Sunday, July 10, 2011

Everything Old Is New Again or Medieval Fashion, the Start of It All

Workshop of the Boucicaut Master, Delilah Shearing Samson's Hair
From a  Bible Historale
French (Paris), c. 1420-1424
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 394, fol. 112r
Yesterday afternoon I got together with two of my best friends for a visit to the Morgan Library in midtown. We set out to see two of the Morgan’s current special exhibitions, both of which underline the word “elegance” in different ways. I’m going to discuss these exhibitions separately for the sake of the reader and because they inspired some entirely different thoughts.

The first exhibition is “Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands” (running through September 4, 2011) and is a lot of fun to view. The topic is the development of medieval fashion from about 1325 through about 1515. The clues to the clothing are found in manuscripts from the Morgan’s extensive collection, especially in the Books of Hours that were a fixture of life for the literate medieval person. The walls of the gallery are decorated with enlargements of the details of some of the manuscript illumination and with a timeline of events in France and Burgundy. The timeline reminds us that more was happening in the period than fashion. Among the events were: the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the capture of France’s King John I, the madness of the French King Charles VI, the Battle of Agincourt, England’s Occupation of France, Joan of Arc, the Reconquest of France by the French, the beginning of the Renaissance in France.

Emperor Otto III
From Gospels of Otto III
German (Reichenau), c. 1000
Munich, Bayerisches Staatsbibliothek,
Clm 4453, fol. 24r
As the witty exhibition wall and object cards note, prior to the early 14th century “fashion” was somewhat limited by garment construction. Most garments were constructed, as they had been for millennia, by being cut in more or less identical flat pieces, front and back, sleeves included, which were then stitched or pinned together, creating a somewhat flat garment, without too much of a distinctive shape (see illustration at right). What spurred the development of “fashion” were two inventions: the set-in sleeve and the button.

Once upon a time I made all my own clothing and so I’m familiar with the different types of sleeve construction. The set-in sleeve (virtually the only kind of sleeve currently in use today) is more difficult to construct, involving as it does:  creating a gathered tube (the sleeve) which then has to be attached to another tube (the body of the garment). There are lots of problems that can arise during the process of attaching the one to the other, but it does give several advantages. One can move the arm more freely within the circle of the armhole without distorting the entire garment, one can play around with the gathers to create puffed sleeves, one can alter the fit by making the armhole tight or loose, etc. Once inset sleeves can also assume more complicated shapes, being draped, gathered, tight, full, cuffed, padded, etc. Other sleeve options (raglan, dolmen) are less versatile.

Alexander McQueen, Dress
from "Horn of Plenty" collection
Autumn/Winter, 2009-2010

We may think that odd shapes and extreme silhouettes, such as the dress by Alexander McQueen at left, are something new in fashion, but they are not, as this exhibition eloquently demonstrates. From the male wasp waists of the second half of the 14th century to the high horned headdresses and turrets (also called hennins) of the fashionable 15th-century woman, the middle ages could teach the 21st century a thing or two about style. But here are a few observations of my own.

1. The exhibition makes a distinction between “clothing” and “costume”. “Clothing” is the contemporary clothing actually worn at any one point in time. “Costume” is the clothing not actually worn in contemporary life. Costume is applied to characters (literary or religious) and is used to make a point of separation from the present time, either for historical or moralizing reasons. Two examples will make this clear.

In the first, a page from a German Missal (the book containing the prayers of the Mass) from about 1381 an image of the Presentation of the Infant Jesus is used to fill a capital letter in the center of the page. The Biblical characters are simply dressed in timeless clothing.
Meister Bertram von Minden, Presentation of Jesus in the Temple
From a Missal
German (Hamburg),  c. 1381
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M892.3, fol.1r
 Meanwhile, the margins are filled with scenes from nature; some of them whimsical (for example, a bear, wearing a cloak and carrying a stick, abducts some ducks and appears to be trying to fool three others).


At the lower left margin, however, are scenes from contemporary daily life, a young nobleman and two women pursue hawking activities. The gentleman sports the fashion of the era, complete with padded torso, wasp waist, dagged hem, hip belt, dangling pouch and hooded chaperon hat with a long cornet (A tube of cloth attached to the crown of a chaperon).1 On his feet he wears fashionable shoes with cut-out straps, not unlike some 2011 gladiator sandals.

In the second, Morgan MS 342, the Epistolary and Apocalypse of Charles the Bold , illuminated in Bruges around 1470, the Whore of Babylon is shown in a mixture of exaggerated old and new fashions to signal her decadence and depravity (link to the image here).

