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Costumes and courtiers: garments and fashion ideas in late medieval Western Europe



General trends, elements of costumes, cuts, colours and materials

Male garments. In this part the characteristic elements of the fourteenth and the first part of the fifteenth century clothing will be discussed. Fortunately, from this period of time, more sources are available: written ones such as bills, accounts, testaments; pictorial ones, such as miniatures, sculptures, tombstones; and archaeological ones.

The greatest change of costume styles, no doubt, took place in the first part of the fourteenth century. This process was sometimes characterized as the "presentation of body", especially in male clothing. In fact it was rather a kind of "rewriting" of the body by hiding the natural forms and emphasizing certain parts, like in the case of chest-padding. The whole silhouette of the figure was changed and transformed.

The skirt of the thirteenth century loose tunic was widened, and separate pieces of cloth were added at the armhole. The seams run on the middle of the backline, in front and at the sides. The fourteenth-century-tunic was, therefore, tight-fitting to the waistline but loose below. No wonder it was considered "feminine," even by the contemporaries.

The slimming of the sleeves, however, resulted in further difficulties, opening a new period in tailoring. The sleeve of the period was far too tight to move the elbow or to make any movement with the arm. Therefore, part of the sleeve from the armhole to the elbow was cut with approximately 2.5 inches longer than the original. The whole sleeve was then arranged in a somehow "puffed" way in the upper part, while from the elbow to the wrist it was so tight that just a little piece of additional cloth remained at the elbow, enough to allow its free movement.

Fine cloth was still in general use in the Late Middle Ages, as in previous centuries, but the variety of shades grew in number even within certain colours, and it was improved by various embroideries and ornamental weaving. Fine silks became important as well. Satin, samite, damast, velvet and brocaded velvet, embroidered or woven ornamentally, were used in the century together with goldcloth and taffeta, the latter especially for trimming.

The usage of furs offered another opportunity for display: in 1316 a set of robe of the French King (the term "robe" standing through the Middle Ages always for a whole set of clothes) used 1598 pieces of miniver, while nearly forty years later this number rapidly increased, up to 2312.

Now after introducing the main tendencies of costume development, the discussion of the individual dress elements will follow.

Undergarment. The breeches were derived from the French "braie" or Italian "breccia." Covering the hips and the upper legs, it left the lower leg parts uncovered. Although some scholars claim that this garment covered the legs as well, it is hard to imagine wearing the close-fitting tights, popular among the nobility at that time, over loose breeches. It is most likely, however, that the parts of the tights were tucked under the short breeches, as it is shown in one of the miniatures in the Hungarian Illuminated Chronicle (fol. 41).

The cotte, worn and termed as undergarment by this time, derived from a travelling dress transformed from the coat armour of the thirteenth century. Its long, close fitting sleeves remained the same through the period. It was worn at the beginning of the fourteenth century mainly by older men.

Upper garments. The basic elements of male clothing during the Middle Ages can be traced back mainly to the tunic and the long cloak, derived from the toga of the Roman Empire, and the trousers worn by the Germans. The fourteenth century, however, brought fundamental changes in male clothing, replacing the long, loose garments that had been common for more than two hundred and fifty years with a short garment, more or less tight-fitting down to the waist. Its many variations are classified here using the French terms, attempting to sort out contradictions in literature.

The pourpoint was an overgarment reaching the knee and later being even shorter, at first appeared as part of the knightly armour, replacing the earlier loose coat armour without sleeves. In this form it was a close-fitting, sleeveless garment, significantly shorter than the mail hauberk worn under it. The pourpoint was mentioned as part of the armour in 1297, and in 1313 as used in tournaments. In the Chronicle of St. Denis, telling about the battle of Crécy, the knights' garments are described as the main causes of the defeat. Their clothes, the chronicler says, were so tight that the knights had to be laced up as women; their tights were multi-colored, and the tips of their hoods dragged on the ground after them, as did the ends of their sleeves. The decorative effect of the pourpoint depended largely upon its tightness and the belt, worn with it on the hips. It began to appear as a civil garment around 1340, with several variations no longer worn as coat armors.

The doublet, a knee-length garment, was padded on the chest, and closed with buttons or lacing in the front. It had a deep, rounded neckline and close-fitting long sleeves buttoned down from the elbow to the wrist. In the Musée des Tissus, Lyon, the doublet of Charles de Blois can be seen, made of golden emboidered silk with twenty-four buttons in the front. Its complicated cut shows the skill that tailors of the age needed to answer the aristocratic expectations.

The gipon or jupon, fashionable in the sixties and seventies of the century, was even more close-fitting and placed more emphasis on the padded chest. The main change appeared at the sleeves, covering the hands themselves with cone-like endings. With this variation the carcaille, this high collar buttoned in front came into fashion.

In the middle of the fourteenth century, the cotehardie began to replace the surcotte, the overgarment of the earlier century. Worn originally for riding, the cotehardie was always paired with a cloak. In the fourteenth century it accompanied the pourpoint or could be worn in itself. With increasing decoration, it became more and more elegant. The shape of this garment was tight-fitting to the waist. One of the variations was the courtepy, decorated in front with jewels, and supported with a high collar. The sleeves reached the elbow only, unless special sleeve parts, hanging often to the ground were added to them. These were called coudières.

The hérigaut and the houce were long dresses worn by men mostly for ceremonial occassions. The former, mentioned by Joinville in his chronicle about St. Louis's crusade, was a coat-like garment, opened in the front with long and loose sleeves; the arm often was slipped out through a separate hole. The lower part of the sleeve trailed, while the upper part could be padded. Its wearing was determined by social status relatively early, being prohibited for ecclesiastical persons by a synod in 1260.

