A New Look for Women

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A New Look for Women

Necklines And Upper Body Coverings.

The most significant change occurring in feminine styles around the middle of the fourteenth century in France and England was a low neckline revealing shoulders and the upper portions of the breasts. One explanation for this change is geographic since the lowering of women's necklines in dresses with very tightly laced or buttoned bodices, tight-fitting sleeves, and A-line skirts was perhaps at first a climate-related trend from Italy. But with the new interest in the human body and the belief that the body was a potential source of beauty, the style spread rapidly northward to cooler regions by the fourteenth century. Now visible were areas of the body that had formerly been hidden by a higher neckline and a wimple, a portion of the headdress that covered the whole of the neck and even part of the chin. The contrast between the newer, barer style for fashionable women and the older more conservative style was strikingly expressed in the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the GreenKnight, where the poet notes of the lady of the house that "her breast and her bright throat were shown bare and gleamed brighter than snow new fallen on hillsides," in contrast to the witch-like Morgan le Faye who had "a gorger or coverchief over her neck, bound over her black chin with chalk-white veils/her forehead shrouded in silk." Such low necklines were a stylistic feature that lasted through the following century. At the same time, for reasons not fully understood, no matter how revealing of the bosom these low necklines were, women's arms still remained covered by sleeves.

Women and the Houppelande.

From about 1350 onward, and coinciding with the advent of the new short costume for men, records for expenditures on clothing purchased by various royal courts survive and provide considerable information regarding styles, color, and fabric choices (especially vernacular or non-Latin terms for colors and costume styles), and the particular court occasions, such as weddings or festivals, for which the items were ordered. Since male fashion seems to have been documented more than female, it is harder to say with certainty exactly what was purchased for women, and costume historians are forced to rely more on manuscript miniatures and other depictions in the decorative arts. Nonetheless, it seems clear that during the period from 1340 to 1485, feminine fashion remained relatively stable, though throughout the fifteenth century women's necks were decidedly bare, with the exception of a brief period from around 1415 to 1425 when it was fashionable to cover them. In the first quarter of the century, the standard garments for women were the cote and the mantle, with the cotehardie (a sort of vest), the sideless gown or surcoat (adopted from Italy), worn by noble-women only for the most important court ceremonies. In the second decade of the fourteenth century, the garment formerly reserved for men, the houppelande, with a variety of fanciful sleeve types, was adopted for feminine wear. This garment's extravagant decoration, with slashings to show contrasting fabric below and cut-out decoration at very full sleeves and hem, was taken over with slight modification by women in the form of full frontal closure and a train. A variation in the style of the sleeves of the houppelande or robe appeared at the middle of the century when a tight sleeve with a cuff covering the knuckles replaced older sleeve types. The female form of the cotehardie was somewhat less fancy than its male counterpart. It was worn over a "kirtle," a term originally designating a short linen under-garment, later an overgown, and still later, analogous to the French cote, the outer garment also known as a robe or surcote. Buttons were optional, and no girdle was worn with it.

of Medieval Head Coverings

Almuce: An elongated, fur-lined hood. Initially worn by the general population, it later became the headdress worn by clerics, especially canons (members of a religious community who lived outside a monastery in "colleges" and were often associated with the daily song rituals in cathedrals).

Bonnet (English "cap"): A general French term denoting a small head-covering. This term was used from the early Middle Ages onward.

Chaperone: A hood with a lower edge long enough to cover the nape of the neck and upper shoulders, having a circular opening for the face and often a long point, sometimes with a tail or tippet added. In the fifteenth century, the chaperone was often worn in an elaborate curved turban-like arrangement on top of the head, with the tippet wrapped to retain the desired shape.

Coif: A small covering for the head, usually of linen, that tied under the chin, resembling a present-day baby bonnet. It was worn beneath other types of headdresses. Dating from the early thirteenth century, it disappeared from men's fashionable dress by the middle of the fourteenth century, except that it continued to be worn by Sergeants at Law in England even after they became judges. In warmer weather, nobles often wore other light headgear such as flower wreaths, garlands of peacock feathers, and jeweled circlets.

Hennin: Primarily a French headdress of the second half of the fifteenth century, the hennin had a cone-shaped construction with soft veiling attached at the peak that hung behind it in varying lengths, some as long as to the floor. At the time when these were popular, ladies shaved or plucked their foreheads to raise their hairlines, and their tall headdresses emphasized this elongated facial effect.

Reticulated headdress: A style in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries characterized by the enclosure of hair arrangements in a net-like receptacle. The forerunner of this headdress was the caul or crispinette. Reticulated headdresses were made of gold, silver, or silk nets, sometimes set with jewels at intersections, and fashioned into bags to hold the hair in place.

Wimple: A small veil or shawl-like garment worn over the neck and upper chest, usually draped, pleated, or tucked. Attached at the sides of the head either by ties or pins, they were worn sometimes as loose coverings and at other times fitted so as to adhere closely to the neck. Wimples were stylish in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, but by the second half of the fourteenth century they were primarily conservative garments worn only by nuns, ladies in mourning, and elderly women.

Hennins and Headdresses.

For the whole of the fifteenth century, very fanciful largely vertical headdresses built up on a framework or understructure were in fashion, perhaps because women wanted to participate in the acquisition of ever-changing fashions but were not permitted to make drastic changes to the length of their dress. Continuing the trend of decorative excess, women's fifteenth-century headgear included heart-shaped and "reticulated" headdresses—that is, headdresses characterized by the enclosure of hair arrangements in a stiff net-like receptacle that replaced the earlier "snoods," or bags, to hold the hair in place. The hennin, primarily a French headdress of the fifteenth century, was a cone-shaped construction with soft, often pleated veiling attached by pins at the peak that hung behind it in varying lengths, some as long as to the floor. The origin of the word "hennin" is unknown; it possibly reflects a contemptuous slur meaning "to whinny," which was flung by passersby at women wearing such headdresses on the streets. Another form of such headdresses was that called "cornes" (horns), in which the headcovering branched out like a crescent moon in two horn-like protuberances. Towards the end of the medieval period, perhaps responding to the same taste for "verticality" that appeared in Gothic architecture (and also in men's clothing), women plucked or shaved their hairlines to increase their expanse of foreheads—a style

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called "bombé" or "bulged"—and their tall headdresses emphasized this elongated facial effect. A late fifteenth-century panel painting of a young woman with plucked or shaved hairline and a sheer veil and tall headdress from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, now in the National Gallery in London, shows this cosmetic and fashion style.


Mireille Madou, "Cornes and Cornettes," in Flanders in a European Perspective: Manuscript Illumination around 1400 in Flanders and Abroad; Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Leuven, 7–10 September 1993. Ed. M. Smeyers and Bert Cardon (Leuven, Belgium: Uitgerij Peeters, 1995): 417–426.

Margaret Ruth Miles, Carnal Knowing; Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (Tunbridge Wells, England: Burns and Oates, 1992).

John Scattergood, "Fashion and Morality in the Late Middle Ages," in England in the Fifteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1986 Harlaxton Symposium. Ed. David Williams (Woodbridge, Suffolk, England: Brewer, 1987): 255–272.

Cheunsoon Song and Lucy Roy Sibley, "The Vertical Headdress of Fifteenth–Century Northern Europe," Dress 16 (1990): 4–15.

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A New Look for Women

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