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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:
Noblemen’s Gowns in the 15th century
The nobleman's pleated gown (sometimes called the "men's Burgundian houppelande") is one of the most stunning examples of fabric sculpture and manipulation in the history of clothing. And yet it seems that reenactors and costumers have decided that the substantial and evenly arranged pleats shown in the pictures are simply the artist's fantasy and cannot be replicated in a real garment. This causes one to wonder why so many artists from different countries as well as varying levels of talent all show the same shape in their renderings. The only answer must be that this garment did indeed exist as it is represented and that modern reproductions have simply fallen short of the mark thus far.
The man's overgown is characterized by an arrangement of substantial pleats on the front and back of the garment. These pleats narrow from the exaggerated width of the shoulders to a slim waist and continue beneath a belt to the hem of the garment, be it knee-, thigh- or ankle-length. The garment is often lined in fur or velvet, giving substance and body to the drape. The square shoulders are pleated only at the top and are held out by wearing a doublet with ball-topped sleeves underneath it. The sleeves of the gown may be worn rolled up to reveal the fur lining or split down the front seam to allow the arm to emerge. The front neckline approximates a boatneck, but the back neckline is invariably a V, thereby increasing the effect of the broad shoulders. Indeed, this ensemble is most appealing when viewed from behind.
The quintessential look of the gown is demonstrated best in folio 2 from King René d'Anjou's Livre d’Amour (Book of Love), a detail of which is illustrated at right. Cœur, the knightly personification of King René’s heart, stands ready to go off on his quest. Cœur’s ensemble is entirely white, to show the purity of his heart, except for a mark of fire on his skirts which identifies him. He wears pointed-toe shoes, hosen fitted to his legs, and a heavily-pleated gown with the doublet collar emerging from the back neckline. On his head is a chaperon and a thin belt completes the outfit. The pleats of his gown are deep and regular as if they’ve been sewn in place. They are full enough to point to very thick gown fabric or a heavy lining. The tops of the gown sleeves are pleated, but the pleats alone could not be holding them out as far as they stand. This is the effect of the ball-topped sleeve doublet that is worn beneath the gown. It looks as if the pleats of the back of his gown are held in place by his belt, but we will see other evidence that this is not necessarily the case.
Case in point: The illustration at left of a gentleman observer from Dieric Bouts the Elder’s 1460s work “The Ordeal by Fire”. The gentleman in a brocade gown at the back left of the painting wears a belt that droops down on his right hip, and yet the pleats at his waist stay in place.
This painting tells us more than any other about the construction of the pleated gown because of the direct of the brocade. The design of the brocade does not change direction, indicating that the gown is not A-line like similar gowns worn by the Italians in this period. Also, while there is a side seam visible on his right, the pattern is not distorted, indicating that the side seam is straight and not fitted. One can see from the tension wrinkles that the shaping of the garment is accomplished by tightly drawing together the pleats at center front, not by introducing a curve into the side seam. The appearance of the flat unpleated sides under each arm also demonstrate this construction.
It is clear from the pictorial record that many of these gowns were fur lined. Fouquet’s 1445 “Adoration of the Magi”, detailed at right, shows fur on a number of gowns. This is not surprising since Europe was experiencing the Spörer Minimum, a period of low solar activity which lasted from about 1420 to 1570 and coincided with a time when Earth's climate was colder than average. The picture at left of the Defendant from King René’s Livre des Tournois (Book of Tournaments) shows the full ermine lining of his gown. It also shows the simple straight front closure that was employed on these gowns.
One might notice that this gown is ankle length while the others shown thusfar have been hip-length. Length was an indicator of status. Along with the use of ermine fur, the long gown of King René’s Defendant above shows us that he is part of the royal family as no one else was permitted to wear the strikingly beautiful winter coat of the stoat.
Long gowns, however, were not restricted by sumptuary law. But ankle length gowns are more often seen on older men and men of great import. Jean de Waurin’s “Story of John of Gaunt” shows a number of men wearing gowns of all lengths. At right, two are shown. The younger man wears the fashionable hip-length gown while the older man, presumably his father, wears an ankle-length gown. The younger man also wears one of his arms through the seam opening which the older, more conservative gentleman does not.
A median length exists between these two extremes. An attendant at a medieval wedding, shown at left, wears a knee-length gown. A minature presumably painted by Rogier van der Weyden on the first page of the Chroniques de Hainaut in 1448 shows Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, wearing a knee-length black brocade gown trimmed in brown fur, probably sable or marten. Although thought more powerful than the King of France, a mere Duke could not wear ermine.
Elizabeth Ewing. Fur in Dress. 1981: B. T. Batsford Ltd., London.
Stella Newton. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince: A Study of the Years 1340-1365. 1999: Boydell Press, London.
Elspeth Veale. The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. 2003: London Record Society, London.
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This information © 2008 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History