In wintertime a longer garment was needed besides the short pourpoint: this was the houce, developed from the thirteenth century garnache, which often appeared in connection with military orders. For instance it can be found in the thirteenth-century Règle du Temple. It was trimmed with fur and decorated with two pieces of cloth of different colour. This garment was part of the royal wardrobe as well: in 1352 it was mentioned together with two surcottes and a hood as a robe of King John the Good. King Charles VI of France wears a houce in a book miniature from 1371.

Among the various kinds of cloaks and mantles, the gardecorps of the thirteenth century was used especially in winter. This long cloak sometimes reached the ankle, had wide sleeves and high collar, was cut on one side. Sometimes a hood was added. This dress was replaced by the middle of the 14th century with the characteristical round mantles, which were cut in one piece. A corset rond usually was closed with four buttons on the left or right shoulder, and could be dagged elaborately at the bottom. One of the variations was named cyclas: in this case the neckline was trimmed with fur or silk of a different colour.

Shoes and tights. Due to the tendency to wear shorter garments in the fourteenth century than before, tights gained in importance, with often differently coloured parts made of varied materials.The revealing of legs caused a great consternation in the period, as it was considered indecent by the Church. The legs of the tights in the fourteenth century were separated, and only by the middle of the fifteenth century they were united to what we call a hose. Their ends were tucked under the breeches or laced to the lower edge of the pourpoint. This may be one reason why the tights are always mentioned together with the "paltocks" or "jackets" in testaments or inventories.

Tights themselves were made with different sole devices, depending on whether or not shoes were worn with them. Woven cloth and the silk were the most common materials but a royal inventory from 1387 mentions tights knitted of scarlet wool. Anyway, tights were soon stretched out by wearing (just like shoes were quickly worn out, having thin leather soles). This is the reason why one can find an appalling number of tights in royal inventories. In 1396, for instance, King Charles VI of France had 131 pairs of soled tights (chausses semellées in the French texts), in red, black and white, 189 pairs of "plain" tights in the same colours, and eight pairs of houseaulx, signifying leather leggings worn over the tights for riding.

Shoes were seldom worn with the soled tights, except in wet weather, when some kind of wooden soles were put on. Everyday shoes of the period were made without heels, tied at the ankle with bands, or buttoned. The front was decorated with embroidery or the leather was cut out in an ornamental decoration.

The most characteristic footwear of the fourteenth century were, however, the pointed shoes, called crackowes or poulaines, believed to be derived from Poland. The length of the toe was said to indicate the rank of the wearer, becoming more and more exaggerated by the end of the century. Among the main causes of the Christian army's defeat at the battlefield of Nicopolis in 1396 was supposedly the French knights' inability to run due to their shoes' length.

The appearence of this footwear, however, can be dated back to the twelfth century, and, according to Ordericus Vitalis, was invented by Count Foulk of Anjou, to hide his ugly feet. By the thirteenth century its wearing was forbidden for the members of Military Orders, in the Règle du Temple termed as soliers bec.

In the inventory made for King Charles VI some of the soled tights were supported with poulaines with toes stiffed with whalebone. 109 pairs of bottines (a kind of boots) and six pairs of riding-boots went with the plain tights. Sometimes the long toes were fixed to the leg by a decorated chain and hook, allowing a movement more free.

Belts. Belts were always important costume accessories. They held the dress together and, at the same time, drew a line separating the upper and lower parts of the costume, and, dividing the human body as well, bearing a deeper significance in courtly symbolism. They were more elaborately decorated in this period than in the thirteenth century, and, worn on the hips, became part of the courtly civilian garments, such as the cotehardie and pourpoint, and were worn with military dress, often termed as cingulum militaris. Mounted belts—even mounted with silver—spread beyond the nobility, and were observed in cemeteries of peasant communities as parts of everyday costume, although in lesser quality and artistic degree than among the aristocracy. Decorative and practical items were hung from belts, like the different bags, named in the thirteenth century aumonière, used mainly for almsgiving. This belonged mainly to female garments. In the fourteenth century men also started to wear them, under the name of gibecière or escarcelle. Among the other accessoires, often a dagger was added, fastened to the bag.

Hats and hoods. In the first place, as curiosities, one has to mention among male headdresses the decorated hairbands, a kind of wreath known from archeological observations, and fourteenth century pictorial representations, for example, one of the English royal court.

But the most popular and most fashionable headdresses in this period are the hoods, originated in the travelling gear of the previous century. Its characteristical parts are, using the French terms, the visagière, the opened part around the face; the guleron, the neck piece, its fullness and shape being responsible chiefly for the variability; and its long, hanging liripipe. The hood became part of the robe at the beginning of the fourteenth century. When in 1303, Philip the Fair declared the session of the parliament in Toulouse, he gave robes to the members of his court: scarlet cloaks and hoods trimmed with ermine, or red cottes and scarlet hoods also with hermine. By the middle of the century it became common to wear the hoods in unusual ways, such as wound around the head with a hung-down end. The practical reason for this could be the trend of high collars going with the cotehardies and pourpoints.

The other characteristical headdress for men was the rounded hat with oval brim, called the beaver hat, thus indicating its most frequent material. In royal accounts it appeared for the first time in 1350, when in a royal wedding the beaver hat of the king was supported with a brim of red velvet, embroidered with gold and pearls, and worn his crown over it. It soon became part of certain garments for the King's officers.

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