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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:
The Burgundian V-neck Gown
The ubiquitous V-necked gown of the mid-15th century -- often called The Burgundian Gown -- appears to be a unique and singular garment. And yet a definite origin in the pleated houppelands of the 1440s can be discerned. Nothing exists in a vacuum and it is logical to assume that this V-necked gown is simply the evolution of the gowns that preceded it.
To begin our investigation of the origins of the Burgundian V-necked gown, let us look at a typical and well-known example of the style of gown that came before it:: the heavily-pleated houppeland as shown in Rogier van der Weyden’s 1435 “Portrait of a Young Woman” shown at right. The gown is lined with fur that can be seen emerging at the front neckline. This fur fills out the conical pleats over the bust. Although we cannot see much of her, it is clear that her sleeves are fairly full and we presume that her gown is full from the underarms like other gowns of this time period.
“The Magdelene Reading” from 1445 at left shows a gown not unlike van der Weyden's "Portrait of a Lady" from 1435. The V-neck has descended to the waist and the pleats do not appear quite as structured as in the earlier painting. The belt appears to hold them in place. Again, the fur lining gives them their shape.
An Adult Baptism from the 1448 Chroniques de Hainault, shown at right, displays a similar gown without its belt. We can see that it is indeed fully lined with fur and the pleats are not sewn into position as they may have been in the 1435 portrait.
As the 1440s progress, we see this evolution continuing in the gown on the noblewoman in "Goldsmith's Shop (possibly St. Eligius)" by Peter Christus, shown at left. her sleeves are still wide, but not as wide as those the Magdalene wears above. The front V-opening descends to the pelvic area and the “V” is held in place by a wide black belt. There is a small amount of gathering on the bust, but not nearly the amount seen in “The Magdelene Reading”. The evolution is definitely happening. A page from the Hours of Anne of Brittany (see right) shows a woman riding pillion (on a special riding seat behind a man on horseback) wearing a similar gown.
A scene from the Roman de la Rose at left shows how the V-necked gown begins to be shaped in the side seams by the middle of the century. The gown appears without a belt and the fact that it is fitted to the curves of the body from underarm to hip is clear.
A lady-in-waiting from the Prize-Giving scene in King René’s Book of the Tournament shows how this fitted version of the V-neck gown looks when worn with the typical wide belt of the 1460 and 1470s. Her lady, to her right, shows the newer, more fashionable version of the V-neck with the bottom of the opening disappearing under the wide belt.
One element of the fit of these gowns that must be mentioned is that the bust is not lifted as in previous and later decades. It is in fact quite flat. The flattening was probably achieved by the underdress worn with the gown -- or possibly two underdresses -- and the help of a bust-binding band which can be seen in some illustrations from the period. One thing is certain -- the V-neck gown is not worn with a placket pinned into the front opening and nothing underneath but a shift. The presense of structural garments is indicated by the uniform shape depicted by multiple miniature and portrait painters who show this gown over the course of the decades from the 1450s through the 1480s.
The collars of these gowns are a natural product of the way the neck opening is cut. They are not added on but rather the lining pulled up and turned to the outside. This is strikingly obvious from viewing the few pictures of the gowns in dishabile like the 1480 painting of the Sibyl of Tibur prophesying about the Emperor Augustus and the 1476 statue in the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon. In both works, the overgown is unbelted and the fact that the “collar’ is simply the lining turned to the outside at the shoulders is clear. So the neck must be cut in such a way to produce this effect. This indicates a front-to-back slit rather than a left-to-right one. If we mentally un-turn the neckline of these pictures, it will close at center front. Christus’ 1470 “Portait of a Young Girl” (at left) shows this treatment very clearly. The stress wrinkles on the fur lining can be seen on the shoulders and the way the bottom of the “V” tapers away to nothing shows that it is a simple slit.
Undoubtedly there were other ways to cut a gown. Other contemporary pictorial evidence contradicts this idea. There are clearly separate fur or velvet collars being added to gowns by the 1460s. The round tabs seen at the bottom of the V-neck in back in illustrations of gowns viewed from the back cannot be achieved with this cutting method either. Their construction will be dealt with in another pattern. However the turnback treatment is the version dealt with in this pattern so our discussion is limited to that variant.
Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion. 1987: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
Crowfoot, Elizabeth, Frances Pritchard, and Kay Staniland. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 - Textiles and Clothing circa 1150-1450. 1992: HMSO, London.
Elizabeth Ewing. Fur in Dress. 1981: B. T. Batsford Ltd., London.
Elspeth Veale. The English Fur Trade in the Later Middle Ages. 2003: London Record Society, London.
Payne, Blanche. History of Costume. 1965: Harper Collins, New York.
http://www.wga.hu/index1.html and pictures in the author’s collection
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This information © 2008 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History