Mid-Fifteenth Netherlandish Women’s Clothing – an overview

Mid-fifteenth century Netherlandish costume has much to recommend it for SCA costume. It is flexible, comfortable and may be as simple or luxurious as practicality and budget allows. Both men and women usually wore three layers and head wear was always worn by women – usually by men. The following survey seeks to present a developmental approach to costume – showing several variations and how they develop from each other. Costume naturally varies by region and as well as by period and the wealth, youth and stylishness of the wearer.

Underclothes

As it had in the past women’s underclothes consisted of a chemise and stockings. Stockings were still usually sewn from fine wool rather than knitted and as elsewhere were gartered just below the knee.

There are few clear images of chemises – but there are a couple of a garment that may reflect the chemise, being worn surplice-style over a gown.

Under the fitted garments of the period it was not desirable to have a bulky chemise. The chemises seem to have been made of light weight bleached linen to a fine silk. They had a round or somewhat squared off neckline and long sleeves that were tapered to follow the arm, but loose enough not to restrict movement. They appear to have a raglan sleeve and side gores and often have a single or several small pleats at the front (and presumably back).

The chemise was not usually allowed to show under the dress although you can occasionally see a bit poking out between the sleeves of the cote or at the back of the cote neckline as in van der Weyden’s painting of Mary Magdalene.

The Cotte or Kirtle

The second layer of the woman’s dress, in English referred to as the kirtle, was the development of the cote of the previous century. This cote, first covered by the similarly styled cote-hardie, and then by the voluminous houppelande, was a tightly fitted gown with a round neck and long slender sleeves. It provided body support and shaping so that the fine fabrics of the over gown were not under excessive stress. This was the main garment for lower class women. The fifteenth century kirtle served the same purpose but in order to fit under the tight sleeves of the mid-fifteenth century gown the sleeves were now cut short, with separate over-sleeves that could be pinned on as necessary.

For a more detailed analysis of the kirtle see the kirtle page.
For details about making a kirtle see my kirtle dress diary (January 2004)

The Gown

– a.k.a V-necked gown / Yorkist style/ Burgundian style

Margrethe van Eyck, Jan van Eyck, 1439
Margrethe van Eyck, Jan van Eyck, 1439

The gown that characterises the period from 1440 to 1480 is a direct development of the earlier houppelande and the division between houppelande and gown is vague. The houppelande was a voluminous gown, usually lined with fur that laced up at the front and at one point had a collar reaching right up the throat to the ears. Women’s houppelandes were belted under the breasts where the belt gathered the many folds of the fabric. It had huge open sleeves in its most extreme styles, although bag sleeves were also popular in the later styles, particularly in the Netherlands.

It is worth noting here that the V-necked gown was worn, with variation, throughout England, France and the Netherlands but styles did differ regionally. French court styles in particular tended to be quite extreme. As much as possible I have used only images from the Netherlands/Low Countries however it is quite possible for clothes to have been imported entire so its not always possible to know precisely when or where a certain style originates.

C 1440.

St Eligius as a goldsmith, Petrus Christus, 1449
St Eligius as a goldsmith, Petrus Christus, 1449

The V-necked gown developed as the collar of the houppelande dropped to the base of the neck and the front of the gown was undone and turned back to display the fur lining. Simultaneously the bodice began to contain less fabric and loose straight or bag sleeves became the norm. Van Eyck’s portrait of his wife, Margrethe, above, is a good example of this transitional style. Note that in this portrait the deep pleats of a houppelande are still very evident, the kirtle bodice is not visible and the sleeves are quite baggy.

The earliest V-necked gowns generally sat high at the back of the neck and came straight down to the belt, thus revealing a small, sharp V at the throat. The Petrus Christus painting of a couple at a goldsmith (St Eligius) shown here is a good example of an early V-necked gown. Here you can see the lacing of the gown with the kirtle or a stomacher visible beneath, in the V shaped gap. There is still quite a lot of bulk being pulled in by the wide belt and the sleeves are still quite loose.

