Due to the scarcity of extant garments and to the limited nature of other types of primary sources for the study of medieval and early Renaissance clothing, the secondary literature pertaining to fifteenth century clothing is meager. Most of the literature is descriptive of a few chosen examples and little or no attempt is made to examine the overall patterns of change of styles over time or to examine the social or culture implications of the clothing. This review will first examine some of the literature on late medieval and early Renaissance clothing found in general surveys of western clothing that cover all time periods to the twentieth century, followed by the literature devoted specifically to medieval and early Renaissance clothing, and, finally, as the origin of this review was a study on fifteenth-century headdress, literature concentrating on headdress. The secondary sources were reviewed for their intended audience, use of primary and secondary sources, method of study and information about fifteenth and early sixteenth century clothing, especially headdress. This review is not entirely complete; there are some sources of information in other languages than English and some commonly-available sources that are not, or are no longer, considered reliable sources.
Some of the most commonly available overall surveys of western clothing are Blanche Payne’s History of Costume, Milia Davenport’s The Book of Costume, James Laver’s Costume & Fashion, and Francois Boucher’s 20,000 Years of Fashion. (2) Since these books are intended for a popular audience, the information found in them is very brief and over-generalized, and tends to be based on the subjective, impressionistic study of a few visual sources. These surveys are also accounts of what was new or unusual, or of what belonged to the social elites. Little or no attention is paid to the typical, to the lower classes, or to places that lagged behind in the adoption of the latest styles.
Of these four, James Laver’s Costume & Fashion has the briefest and most over-simplified description of medieval and early Renaissance clothing. The number or nature of the sources in his exposition are not stated nor is the method of study, but the method seems to be an subjective evaluation of art work. His bibliography is a mix of scholarly works with outdated and often unreliable works. The most useful parts of the book are the clearly-reproduced illustrations. Only one page of the text is devoted to men’s headdress of the fifteenth century and is primarily descriptive of one type of headdress.
Somewhat stronger is Francois Boucher’s 20,000 Years of Fashion which uses the development of French upper-class civilian clothing as the basis for comparison for the development of clothing in Europe. His primary sources include extant garments when they are available and visual art works which are studied qualitatively. The secondary sources are noted English and French costume historians mostly from the early 20th century. He does not specifically mention verbal sources, but does quote from contemporary chronicles and literature in the text. Boucher acknowledges societal influences upon clothing such as economics, religion, politics, status delineation, and personal expression, but does not demonstrate the role these factors play in the changes in fashion. The material on fifteenth-century men’s headdress is brief and simplistic.
Both Davenport and Payne have produced more detailed texts. Milia Davenport’s The Book of Costume was written as much for theatrical designers as for a general audience interested in costume. Her primary sources include extant garments, extant textiles, art works, contemporary literature, contemporary sermons and commentary, sumptuary laws, correspondence, and printed inventories of notable persons (primarily royalty). Her main secondary sources include Jacob Burckhardt, Max von Boehn, numerous art historians, but generally disdains costume historians. Davenport states that the ideal book on costume would “...provide so many pictures (all documents, arranged chronologically, and in color) that the story would tell itself without words.”(3) However, pictures alone cannot tell the whole story and some interpretation is necessary for a modern viewer to understand the times that produced the picture. She has tried to produce such a book of mostly primary source pictures, albeit in black and white and poorly reproduced, with supplemental descriptions to provide color, sometimes, literally. As such, the book is comprehensive and shows many visual sources of clothing from several regions and all social classes. However, the supplemental commentary on the reproductions focus on the unusual and the different rather than what may be typical, and on the clothing of the social elites. Little attempt is made to integrate all the visual information given into coherent patterns, or to make comparisons between regions or times. Her commentaries include unsubstantiated “conventional wisdom” about garments and their use or meanings and her assumption seems to be that there is a linear progression of fashion.
Headdress is often shown in the sources but not much discussed in the commentaries unless it is showy or otherwise unique. Social or cultural uses of headdress is not discussed.