2. The exhibition was enlightening on several points. I learned the answer to some questions that have perplexed me for years when looking at some of the illuminations from this era. I was delighted to learn, for example, about the existence of the chaussemble1  This is a man’s garment, a pair of woolen hose with leather soles attached. No longer will I think that the men in illuminations and paintings are walking around in their stockinged feet! I also learned that the shoe we now know as the “Mary Jane” was, in the 14th and 15th centuries, a man’s shoe, not a little girl or woman’s shoe. Women’s shoes were not covered in any detail in the exhibition.

3. It is also evident from this exhibition that 21st-century men have considerable catching up to do to equal the sartorial splendor of their many times great-grandfathers of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Vow of the Peacock
From Vows of the Peacock by Jean de Longuyon
Flemish (Tournai), c. 1345-1350
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G24, fol.24v
The earliest clothing in the period isn’t too extravagant, although the combination of colors might seem startling to most 'darks and neutrals' 21st-century men.

However, between the beginning and middle of the 15th century the human peacocks became the equivalents to the peacocks and birds-of-paradise of the avian world. The houpeland, described as “a full outer garment, worn by men and women; the man's with gores inserted in the skirt; made full-length, calf-length or very short”1 and, later in the century the gown, gave plenty of room for extravagant interpretations and luxurious fabrics.

Josephus Master and the Bedford Master Giving Instructions to the Huntsmen
From Livre de la Chasse by Gaston Phoebus,
French (Paris), 1406
New York, Morgan Library
MS M1044, fol. 42v

 A fantastic houpeland in a 1406 copy of the Livre de la Chasse by Gaston Phoebus, one of the most famous secular books of the late middle ages, features an elegantly dressed gentleman, echoing the noblemen of the contemporary Très Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry.

Limbourg Brothers, May
From Tres Riches Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry,
Flemish, ca. 1410-1416
 Chantilly, Musee Conde
MS 65, fol. 5v
4. However, in the medieval period women were by no means relegated to the role of dull peahen. They had their own amazingly fantastic styles. Their houpelands were worn with extravagant horned and veiled headdresses. Starting as the actual dressing of their own hair, as two coils on either side of the face, it grew and grew into an elaborate structure covered in fabric or jewels, encasing the braids, sometimes topped with veiling supported by a wire frame.

Ladies and Gentlemen Watch a Joust
From Ordnances of Chivalry
English (London), c. 1450s
New York, Morgan Library
MS M775, fol. 2v

Replica garment, From Romance of Tristan
French, ca. 1468
New York Morgan Library,
MS M41, fol. 24v

By the end of the 15th century it had been superseded by the high conical turret 1 or hennin, which sometimes grew to extravagant heights as well. Another mystery was cleared up for me by the note pointing out that the cone was supported by a templet 1 of metal worn on the woman’s head. Our hair bands are distant echoes. I had often wondered how that high pointed hat had remained in place. Nonetheless, there must have been many aching necks and backs in the 15th century!

Very helpful were the four reconstructed garments, two men’s and two women’s that occupy the center of the gallery. It’s one thing to see garments in the manuscripts or in the enlarged details that decorate the walls. It’s another thing entirely to be able to walk up to a mannequin, to see the fabric and to be able to walk around the figure. Well constructed with modern materials, they can give us some idea of how a person actually looked.
Replica Garment
From Vows of the Peacock
(cited above)
Replca Garment
From Hours of Catherine of Cleves
Utrecht, c. 1440
New York, Morgan Library,
MS M 917, fol. 25r

Replica Garment
From Livre de la Chasse
(cited above)

Alexander McQueen, Evening Dress
Widow of Cullodon collection,
Autumn/Winter 2006

It may be a coincidence, and it certainly is a happy one, that this exhibition of medieval clothing is running concurrently with the much more widely known retrospective of the work of Alexander McQueen at the Met. One wonders if Mr. McQueen had similar images in mind when one sees some of the garments in the Met’s selections.

Alexander McQueen,
Evening Dress,Sarabande
Collection, Spring/Summer

Alexander McQueen, Coat and Dress,
Girl Who Lived In the Tree Collection,
Autumn/Winter 2008-2009
One area on which I would have liked more information within the Morgan’s exhibition (it may perhaps be addressed in the catalogue, which I did not purchase) is how “designs” spread in the Middle Ages. There were no fashion designers as we know them, just tailors and dressmakers. Many people made their own clothing or had them made by their own servants. There may have been “pattern books” of course. These would be books with drawings of garments or garment details (nothing like a 2011 Vogue or Simplicity pattern book, of course). Presumably royalty and the high nobility were the fashion leaders, but communications were relatively slow. Judging by the documents on display, styles changed fairly quickly, though more slowly than they do today. One wonders what mechanism drove the change.

© M. Duffy, 2011

1.  Definitions may be found on the Glossary page of the Morgan's online exhibition

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