Portrait of a Lady, Rogier van der Weyden, 1450
Portrait of a Lady, Rogier van der Weyden, 1450

C 1450.

By 1450 the style had become more fitted. Sleeves are fitted, splaying out over the hand down to the knuckles or with the cuff turned back. No pleats are evident at the still high waistline, the skirt’s fullness came from wide gores. The horned type headdress has clearly given way to a short hennin with a fine veil arranged and pinned in two narrow pleats at the centre forehead.

The bodice is still high at the back of the neck with the collar coming down to a deep V at the front. The gown laced up the front up to the point where it was allowed to open up.

C 1470.

By 1470 the style is fully developed. The neckline has moved out onto the shoulders forming a wide V, and some of the back is also exposed. By the late 1470’s this fashion sat right on the shoulder and sometime almost off it.  There was a lot of variety in the style now. The collar varied between very narrow, as in the Petrus Christus Portrait of a Lady, somewhat curved as in the portrait of Maria Portinari, or wide and flat as in the Justice of the Emporer diptych.

Two factors may lead us to believe that the kirtle was abandoned for an underskirt at this point – the wideness of the V and the tightness of the sleeves would make it more comfortable to wear without an under dress. However it is not impossible that the kirtle was also cut wide and tight to allow the fitted gown to be worn over it.

A stomacher was inserted into the V of the gown to cover the cleavage. If we go with the no-kirtle theory, it is quite simple to pin the stomacher to the gown beneath the flaps of the collars. If a kirtle was worn its still a simple matter to pin it to either the kirtle itself of the gown.

C 1480.

The fashionable V-necked gown of the 1480’s is depicted as so wide at the shoulders that it is unlikely that it was worn with any type of kirtle and would have been worn instead with a skirt. To support the bust the belt had grown even wider so that now it reached from the natural waist unto just under the bust and thereby acted as a type of corset. To balance its width, the collar of the V now was very shallow and no longer required a stomacher underneath.

At the same time as this extreme V gown was worn a new, transitional style became popular. It is mostly (but not only) shown on young girls, however this is probably due to it being a new fashion and young girls of marriageable age were more likely to have the new, fashionable clothes. The main feature of it was that instead of having the V neck collar it comes to a square neckline and is often laced across a stomacher piece. It seems to marry elements of the kirtle and the gown and preceded the ‘Tudor’ style gowns of the end of the century.

Accessories

There are two main accessories that help define this style: the wide belt and the hennin with veil.

Belt

The belts that were worn with the houppelande had been moderately wide – usually about 4 – 5 cm wide, and made of woven cloth or supple leather. They had to be fairly strong to hold in the folds of the houppelande and were therefore an important part of the style.

At first they served a similar purpose with the gown but as this style develops the belts grow wider and wider until the belts of the late 1470s seem to be 10 – 15cm wide. The wide belt pushes the waistline up giving the gown a high waisted appearance. The belt also probably helps to support the weight of the long trains associated with this gown. Finally as the gown becomes practically off the shoulder, the belt acts as a corset, as the wearing of a kirtle beneath such a gown is very unlikely.

They are often worn with the buckle, sometimes a very large and ornate buckle and belt tab, at the back, with the excess hanging down. This leaves the front, given its width, looking rather like a cummerbund.

Headwear

The main form of headwear for the wealthy was a conical hat generally referred to as a ‘hennin’: the basis for the popular “princess” hat. Tall pointed hennins are shown in many French manuscripts, however it was rarely worn at full length in the Low Countries. Rather the most popular style was the truncated hennin – the cone with the tip cut off – resembling an upturned flower pot.

There seem to have been three main parts to the finished hennin look, the headband (with or without forehead V peice), the hennin itself, and the lappet band.

Headband & forehead piece

The hennin, particularly when worn with a veil, has a natural tendency to pull back and tip off. This appears to have been counteracted by wearing a headband which helps pull the hair back and provides a firm foundation for the hennin and/or lappet. If the headband is made of velvet or wool it tends to stick to the hair and provides a secure base to pin the hennin and lappet to. It is this headband that has the black V piece that dips down over the forehead and helps spread the load to the front of the head. In some later images you see this head band being worn alone, or with a lappet attached to it as in this detail from the St Ursula and Vlaenderbergh altarpiece paintings.

