The New Silhouette for Aristocratic Men

views updated

The New Silhouette for Aristocratic Men

Bodies on Display.

The period around 1330 saw the beginning of Italianate influence on both English and French fashion styles. At this time noblemen abandoned their long robes and, for public appearances, wore short doublets or padded jackets that fit close to the body with leg-hugging hose revealing and emphasizing the thighs and buttocks. This new style first vied in popularity with the long robes worn at the beginning of the century, but, by its end, had fully replaced the traditional fashion among younger men, especially those with ties to the most fashionable courts. The shorter

[Image not available for copyright reasons]

garments were initially knee-length, but rose throughout the century to mid-thigh and then nearly to the waistline. In the form known as a cotehardie, its distinguishing features were the row of buttons that ran from the neckline to the low waistline, and the elbow-length sleeves from which a long extension of fabric known as a "tippet" hung down. Some costume historians have seen the shortening and exhibitionism of male costume in this period as a reflection of the new interest in the unclothed, partially clothed, or sexualized body becoming evident in late medieval culture. Though there are no literary or philosophical documents that can be cited to support any general consciousness of such an interest, it is certainly present in a variety of medieval artistic manifestations. The rising interest in naturalism (the focus on natural and organic processes and forms) fostered by the study of Aristotle's works in the medieval university, the practice of dissecting bodies in late medieval medical education, and the growing respectability of Greek and Roman mythology with its attention to unclad nymphs and demigods as a subject for literary and artistic imitation all played a part in the idea of a revealed body, especially at the beginning of the fifteenth century. A good example is the medieval revival of the classical myth of Pygmalion, which was depicted frequently in wall paintings, tapestry, poetry, and manuscript illumination. The story in the Tenth Book of Ovid's Metamorphoses recounts how a bachelor artist, Pygmalion, made a beautiful ivory statue of a woman with whom he fell in love. He spent much of his time clothing and ornamenting the carving, bringing it presents, and speaking to it. He prayed to Venus to animate this statue and his wish was granted. Among other important medieval representations of female and male bodies are the naked "Venus rising from the waves" scenes of mythographic treatises like the Fulgentius Metaforalis in Rome and the famous Zodiac Man in Jean de Berry's Très Riches Heures.

The last is a miniature showing an unclothed young man, parts of whose body are keyed to the constellations and planets that have astrological influence on them. In a culture where monastic moralism discouraged excessive interest in the flesh, such "distant" or mythological miniatures provided acceptable spaces in which the body, safely dehumanized, could be examined.

Padding and Lacing.

In the fourteenth century, it was customary for knights to wear "soft armor" under their mail or plate armor; in keeping with the continuing identity of the nobility with their military origins, one form of the new short tunic—called the doublet or pourpoint (also called gambeson)—came to be padded with various fibers, such as hemp, cotton, or silk, and then quilted. In 1322 the Armourers' Company in London laid down specifications for this garment: that it be covered in sendal (a silken fabric) and that it be padded with only new cloths of silk and cadar (a name for cotton, which was a new and exotic material now being imported from Egypt to the West). To eliminate extra fabric that bunched beneath the arm, this close-fitting doublet had inset sleeves, replacing the older garment that had been cut in a T-shape. The outermost layer of these garments was composed of the costliest of fabrics from the thirteenth century onward; they were often embroidered, and they were worn as ordinary dress before and after a nobleman was armed. Thus, as the new short costume came to be worn independent of the armor it originally had supplemented, this military necessity became high fashion for the courtier. Later, doublets came to be laced to increase their tightness as part of the new silhouette for men. In the fifteenth century, the doublet and hose were the premier garments of male attire, and a variety of over-garments were also worn, such as the paletot (a short-sleeved, short and loose gown for men).

The Houppelande.

