Eleventh and Twelfth Century Gowns--Influences and Discoveries

N.B. This paper was written to accompany a 12th-century gown that I constructed as a class project. My intention was exploration and speculation, not exhaustive study, of the subject.

I. Influences on 11th- and 12th-century Fashion

For centuries, women had worn loose dresses based in most cases on the Ionic chiton and various Roman pieces, all of which draped about the figure rather than following its surfaces. Most concealing of all were the voluminous cloaks and capes of the nobility, which fastened on one shoulder and thereby completely shrouded the figure, allowing only a glimpse from the side. The eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed a radical break from this tradition--bodices became fitted. In the eleventh century they "fit like a glove," and in the twelfth century they became even tighter, fitting from bust to hip in a fashion that applauded dresses so tight that the lacings gaped to show the underdress. Though reversals in fashion often prove impervious to the assignation of causes, analysis of the circumstances surrounding the period may well reveal at least some of the reasons why women's costume suddenly became relatively revealing in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Many scholars of historical costume speculate that the Crusades produced most if not all of the changes that occurred. They contend that the designs and decorations of the clothing, especially the extended sleeve and hem and the rich embroidery, were imported from the East. A closer look will disprove any such direct intervention of Middle Eastern style. Though similarities do exist, most of the design features, most notably the length of sleeve and gown, can be traced to Western precedents beginning in the eighth century. Western embroidery had progressed far enough by the eleventh century, as is evidenced by numerous statues and illustrations, to compare to the richly embroidered imports of the Crusades. It is not at all unreasonable, however, to ascribe an indirect influence to these imports, which probably inspired new kinds of design and technique among the already skillful European embroiderers.

The question of the fitted bodice still remains: Can this have been an imported design, copied from specimens of Eastern origin? This would be a most improbable supposition in light of the styles of female attire that prevailed in the areas that the Crusaders visited. Because the majority of the population was Muslim, women would have been required to wear very modest clothing, in public probably consisting of a head-to-foot cloak that had a fine netting at eye level for navigation. No Muslim woman would ever have dreamed of appearing in public (or in private, for that matter) in a bodice outlining the upper half of her body. The tiny fraction of the population that was not Muslim would probably have been Jewish, since Judaism was one of the very few other tolerated religions. Evidence is scanty at best concerning female Jewish attire during the Crusades, but it is highly unlikely that they would have worn tight-fitting bodices, especially considering the climate of the Middle East and the economic position of most of the Jews, who were purposefully kept in poverty by their Muslim rulers. Because most would have had to work hard to survive, fitted bodices would have been highly impractical. Fitted bodices also involve "wasting" fabric because they are not made from rectilinear pieces, and the accompanying lengths of sleeve and hem consume huge amounts of extra yardage. A people in poverty certainly would not have been able to afford such extravagance.

Where did this innovation originate, if not in the Middle East? Perhaps the answer lies more in materials than geography. The Crusades and the accompanying influx of Middle Eastern textiles may have had some influence on the styles of the West by introducing new fibers and weaves, most notably silk in the forms of samite and sendal. Samite in particular may have had an influence due to its properties of suppleness and strength. It has the ability to withstand enormous amounts of stress, such as might be introduced by very tight lacing. It can also mold itself in a variety of directions, unlike linen or cotton, which create bunches and folds when wrapped tightly around an irregular shape like the human body. This property is especially important given the cut of 11th and 12th century dresses. Unlike modern fitted clothing, they were not graced with darts or other means to help them become the same shape as the body. Though they were shaped along the side seams to accommodate the difference between bust, waist, and hip measurements, they did not include allowances for the protrusion of the bust (which requires more fabric than the flatter portions of the torso) or the curving area under the arm (which requires less). Instead of shaping the bodice like the body by adding and subtracting fullness, dressmakers simply pulled the fabric tightly enough that it was forced to assume this shape. This is likely not a conscious choice on the part of the designer, but rather a relative ignorance of other methods. Wool, in use for centuries previous to the introduction of silk, also has a certain malleability, but it is rather more unpleasant to have wrapped tightly around one's body than silk because unless it is very finely woven, it itches. Nevertheless, it was probably possible to procure wool fine enough to accomplish this fashion centuries before it actually became popular.