There are now two editions of Blanche Payne’s History of Costume.The first was published in 1965 and the second in 1992 with two co-authors, Geitel Winakor and Jane Farrell-Beck. Since the first edition was often used in undergraduate courses on the history of costume and is still found in many public libraries, I will discuss it first, then discuss the much-improved second edition. The 1965 edition is a history of western clothing from about 3000 BCE to 1900 CE devoted to the clothing of the upper and upper-middle classes, and appears to be an impressionistic analysis of a few art works depicting notable persons. Her primary sources included extant garments, and garment and textile fragments, when they exist, and art works, but she does not seem to use verbal documentary sources. Her main secondary sources include Max von Boehn, Herbert Norris, Kelly and Schwabe, Milia Davenport, and C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington. Many of the illustrations used are redrawings from original sources rather than reproductions of the originals.
For headdress, and for clothing in general, Payne concentrates on the new and unusual, ignoring common-place items. The basic assumption seems to be that there is a linear evolution of fashion, rather than there being a number of different trends from different regions and/or social classes that are adopted differentially by the fashionable. Payne also makes broad generalizations about fashion from a few selected sources that depict the powerful, the social elites, and the rich. The working classes are dismissed in three paragraphs and only agricultural workers are discussed.
She does acknowledge regional differences, and gives a summary of the main trends for each of the regions studied (Italy, Burgundy/Flanders, France, Germany, and England), but fails to compare and contrast each of the regional trends. Rather, Payne studies the “fashion” trends of each region by applying the standard of French fashion to each of them. She also states that Italy was the fashion leader due to the imagination and sumptuousness shown in its clothing, but does not demonstrate that Italian clothing has any influence on the clothing of other regions. (4)
Headdress is only mentioned in passing and only if it is unusual or bizarre. No attempt is made to examine wearing patterns of headdress for various social classes or demographic groups, and no systematic attempt is made to examine regional similarities or differences.
The second edition (1992) of History of Costume pays greater attention to current research and discusses the problems of sources and methods regarding the time period discussed here. It is greatly preferable to the first edition, but still is overly concerned with the exceptional rather than the typical. For example, the open-fronted hood is a rather prevalent form of 15th century Northern European women’s headdress, but receives no mention in that section of the book, while the elaborate horned headdresses, worn by a small minority of the population, were described in detail. As with the previous edition, the method of study for the sections on the Middle Ages and Renaissance tended towards the impressionistic rather than the systematic, and the secondary sources are limited, many coming from general histories of a period rather than from detailed studies of clothing from the periods studied.
Penelope Byrde’s The Male Image: Men’s Fashion in Britain 1300-1970 is a both a survey of English upper-class men’s clothing and an interpretation of the development of men’s examined in the light of the ideals of masculine image, aesthetic ideals, and delineation of social status. (5) The structure of the book includes a chapter on the influences on men’s clothing, a chapter on showing a pictorial survey of English men’s clothing, and chapters on individual clothing items. The chapter devoted to headdress gives a more detailed narrative about the development of headdress and is more sensitive to variations in type and structure than the text describing headdress in the other general surveys reviewed here.
Byrde examines visual works of art, contemporary literature, diaries, letter and memoirs, and extant garments. In addition to these primary sources, for fifteenth-century clothing, Byrde relies heavily on secondary sources by Elizabeth Birbari, C. Willet and Phillis Cunnington, and J. R. Planche. The text is extensively annotated and the notes provides excellent sources, but the bibliography is better suited to a non-specialist audience.
Byrde attempts to examine the changes in men’s clothing in the context of gender roles: how men perceived themselves and how they structured their images to accord with these perceptions. Also she looks at how and what clothing can communicate within a society and how men’s dress have developed and changed to adapt to communicate new messages about social status, moral values, and contemporary aesthetics. She does sometimes broadly attributes concepts about male and female roles predominant in one time period to all time periods in her range. While nineteenth-century concepts of male and female roles may satisfactorily explain the differences in the character and pace of change of men’s and women’s clothing in the nineteenth century, they do not adequately explain the similarities in men’s and women’s clothing prior to the eighteenth century.
