliaut signifies a gown of the richest fabrics, banded at neck and wrist edges with strips of embroidery, fur-lined, having a tightly-laced (at the sides) elongated bodice, a full, long skirt, and sleeves of various styles. In this manner the upper body silhouette was redefined.

Furry Slippers

Among the new fashion trends developing in Europe during the period of William II's reign in England was the mantle. These outer garments, always made of the most luxurious fabrics available—some imported from the Orient—became even more elaborate with the innovative addition of a second layer composed of the most expensive furs, especially ermine, vair, and miniver, which symbolized the owner's wealth and power. Ermine is a white fur with black spots created by sewing together the gray backs and white bellies of whole squirrels; it was called vair in France from the Latin varius, meaning "speckled" or "changeable." A closely related aristocratic fur, minever, is a "fabric" made only from a squirrel's white belly area or constructed from this belly fur with only an edge of the gray flank fur.

The association of the fur called "vair" with aristocratic clothing contributed to one of the most distinctive (and rather odd) details in the modern version of the fairy tale "Cinderella." Apparently the strange "glass slippers" that children have accepted for generations without question were, in the original folk story, slippers made of fur or "vair." But when Charles Perrault (1628–1723) wrote the story down for publication, an error was made in transcription, and the word became "verre," meaning glass. Thus, one of the most fascinating elements of this popular story was the result of a mistranslation of a medieval fashion term.

Girdles, Sleeves, and Headdresses.

Typically, female fashions in the Middle Ages changed more in the small detail than in the nature of the garments themselves, since vanity in female costume was considered by preachers to be a dangerous vice. Moreover, the major changes in length that characterized male costume were not adopted by women, who never revealed their legs (though their dresses had trains of varying lengths). Thus, it is to matters of silhouette and accent that women generally turned their attention. Belts, called girdles, were introduced into women's costumes during the century following the Battle of Hastings (1066) and emphasized the fitted styles that gave the female figure more of an outline than in previous centuries. Girdles were constructed as twisted cords, sometimes knotted, made from gold or silver wire and dyed wool or silks. These cords were periodically bound with ornamental brooches or emblematic enameled or jeweled bosses, or convex raised metal engraved or otherwise ornamented and sometimes finished off with tassels. It was customary to pass the doubled decorative cords around the body, to pull the ends through the loop, and to allow them to hang down the front of the gown. Simpler girdles were also constructed from a length of fabric decorated with stitching of a contrasting color. Queen Matilda of England willed one of her two girdles made of gold thread—this one with emblematic ornamentation—to the Abbey of the Holy Trinity to use for hanging a lamp in front of the altar. She left her gold embroidered mantle to this same abbey, to be turned into a cope or religious vestment. By the mid-twelfth century another element of female costume that seems to have been the subject of elaboration was the sleeve. Often sleeves were wide, contributing to the overall bulk of the ensemble, and the cuffs hung so low below the wrists that they touched the ground and were knotted to shorten them. These sleeves were sewn onto the costume with each wearing, so that it was possible to have a number of different variations that could be added to a basic costume. Since the color of these removable sleeves often contrasted with the color of the robe, it was possible for a lady to choose for herself a distinctive sleeve that could be given to a suitor as a token to be worn on his helm or used as a pennon, sometimes at tournaments, reflecting in this way a similarity to the coat of arms or blazon that identified individual knights. A final detail of female fashion was the headdress, which for noble-women from 1066 to 1154 was in the form of a veil made from fine linen or cambric in a variety of shapes; these veils hid the wearer's hair and sometimes also hid the neck with draped fabric. Called by the Normans a couvrechef, such a veil might also be worn with an end flung across the shoulder. A later variation, in the thirteenth century, was the caul, a fine linen cap fastened under the chin.


W. N. Bonds, "Genoese Noblewomen and Gold Thread Manufacturing," Mediaevalia et Humanistica 17 (1966): 79–81.

Cecil Cunnington and Phyllis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes (London: Michael Joseph, 1951).

Eunice Rathbone Goddard, Women's Costume in French Texts of the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1927; rpt. New York, 1973): 40–59.

William W. Kibler and Carleton W. Carroll, trans., Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1991).

Françoise Piponnier, "Linge de maison et linge de corps au Moyen Age," Ethnologie française 3 (1986): 343–363.

The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Trans. Harry Robbins (New York: Dutton, 1962).

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Early Aristocratic Dress for Women

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