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Women's Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles
With 453 Illustrations, Medieval to Modern
By Georgine de Courtais
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1986 Georgine de Courtais
All rights reserved.
Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman Seventh century A.D. to 1154 A.D.
Throughout Saxon times until well into the Norman period the costume of men and women underwent little change. The main function of clothing during those unsettled centuries was a practical one: fashion as we understand it did not exist. Social status was rigidly defined and any social emulation would have been unthinkable. In any case the mass of the population were in the main too poor and had insufficient leisure to be able to indulge in any taste for change or novelty in clothes. The wealthy ruling classes could show their superiority by wearing a more elaborate and richly decorated version of the general style of costume. The basic shape of garments remained the same for many centuries.
The costume of every Saxon woman consisted of three main garments: a chemise or undergarment, over which was worn a ground-length loose gown or kirtle which had long close-fitting sleeves; over this again was worn the super tunic, also loose and ground-length but often pulled up to knee-length by means of a sash or girdle. The sleeves of this garment were fairly wide and short enough to expose those of the gown. The cloak or mantle was square or rectangular in shape and was fastened at the throat. Very long trailing cloaks were worn by the nobility, as also were the "closed" mantles which had a hole in the centre or near to one edge so that they could be slipped over the head without a fastening.
Wool was the material used for all garments and linen was available for the wealthy. Englishwomen were famed for their needlework and bands of embroidery in coloured and gold and silver thread appeared on hems, sleeve and neck edges and occasionally as panels down the fronts of super tunics.
No Saxon woman ever revealed her hair. Whatever her rank her head and neck were at all times heavily swathed in the folds of the haefods-ragel or head-rail.
The advent of the Normans brought few changes in the style of costume of the majority of the people of England. The main difference as far as women were concerned was that the head-rail, or couvre-chef as it was now called, was smaller. The first example of what might be termed "fashion" appeared in the reign of William II when garments and sleeves of extreme length were adopted by some of the well-to-do.
In the reign of Henry I the signs of increasing prosperity and more settled conditions were reflected in the dress of the nobility with a greater use of fur and imported materials such as silk.
Although women continued to wear the three garments and the cloak or mantle already described, a certain figure consciousness now became apparent, and by 1130 clothes were being shaped to fit more closely to the body. The gown, although remaining fairly full in the skirt, was shaped down to the hips by various means, the neck being slit or cut low to reveal the chemise. The super tunic was also tighter in the bodice but this garment was now sometimes omitted. The taste for length still lingered in the form of long hanging cuffs to sleeves which were otherwise tight fitting, and the elaborate girdles which rested on the hips or encircled the waist with ends hanging nearly to the ground. Perhaps the most remarkable feature, however, was the arrangement of the hair in plaits of exaggerated length. Although this hairstyle was apparently adopted only by the young and by ladies of royal or noble status it may be regarded as a significant step in the evolution of fashion. For the first time for many centuries women had begun to discard the heavy draperies which concealed hair and figure.
Throughout the Anglo-Saxon period only young unmarried girls wore their long hair loose and flowing and without any covering. All other women without exception kept their hair entirely hidden beneath the veil or head-rail, although it is probable that in the privacy of their homes they did not always cover their heads. Under the veil the hair was either worn loose or was braided and secured with hair bindings and pins with ornamented heads. These pins were also used to keep the veils in position. The veil was worn in a number of different ways. One of the earliest versions consisted of a circle or occasionally a square of fabric with a circular hole cut out to frame the face, whilst the rest of the material was folded or draped over the head and shoulders according to the taste of the wearer (Figs. 1 and 3).
A more usual method of wearing the veil consisted of a rectangular length of material with an end fastened to one shoulder and then draped across the throat and over the head. Sometimes one side of the rectangle was cut in such a way as to form a semi-circular shape which was placed over the head and arranged in folds (Fig. 2). These smaller veils were made of light-weight fabric such as silk or cambric, a fine gauze-like linen. A less usual method of wearing the veil but one which would have had obvious advantages in cold and windy weather was to have a very long rectangle of material with the draped portion carried over the free hanging end and wrapped once or twice around the neck (Fig. 4). Veils were pulled tight under the chin and fastened or knotted at the side of the head whilst working at spinning, weaving and household tasks or on the land.
Head-tires or circlet of gold, either plain or set with jewels, could be worn by any Saxon woman of rank, for it was not until a much later date that coronets were a particular mark of distinction. Veils were worn either under or over crowns and circlets (Fig. 3). Fillets or bands of material, either plain or embroidered in gold or coloured thread, were also worn round the head to keep the veils in position.