Over the ensemble of doublet (pourpoint), hose, and poulaines (shoes with very long pointed toes), nobles wore a long-sleeved, generally high-collared robe-like garment called the houppelande. The houppelande is sometimes described as a "hybrid garment" because, toward the end of the fourteenth century, it replaced the cote, the surcoat, and mantle that were all parts of the traditional fourteenth-century "robe." Some historians of costume have felt that the houppelande was fostered by the guilds of tailors, who saw a threat to their economic security as the older style of long costume became obsolete except among older men and those needing ceremonial garments, such as jurists. The style that preceded the houppelande is well described in the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where the hero wears a "bliaut of blue that reached to the ground/his surcote fit him well and was softly furred inside/and its hood that hung from his shoulder/was adorned with ermine." In any case, the houppelande quickly became very popular. While the formal houppelande was quite long and voluminous, a shorter version, called the courtepie or haincelin, developed as a popular variation. This more abbreviated garment reached halfway between ankle and knee, and an even shorter version hit some inches above the knee. Such a garment appears in miniatures for the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a treatise on health popular at the end of the Middle Ages. Painted about 1390, they show men collecting roses for medicinal use; their haincelins illustrate the fashion for "dagged" (also called "cut-work") sleeve and hem edges, scalloped in fanciful shapes such as those of leaves, points (known as "vandykes"), or the square indentations on castle rooftops and towers called battlements or crenellations. The longer and more formal version of the houppelande, which was ground length or even trailing, also appears in these manuscripts. A third version, worn by the figure of the sun personified as a stylish young man from John de Foxton's Liber Cosmographiae (1408), features a high collar that fanned out from the neck and funnel-shaped sleeves that become increasingly wide at the wrist end, billowing out into the shape of medieval bag pipes. Belts were also sometimes worn with houppelandes. The garment's elaborate ornamentation included fur, fabric appliqués, and slashes showing the linings of complementary colors. The combination of pourpoint, hose, poulaines, and houppelande peaked as the ruling fashion at the courts of the English kings Edward III and Richard II in the second half of the fourteenth century. After 1450, the more usual term for the houppelande was "gown," and it was gradually replaced by the robe.

of Arc and Cross-dressing

More famous than almost any woman of the Middle Ages, Joan of Arc is still well known today as the female warrior who led French troops to victory against the English in the Hundred Years' War. Claiming to have been guided by the divine voices of Saint Margaret and Saint Catherine since the age of thirteen, Joan, at age seventeen, left her home in a village in northwestern France, put on men's clothes to identify herself as a military leader, introduced herself to the yet uncrowned future king of France, and turned the tide in favor of the French at the siege of Orléans in 1429. In the version of the story most people remember, her charismatic presence continued to inspire confidence among the French, leading quickly to Charles VII's coronation; then, at the height of her power, after only a year on the battlefield, she was captured by the Burgundians and turned over to the English to be tried. After a lengthy and brutal Inquisition, during which she became ill and recanted her supposed heresy, then relapsed and was condemned, she was burned at the stake.

While most discussions of Joan over the centuries have focused on the trial's inquiry into the validity of the voices she claimed to be hearing, an equally important issue at the time was her decision to wear male dress, which was seen as an overturning of natural order as defined in the biblical book of Deuteronomy: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment; for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God" (Deut. 22:5). Although there was some precedent among earlier holy women to suggest that she might have been forgiven for wearing men's clothing for practical reasons—either to protect her virginity while she was living among soldiers or to make it easier for her to ride a horse—she never offered any such explanation. Her insistence that she wore such clothing at the command of God and his angels, and her refusal to wear women's clothing even while in prison, suggest that she saw men's attire as part of her identity, a symbol of her calling.

The meaning of her clothing is complicated by the fact that Joan—an illiterate peasant who had never even ridden a horse before leaving home—chose to dress not as a simple soldier, but as something of a fashionable dandy. Indeed, one of the charges against her was an accusation of idolatry, a worship of herself. The transcript of the trial indicates that she wore "shirt, breeches, doublet, with hose joined together, long and fastened to said doublet by twenty points, long leggings laced on the outside, a short mantle reaching the knee, or thereabouts, a close-cut cap, tight-fitting boots or buskins, long spurs, sword, dagger, breastplate, lance and other arms in the style of a man-at-arms." The description goes on to mention the sumptuousness of her attire, including cloth of gold, furs, and a surcoat open on the sides. Clearly, Joan loved beautiful clothes, perhaps seeing her attire not only as a statement of independence from the restrictions usually put on women, but also as an homage to male heroism and the royal cause she was attempting to support. From the point of view of her inquisitors, however, her short costume connected her with immoral elements of society (as perceived by the ecclesiastical hierarchy) and was a sign of her demonic nature. Her refusal to put on a dress, even when she was promised that she would again be allowed to hear Mass if she gave up her male costume, made her an easy target for charges of witchcraft.