Maria Portinari, Hans Memling, 1470
Maria Portinari, Hans Memling, 1470

Hennin

The hennin itself varied in length from being almost a pill-box style hat to being fairly long as in the 1470 portrait of Maria Portinari above. In France they were sometimes very long and pointed but this was uncommon in the north.

Hennins come in all kinds of colours, however black was popular, and were made of decorative fabrics, possibly needleworked or more likely woven.

The hennin seems to have been worn on various angles, but a rough guide would be 45 degrees from parallel with the floor. Generally we assume that the woman’s long hair is bound and contained within the hennin’s cone. The hennin could then be pinned both to the headband (if worn) and to the hair itself.

Lappet

The hennin was often (but not always) worn with a black band of fabric (velvet), called the lappet, which hung across the brow and down to the shoulders. This created a sharp contrast with the skin – a technique designed to give the appearance of paler skin that the owner may actually have had. The heavy velvet also helps hold down the hennin, which is being pulled back by the weight of the veil.

Portrait of a Lady, van der Weyden, 1450
A short veil pinned into ridges worn without a lappet but with headband and forehead piece.

Veil

The hennin is occasionally shown worn without a veil but more often was worn with an extremely fine white or off white veil. Sometimes these veils are quite short, hanging only to the shoulders. I have seen one example of a black veil but none of any other colours.

The veil was sometimes pinned so as to form two small ridges rising from the centre front – this is seen in portraits of the 1450s and echoes the butterfly headdress arrangements of the French court.

I believe that these four elements of the headwear were made and worn separately, not all sewn together. Review the images above and you will see the hennin without lappet, the hennin without veil, the lappet without the hennin and the headband worn by itself. There are several pictures which show the band having fallen off which show that the lappet may not have been permanently attached to the hennin. In later portraits we begin to see the lappet being worn alone with the headband where it clearly precedes the French hood of the end of the century.

I am certain that this is not simply rapidly changing fashion but rather four separate components which could be used together or separately, although fashion certainly plays a role there. In addition I have worn a hennin with veil in this way and it is pretty stable – the order I put it together is:

  1. tie up hair in a bun – you have to get this in the right spot for the hennin to go over if you have long hair.
  2. put on headband – this is a strip of cloth with two lacing points at each end and is laced tight – not just pulled on.
  3. slide hennin over headband ensuring that it covers evenly – in several images the headband tucks out all around the base which is fine, you just want that fairly even. Pin the hennin to the headband in a couple of spots with dressing pins.
  4. place the lappet over the top and pin this to the hennin. Pinning this discreetly can be tricky, get help if necessary.
  5. pin the veil to the hennin – again its easier with help.

Partlets

Portrait of a Lady, van der Weyden, 1450
A short veil pinned into ridges worn without a lappet but with headband and forehead piece.

Two types of partlets were worn in this period. The first appears as a soft drape of very fine white cloth. It is clearly seen in Portrait of a Lady, Rogier van der Weyden, 1450 as the ends fall loosely between the kirtle front and gown beneath where it appears to be pinned. Such very fine partlets appear frequently.

Close examination of Portrait of a Lady, Petrus Christus, 1470, shows a similar partlet, again worn over the stomacher to which it is pinned horizontally at the centre front and beneath the gown. Her necklace is also beneath the partlet, rather than worn over it and the front bottom edge of the partlet is cut straight. The partlet is cut close around the back and sides of the neck and then in a narrow V straight to the centre front point where it is pinned.

The second type of partlet was a solid, collarless, usually black, garment, also worn beneath the gown. Its normally shown worn by older women and in later portraits.

Women’s Burgundian Links

There’s not a whole heap of sites out there that specialise in Burgundian clothing but here’s what I have found so far:

Dutch Costume Links