Literature concentrating on the dress of the Middle Ages, such as Medieval Costume in England and France, by Mary Houston; Dress in Medieval France, by Joan Evans; The Handbook of English Mediaeval Costume, by C. Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington; or The Visual History of Costume: The Fourteenth & Fifteenth Centuries by Margaret Scott are also intended for a popular audience and have many of the same problems as the previous sources. (6) These surveys are also accounts of what was new or unusual, or of what belonged to the social elites with little or no attention paid to the typical, or to classes or countries that were outside of the main trends of fashionable change. They do, however, often supplement their analyses with contemporary literature and such historical records as household accounts and customs records, and have more detailed descriptions of clothing.
Medieval Costume in England and France, by Mary G. Houston surveys fashionable change in the clothing of the social elites of thirteenth-, fourteenth-, and fifteenth-century England and France. She uses manuscript illumination, tomb effigies, paintings, stained glasses, and extant church vestments as primary sources, but she relies heavily on nineteenth-century secondary sources. Unlike the other authors, she does cover the development of ecclesiastical vestments for these three centuries, the sight of which would have been most frequent in medieval society, and of professional and academic dress. For the most part, her information is composed of descriptions of the garments worn in a few visual sources without placing them into an aesthetic, cultural or social context. The 350 illustrations consist of line redrawings of original images.
Joan Evans, in Dress in Medieval France, also mainly describes some of the garments seen in visual sources, but she also includes commentary in contemporary chronicles and literature. Her scope of study is French and Burgundian clothing from 1060 to 1515 CE of the upper and occasionally, upper-middle classes. Evans’s source materials for fifteenth century clothing include extant garments and garment and textile fragments, when they exist, but she does not describe them accurately. (7) Her other primary sources are art works, contemporary prose and poetry, and correspondences and inventories of notable persons. The main secondary sources include Viollet-le-Duc, Quicherat, Demay, and Harmand; the works of which were published more than twenty years prior to the printing of her book. Evans also makes extensive use of 19th-century transcriptions of medieval texts and documents rather than using the original sources themselves. She includes a section of black and white reproductions of the visual sources to illustrate the text, but uses renderings of Viollet-le-Duc’s redrawings within the text. Overall, Dress in Medieval France has much fragmented description with little interpretation and synthesis of general trends.
Much better with delineating general trends, at least with regards to change over time, is The Handbook of English Mediaeval Costume, by C. Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington. As the title suggests, the scope of the book is English clothing of the upper and middle classes from 800 to 1500 CE. The intention was to create a general reference of the main features of English medieval clothing for an interested general audience and for theatrical designers. Their study uses some manuscript illuminations, memorial effigies, and contemporary literature. Secondary sources include noted nineteenth- and early twentieth-century clothing historians and art historians. The subject matter is primarily descriptive and social and cultural contexts are kept to a minimum. Contemporary literature is used to illustrate a particular garment rather than to analyze that garment. The material is arranged first chronologically, then by sex of the wearers, and for each sex, by type of garment. Each type is then described chronologically to give a sense of an evolution of style. The verbal descriptions are supplemented by line redrawings of original images, but the originals sources are cited. Often, features from one period are related to features from the previous period and to features from the next. As an overview of the main features of dress, it is well-organized and lucidly written, but it is not detailed enough for use in interpretive analyses.
The Visual History of Costume: The Fourteenth & Fifteenth Centuries by Margaret Scott is also a general pictorial survey of upper class English, Burgundian, Flemish, French, and some German clothing from 1300–1500 CE. Unlike the previous surveys, this survey is rooted in a strong, scholarly evaluation of manuscript illumination, paintings, funerary sculpture, royal wardrobe accounts, sumptuary legislation, household accounts, contemporary chronicles, wills and inventories, and contemporary literature. Each type of information is considered in terms of the other types to see if each supports or contradicts each other. Her secondary sources include scholarly works of later-twentieth-century historians, clothing historians and art historians. The introduction to the book frankly describes the types of primary sources available for research into the clothing of the late Middle Ages and their limitations, her methods for using these sources, and a brief overview of the general trends of fashionable change while acknowledging, but not describing in detail, national and cultural complexities. The rest of the book is comprised of 150 reproductions of visual sources, arranged in chronological order, each with a description of the treatment of the head, body, and accessories worn by the persons portrayed. Some of these descriptions discuss briefly the aesthetic, cultural, or social contexts of the item described. The bibliography provides a solid staring point for more detailed study of the subject.
