The Spread of the Age of Fashion

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The Spread of the Age of Fashion

Downward Movement and Upward Pressure.

While at first the development of radically new styles for both aristocratic men and aristocratic women in the mid-fourteenth century probably arose from a combination of intellectual and artistic influences, the increased rate of change and the spread of interest in fashion throughout all levels of society were brought about in large part through a new set of economic and social factors that began to appear around the same time. The significant shift in European styles worn by the fourteenth-century nobility re-instituted class markers in costume that had largely been eliminated in the thirteenth century. Because so many family lines were disrupted by mortality from the bubonic plague, which led to the redistribution of lands and opportunities for the upper bourgeoisie to attain property and power, social status came to be determined in part by the possession of wealth rather than merely by family lineage. The commercial class who survived the plague and became wealthy could afford to imitate the opulent dress of the nobility, and the classes beneath these merchants and citizens, as they were able, followed suit. Likewise, in England, during the Hundred Years' War, the middle and lower classes were able to accomplish such imitation after the English victory over the French at Poitiers (1356) because sumptuous garments flooded the country as a result of booty taken from the defeated French nobility. As the French author Jean Froissart mentions in his Chronicles of the Hundred Years' War, from this battle, ransoms were collected for captured French prisoners, dishes made of gold and silver were confiscated, and other treasures were gathered, such as jewels, girdles, and ornaments made of precious metals, and richly furred mantles, all of which the English leader, Edward the Black Prince, shared among his followers. Thus, in the fourteenth century, every time the nobility introduced a new style, there were always immediate imitators whose wearing of the garments took away their appeal and made it necessary for the aristocracy to seek even newer, and often more expensive, fabrics and garments. Some costume historians, for example, have argued that women's headdresses might be used to date costumes with an error factor of only about ten years, presumably because styles in headdresses changed so often and these changes were so well documented that they could be used as dating guidelines. However, this method of dating should be used cautiously since now a given headdress might be worn even when it was out of style by someone not affiliated with the court, or by someone far removed from the centers of style in the major sites of the court or the cities.

Competition Between Courts.

After about 1350 European styles in general were heavily influenced by the French court, and became ever more elaborately ostentatious following the death of France's king Charles V in 1380. In England, earlier in the century, King Edward II's French consort, Queen Isabella (married 1308, died 1358), had influenced fashion similarities between the two courts. The succeeding two kings of England—Edward III and Richard II—were members of the Plantagenet family, whose claims to the French throne (the cause of the Hundred Years' War) no doubt contributed to a desire to compete with the French court in matters of opulence and led to a similarly unrestrained attitude towards expensive dress. Indeed, Richard II was reputed the greatest fashion spendthrift of all of the English monarchs to his day, a habit to which some attributed his eventual downfall. Overall, in the fifteenth century expenditures for clothing continued to increase, and the rapidity of fashion changes and excesses of ornamentation contributed to the brilliance of a growing number of European courts, particularly in Burgundy and in the Burgundian Low Countries at Bruges and Ghent. Until 1440, noblemen and women continued to wear the lavish styles, garments, and ornamentation developed in the late fourteenth century, with only minor variations in design. Beginning in 1440, tunics of fashionable European noblemen reached nearly to the knee, but in the following decade tunics were made much shorter. The fourteenth-century fashion known as the courtepie (or short houppelande) returned to favor. From then on, short tunics continued to be in fashion into the sixteenth century. In addition, in France and England, Italian styles and those of the court of Burgundy, which also reflected Flemish and German elements, became popular. Germanic influence included the enlarging of sleeves, chest, and shoulders by means of added padding in a manner that some considered a distortion of the human silhouette.

Tall and Narrow.

Perhaps due to a combination of social and economic factors, including the end of the Hundred Years' War, fashion took a turn to a radical new form in the middle of the fifteenth century. In England, toward the close of King Henry VI's first reign (1422–1461), fashionable courtiers wore narrow, long robes, with houppelandes and peliçons again in style. The shoulders were padded, but the skirts were narrow, and these robes were worn as outer garments over the short tunics mentioned above, topped by tall hats. The combination produced a silhouette of extreme height. At the same time, ornamental excesses were appearing in all of the other arts of the period, so that the "perpendicular style" in fashion occurred simultaneously with the period when Gothic architecture was reaching its peak of ornamental linear emphasis. In costume this trend toward extremes was best illustrated in the courts of King Charles VI of France (1380–1422) and the dukes of Burgundy, as the nobility wore garments divided into contrasting color areas—such as red and blue, or green and yellow—and the headdresses of both noblemen and ladies grew more varied and exaggerated in shape, especially in height. Indeed, from mid-century forward, women also sought an elongated fashionable look that included a high, plucked hairline, complemented by a swan-like neck, slender shoulders, and skirts that reached to the ground. Breaking the long line of this fashion look was the fashionable lady's posture, in which her stomach protruded beneath her elevated waistline, an effect often increased by padding.


François Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment (New York: Abrams, 1987).

William Naphy and Andrew Spicer, The Black Death: A History of Plagues 1348–1730 (Stroud, Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2001).

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

M. Scott, A Visual History of Costume: The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London: Batsford, 1986).

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The Spread of the Age of Fashion

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