The grandeur of Joan's appearance—supplemented by the acquisition of a fine horse and knightly weapons, all of which she mastered almost immediately—must have contributed substantially to her ability to raise the confidence of the French troops. And when she was rehabilitated at hearings between 1450 and 1456, less than a single generation later, it was this image of her as a warrior, her connection to the reigning king, and her vindication as a leader of a just cause that dominated the proceedings. The fact that she wore male clothing was no longer an issue since now the trial and execution were attributed to the political maneuvering and hatred of the defeated English enemies, sidestepping entirely the question of the validity of her voices and the impropriety of her attire, which was now depicted artistically only as conservative military trappings. Ironically, even when she was canonized as a saint in the early twentieth century, the petitions focused on her marvelous equestrian skills, the supernatural signs at her death, and her loyalty to the church, optimizing her value as a rallying point for French Catholicism in an increasingly secular climate and minimizing the transgressivity of her cross-dressing.

Shoes with Pointed Toes.

Shoes worn with the tight hose of the new silhouette had long, pointed toes. Before 1350 shoes generally conformed to the shape of the foot, reached to the ankles, and had leather lacings, although there were periods when the toe became more pointed, even exaggeratedly so, and then returned to a more natural shape. Following the mid-fourteenth-century fashion shift in masculine dress, shoes were more visible and therefore more important as an element of fashion. Poulaines, sometimes called crackowes, were a recurring style. These shoes were named after Poland or its capital because they were thought to have originated in the city of Crakow in Poland. Featuring a pointed toe as much as six inches long that had been stuffed with moss, these shoes were an accompaniment to styles that stressed linear proportions. Besides the long toes, shoemakers employed many other decorative techniques appropriate to leather and fabric shoes: embroidery, tooling, paint, dye, cut-out designs, and elaborate buckles. Such highly ornamental shoes were often described in late medieval literature; for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer's Miller's Tale, Absolon, the clerk and would-be lover of Alisoun, is a dandy who wears shoes with cut-out designs on his shoes' insteps that Chaucer likens to the panels in a stained-glass window in St. Paul's Cathedral, London.

Hair, Hoods, and Hats.

Around 1400 to 1450 it became very fashionable for French, English, and Spanish men to wear an unusual hairstyle in which the hair was cut very short at the sides and nape of the neck, leaving a bowl-like area at the crown and above the ears. It is possible that this style developed in response to the popularity of the "carcaille" collar, very high and fur edged, which was found on the houppelande and other forms of the gown. Joan of Arc adopted this male hairstyle, and this was presented as evidence of her alleged cross-dressing tendencies at her trial. To accompany the new short costume in the fourteenth century, men wore a hood that covered the head and shoulders and revealed more or less of the face according to how it was rolled back. About the end of the twelfth century, the hood had ceased to be attached to the cloak, acquiring a very brief neck cape and becoming a separate piece of male apparel. In the fourteenth century, the hood became a fashion accessory for men, and a tail or band called the "liripipe" developed long enough to be worn as a scarf around the neck, or decoratively arrayed and tied around the head, or hanging down and secured by the girdle. Alternatively, this hood might be folded and tied so as to form a hat. During the fifteenth century, it was arranged over a wicker hoop or roll to give it shape. It competed in popularity with crowned felt hats and sheared or long-furred beaver hats with brims, a fashion exported from Flanders or modern Belgium, which were increasing in size and amount of decoration. These hats took a variety of shapes and some had conical tops, were embroidered and covered with ribbons, or sported peacock or ostrich feathers attached by jeweled pins.


Michael Camille, The Gothic Idol: Ideology and Image Making in Medieval Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989): 298–337.

Kenneth Clark, The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form (New York: Doubleday, 1956): 145–147, 400–432.

Norman Davis, ed., Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968): 53.

D. Freedberg, The Power of Images; Studies in the History and Theory of Response (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989): 317–377.

Francis Grew and Margrethe De Neergaard, Shoes and Pattens (Cambridge, England: Boydell and Brewer, 2001).

Rosita Levi-Pisetzky, Storia del costume in Italia. 5 vols.

(Milan: Instituto Editoriale Italiano, 1964–1969).

Jean Longnon and Raymond Cazelles, The Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duke of Berry: Musée Condé, Chantilly (New York: Braziller, 1969): 14.

Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997).

Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods. Trans. Barbara F. Sessions (New York: Pantheon, 1953).

Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: The Image of Female Heroism (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1981).

About this article

The New Silhouette for Aristocratic Men

Updated About content Print Article