Most of the previous literature was published before 1970. More recent writers, while still using a subjective method of analysis, have brought more discipline to the study of fifteenth century clothing. The last two decades saw the publication of several books concentrating on the clothing of the fifteenth or fifteenth and early sixteenth century. These include Dress in Italian Painting 1460–1500, by Elizabeth Birbari; Renaissance Dress in Italy, 1400–1500, by Jacqueline Herald; Late Gothic Europe: 1400–1500, by Margaret Scott; and Hispanic Costume: 1480–1530, by Ruth M. Anderson. Most of these are more complete than the previous surveys, using a variety of documentary sources to interpret clothing in a social setting. A better attempt to examine clothing of the lower classes and men’s clothing is made, but these sources still concentrate on the clothing of the fashionable elites and of women. Scott, Herald, and Anderson attempt to firmly place their narrative of the changes in dress into a social and cultural context, while Birbari concentrates on what can be perceived in painting alone, almost divorced from a social context. (8)
Dress in Italian Painting 1460–1500, by Elizabeth Birbari is a primer on how to look at the portrayal of dress in works of art and how to interpret its construction and components, provided one looks with an open mind and without unsupported assumptions about the nature of the art. Unfortunately, Birbari makes the assumption about Italian art that the portrayal of every object, especially clothing, was a literally true and faithful recording of that object to the most minute detail. (9) Art historical scholarship does not support that assumption. This assumption creates conclusions about the types of garments worn in daily life and how it was constructed that are highly questionable. Birbari does not recognize the role that fantasy, idealization, and symbolism often play in the portrayal of human figures in art, and consequently garments that were most likely to be theatrical adaptations of clothing, she takes as clothing worn in daily life.
Although the title implies that all of Italian dress is discussed, the one-hundred paintings Birbari analyzes comes mostly from Northern Italy as most of the innovative artists whose works she uses were employed in these areas. She then uses these paintings as guides to the construction of various items of Italian men’s and women’s clothing. For some of the illustrated garments, she shows photographs of reconstructions based on her analysis of the paintings. Other than women’s veils, headdress is not analyzed.
Most of Birbari’s secondary sources are the works of art historians of Italian painting writing in the 1930s and 1940s, more than thirty years before this book was written. Comparison of Italian painting with Northern European painting may have contributed to a revision of her assumption of the absolute veracity of Italian painting, as may have knowledge of clothing and textile production, the general social structure, and the concepts of Renaissance thought.
In contrast to the narrow focus on painting as the only source material of Dress in Italian Painting 1460–1500 is Jacqueline Herald’s Renaissance Dress in Italy, 1400–1500. (10) This is a much broader interpretative and descriptive study using a wide variety of primary sources to analyze and place Italian clothing into a social context. Like Birbari, the sources Herald uses come primarily from the northern half of Italy since this area was the leader in the development of Renaissance thought and aesthetics.
Primary source materials include works of art, fabric fragments, inventories, wills, household accounts, personal correspondence, and literature, all carefully considered together to give a comprehensive picture of the use of clothing in the life of upper-class Italians. Although the surviving evidence is strongly biased to representation of the upper classes, Herald does moderately discuss the role of clothing in the lives of the middle and lower classes based on the evidence she has found.
The main portion of the book intersperses chronologically arranged chapters descriptive of the types of garments worn and their physical characteristics placed into cultural contexts such as concepts of beauty, the spread of Renaissance aesthetics and the decline of the Gothic, or the use of dress as a method of communicating status, taste, or moral values, with chapters detailing textiles and textile production used for clothing, jewelry and accessories and heraldry.