Other forces must have been at work to discourage the fashion in earlier eras and encourage it in the 11th and 12th. One possibility is the relative influence of the Church and courtly love. Chrétien de Troyes and Andreas Capellanus wrote their masterworks in the second half of the twelfth century, but the trend was already in place in the eleventh century when fitted bodices came into widespread use. In fact, it was at this time that women looked to the romances for advice on "how to accentuate their slim waists by holding back a panel of the mantle." Presumably the dress underneath the mantle was sufficiently tight to display the slimness of the waists in question, and it is probable that this sort of advice helped to initiate or at least promulgate the fashion of the fitted bodice. The Church, of course, would counsel modesty and chastity, two things that courtly love seems to advocate but in reality seeks to abrogate. Modesty was dismissed through gaps in the overdress which were punctuated by straining laces, and chastity was probably far from the mind of a male treated to the sight of a slim waist covered with silk. Evidently the dictates of the Church held little sway over the vagaries of fashion. One concession was made to clerical disapproval, however, in the nearly universal practice of wearing veils and wimples. The Church required that women cover their heads in religious assemblies and recommended it at all times to protect men from the sensual qualities of uncovered hair. But even in observance, ladies tended to extravagance. Laws governing the length of the veil became necessary: a noble lady's could brush the ground, but the scarf of one of lesser rank could only reach her waist. With the beginning of the thirteenth century, bodices once again became loose and were belted at the waist for convenience. The brief and mysterious interlude of the fitted bodice had passed, and fashion had once again changed its mind. Though this brief consideration of the issues involved cannot serve as a comprehensive survey of the reasons behind the introduction of the fitted bodice, it at least brings to light factors which might understandably go unnoticed in most general histories of costume.

II. Sources and Discoveries

The scantiness of evidence concerning twelfth century costume necessarily causes problems to anyone who attempts to construct an accurate example. Twelfth century art is the best source available, but it is limited in that it can only represent the appearance of a garment, and not its cut or composition.

The way clothing is constructed and the fabric of which it is made can only be discovered by examining a specimen, of which there are very few. Most of the surviving garments from the twelfth century are ecclesiastical garb or very important relics of coronations or dynasties. These are informative on the subjects of decoration and the availability of fabrics, but they tell little about what laymen wore on a daily basis. They especially fall short when it is women's clothing that one wishes to construct. The few surviving gowns are in poor shape, and it is uncertain whether or not they are representative of the period as a whole.

That few examples of twelfth century clothing exist is evident upon examination of the speculations of the experts concerning clothing construction. All try to explain the appearance of the dresses in sculpture and illustration, but few agree. Added to this difficulty is the probability that those who illustrated and sculpted the figures in question were not familiar with the construction of the dresses which they depicted. As a result, they may have constructed a plausible appearance, but parts of it may be stylized or misleading or even simply inaccurate when examined from a technical point of view. One of the principle sources of information--portal statuary of various queens--poses this very problem. After examining such statuary, one has a very clear idea of how a dress in this style, which was evidently fairly prevalent, should look. But the battle rages: how are the ever-present horizontal folds over the lower torso achieved? Obviously this is not just an aesthetic device on the part of the sculptor (it appears on statues obviously sculpted by different artists), but a real attribute of such gowns. Suggestions have ranged from a complicated system of pleating to a very wide external girdle to gathers along the side seams of the bodice. Though all of these are possible given the sewing "technology" of the period, none of them are provable. I chose to assume, based on these and other examples, that the extreme stress on the fabric of the bodice would cause it to buckle and produce horizontal pleats, though I did not expect the regularity or quantity of pleats shown on the sculpture. After having constructed the dress, I have found that it will produce pleats if encouraged by the addition of extra length in the bodice (which I accomplished by hitching it up a bit). My solution, however, does not satisfy the original question because the end result does not look enough like the statues to be considered a reproduction. A question that arose in the course of the project was whether the skirts depicted by these statues were of pleated fabric. I came to the conclusion that though there may have been some cases in which pleated fabric was used for skirts, these particular examples were probably a product of the vertical stylization prevalent in sculpture of the period. Other statues whose garments are obviously not pleated in the directions that the carving seems to suggest support this conclusion.

III. A note on headdresses

Young and unmarried women were permitted to wear their hair loose and uncovered in the home and sometimes in public as well, but all decent women past puberty covered their heads. Though the headdresses were plain, with the exception of the sometimes lavish gold and silver crowns of the royalty, they are of interest due to their fastenings. The entire ensemble of chinband, veil, and crown is held together with layers of straight pins, which were quite expensive at the time. Wives were allotted a certain budget each year to purchase them, and thus the expression "pin money" came into use.

Works Consulted

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