Margaret Scott has also written a more detailed history of fifteenth century upper-class French, Burgundian, and Flemish clothing and contains some descriptions of English and German clothing as well. The focus of Late Gothic Europe: 1400–1500 is the interpretation of clothing in aesthetic and cultural contexts. Much of the structure of the book and the sources and method of study mirrors Jacqueline Herald. Scott evaluates manuscript illumination, paintings, funerary sculpture, royal wardrobe accounts, sumptuary legislation, household accounts, contemporary chronicles, wills and inventories, and contemporary literature synthesizing the historical evidence into a coherent narrative. Her secondary sources include scholarly works of later-twentieth-century historians, clothing historians and art historians.
Scott’s chronological account of the changes in fashionable dress is preceded by chapters describing the political historical setting and how it affected the visual arts and the aesthetic concepts held by Northern European artists of the fifteenth century. The clothing described in the chronological chapters are placed in the context of changes in aesthetics and the decline of medieval thought.
Another well-organized and scholarly survey has been written by Ruth M. Anderson. Hispanic Costume: 1480–1530 concentrates on a region and time period not often examined: Spain and Portugal of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The book is divided into two sections, one for men’s clothing and one for women’s clothing, which are further subdivided into types of clothing items and of personal adornment starting with the head (hair and headdress) proceeding systematically to the toes (shoes and other foot coverings) and also including outer garments and accessories.
Anderson’s primary sources include art works, correspondences and inventories of notable persons (primarily royalty and nobility), contemporary chronicles, sumptuary laws, guild and town regulations for producers of clothing, and some contemporary literature. There are numerous illustrations for each type of garment or accessory discussed. Her main secondary sources include the works of Carmen Bernis Madrazo, C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, Maurice Leloir, James Laver, Rosita Levi Pisetsky and numerous scholars of Spanish history.
This is a systematic qualitative analysis of many art works and verbal sources primarily concerning notable persons. Anderson analyzes clothing items in the contexts of their makers and their wearers and integrates this information into a comprehensive interpretation of clothing worn on the Iberian peninsula in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. She examines the clothing items in terms of their construction and their material components, who would have worn them and for what occasions, and their cultural and social meanings.
Anderson does not make the assumption that clothing developed along a single line of evolution, but rather acknowledges that different elements of clothing had their own independent evolutions and so she examined each element in isolation. The illustrations for each type show only the headdress or the doublet or the sleeves, and one does not always get a sense of an integrated outfit or a sense of what often goes with what. Another of the few weaknesses of this book is that the degree to which changes in one element may effect changes in another element is inadequately explored. The separation of men’s from women’s clothing, in a book that stresses social context, also made it difficult to see the interrelationships between men’s and women’s clothing. Otherwise, this is a brief and readable, yet scholarly and well-documented source for information about clothing for this period and place.
Headdress is discussed in its own section with ample illustrations of each type of headdress discussed. Anderson also briefly examines the uses of headdress in courtesy rituals, the qualifications for master’s status in hat- and cap-makers guilds, as well as a discussion of various headdress types, their changes, and their appearances in inventories and literature.
The following two articles describe social aspects of fifteenth-century clothing or of the way clothing is portrayed in art. They both discuss two facets of the topic, how clothing is used to mark one’s social status and the importance of firmly delineated status to a culture which stressed adherence to the proper place and duties of each estate. Laura Rinaldi Dufresne examines the contrasts among the depiction of a popular author, Christine of Pisa, in fifteenth-century manuscript illumination, her actual social status, and her advice and commentary on dress and status in the article, “A Woman of Excellent Character: A Case Study of Dress, Reputation, and the Changing Costume of Christine de Pizan in the Fifteenth Century.”(11) Dufresne compares Christine of Pisa’s textual admonishments to dress for one’s status with Christine’s depiction in five French and Flemish manuscript copies of her works. Christine of Pisa, court author and scribe, had advised women to always dress appropriately for their social statuses, and while she was alive to control her portrayal in manuscripts, only approved of her image shown dressed in clothing appropriate to her status. Her works were immensely popular in the fifteenth, and after her death in 1430, she was increasing portrayed in clothing appropriate to a social status far above her own in keeping with her reputation.
John Scattergood analyzes the phrasing of English sumptuary legislation and compares it to such literary sources as poetry, song lyrics, sermons, chronicles, and correspondence to seek underlying attitudes and beliefs towards innovation and luxury in clothing in “Fashion and Morality in the Late Middle Ages.”(12) He concludes that the overriding concerns spurring the creation of sumptuary laws and contemporary commentary on dress were the fear that those adopting new “skimpy” fashions were indulging in the mortal sin of pride and those adopting costly fashions and materials beyond their means were blurring class distinctions and violating the concept of a rigid social hierarchy.
Literature specifically about fifteenth century headdress is, of course, more scarce than literature about clothing in general. Four articles were found that discussed fifteenth-century headdress or have fifteenth-century headdress within its purview. Three of the articles are descriptive, sometimes baldly so; the latter examines the role of headdress in concepts of gender and religious priesthood. (13) Cheunsoon Song and Lucy Roy Sibley’s article, “The Vertical Headdress of Fifteenth Century Northern Europe,” discusses the evolution and construction of fifteenth-century Northern European women’s headdress of the upper and upper-middle classes. Her primary sources include art work by different artists of the same period. Her main secondary sources include Margaret Scott, Francois Boucher, Millia Davenport, Blanche Payne and Herbert Norris. Margaret Scott is cited in 31 of 55 footnotes and they seem quite dependent on her work. Song and Sibley examined art works and developed a classification of women’s headdress by perceived method of construction, using the depicted shape, and types of elements used.
The article primarily describes their six categories of women’s headdress, suggests how they could have been constructed, and shows examples of each type. It would have been beneficial if some of their proposed constructions could have been tested by trying to recreate them to see if they would really work. Song and Sibley also make some suggestions as to how social class may be depicted through the use of different types of headdress for each class, through the use of larger headdresses for higher classes, or the amount of decoration.
Finally they suggest an evolution of this type of headdress based on a small sample. From the article, it appears that the evolution is based on the dating of about 12 sources; more sources should be examined before drawing a conclusion about the evolution of a headdress type.
These two articles from Textile History are merely descriptions of the physical characteristics of extant men’s hats. Karen Finch’s “A Medieval Hat Rediscovered,” comprises a description of a late fourteenth- or early fifteenth-century hat containing the dimensions, construction details, and materials of the hat. Photographs of the hat from various angles and of details of construction are included. S. M. Levey briefly describes a early sixteenth-century knitted hat in her article, “Illustrations of the History of Knitting Selected from the Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum.” This briefly gives the physical characteristics of the hat and discusses such knitted hats in context of royal legislation and of other verbal documentation. A photograph of the hat is included.
“Gender, Headwear and Power in Judiac and Christian Traditions,” by Beverly Chico is an examination of the meanings of covering one’s head in the Judaic and Christian religions. Chico contrasts the different functions of head coverings for men and women within these traditions using extant ritual headdress, photographs, scripture, religious commentaries, histories of Judaic religious garments and Christian ecclesiastical garments, and literature on the role of women in the Judaic and Christian faiths. Chico identifies the headdress worn by both Jewish and Christian male religious leaders as symbols of power and of men’s relationship to God; and women’s traditional headdress, such as veils, as symbols of submission and modesty and of women’s relationships to God through their relationships with men.
This was intended to help the reader understand some of the strengths and weaknesses of current secondary literature pertaining to fifteenth-century clothing, and to give a guide to sources a reader may not easily find in a public library. Many of these books can be obtained at a public library through Interlibrary Loan. Occasionally copies of periodical articles also can be acquired by Interlibrary Loan for the cost of copying; check with the reference librarian for this possibility.
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