Fig. 5 shows Saxon pins and a bone comb with teeth along both sides. Combs resembling modern ones with one row of teeth were also used.
During the first 50 years or so after the Norman invasion women continued to hide their hair under the veil or couvre-chef, as the head-rail was now called. There was little variation in the cut and methods of arrangement, although there was an increasing tendency for the couvre-chef to be worn hanging loose on either side of the face, exposing the throat and the neck of the gown. It was often kept in place by a simple fillet of cloth or metal, or in the case of noblewomen by a coronet.
Towards the end of the eleventh century narrow veils of extreme length appeared. The middle of the rectangle was placed on the head and kept in place by a fillet and the ends were often tied in knots to keep them clear of the ground. These veils were presumably made of silk or other lightweight material (Fig. 8).
Sometime during the second quarter of the twelfth century and for the first time for many centuries women began to appear in public with their hair uncovered. It was parted in the centre and either arranged in two plaits which hung down in front or was divided into strands which were bound and interlaced with ribbons (Fig. 6). Sometimes the side hair only was plaited whilst the rest hung freely down the wearer's back (Fig. 7). Usually a small circular couvre-chef was worn and kept in position with a fillet or coronet (Fig. 9). Extreme length was admired and the plaits which hung to the knees or in some cases to the ground were thickened and lengthened with false hair. The illusion of length was also obtained by encasing the tresses in silk tubes with ornamental tassels or by attaching metal cylinders to the ends of the plaits (Fig. 10).
The Plantagenet period extended over almost two and a half centuries and for the greater part of that time there was little change in the basic style of dress of both sexes, although new ideas continued to appear.
The state of society was still such that women were on the whole much confined to their homes, even ladies of rank being mainly occupied in running their households. A plain kirtle and veil similar to that worn by their servants would probably have been sufficient for daily wear whilst more elaborate costume would be worn for tournaments and hunting. As in previous centuries the quality and style of garments depended more on the rank of the wearer than on fashion. The latest styles worn at Court would only have been copied by those living in London.
Long, full garments were still worn; the close fitting bodices adopted by the minority during the reign of Stephen had disappeared by the beginning of Henry II's reign. The sleeves of the gown were loose and wide at the armhole and tight fitting at the wrist. About the middle of the thirteenth century the super tunic was replaced by the surcote, a garment without sleeves. Later a version with sleeves was also worn. Mantles and cloaks now tended to be worn only for travelling and by the nobility on State occasions. Although clothes were plain and simply cut the range of imported materials was increasing. In addition to the usual wool and linen several varieties of silk were in use and fur of many kinds was available for linings and trimmings.
By the beginning of the Plantagenet era women had already ceased to wear long plaits and their hair was once more hidden from public view by a veil, albeit a much smaller one than had hitherto been usual. The "covered up" appearance was enhanced by the adoption of two new styles of headdress, the barbette and wimple, but before long the hair began to be revealed once more, if not directly, then by the invention of headdresses which required an abundance of hair to make them effective. Loose-flowing hair was still usual for young girls and was also worn in this manner beneath their crowns by queens on State occasions. Light veils might also be worn, but the hair was always visible. Girls are sometimes depicted in manuscripts of the time wearing chaplets of flowers, or metal and jewelled fillets designed to imitate such decorations.
During the second quarter of the fourteenth century notable changes in costume began to take place. The first signs of change had been apparent earlier in the century, but it was in the reign of Edward III that fashion in the sense that we understand it began to develop. Not only was there a fundamental alteration in the shape of clothes, with a pronounced emphasis on the outline of the figure, but also a greater distinction between the dress of men and women, which had hitherto been very similar. Due to more settled conditions and increasing foreign trade a greater variety of expensive fabrics was becoming available to those who could afford them. Decoration was more lavish, with large floral and geometric patterns, heraldic designs and much jewelled embroidery becoming popular.
There was still a great social gulf between the nobility and the rest of the nation, but as the middle classes increased in prosperity they acquired a taste for the luxuries which had formerly been the prerogative of the wealthy. Sumptuary laws were introduced by Edward III in an attempt to curb the expenditure of all classes and indirectly to prevent those in humbler circumstances imitating the fashions of the nobility. Directions were given as to the cost of clothing to be worn by those of different degrees and the amount and type of trimming or jewellery. In spite of these measures the costume became even more elaborate, reaching a peak of extravagance at the end of the period in the reign of Richard II, who was himself fond of fashionable clothes.
Women's clothing was on the whole simpler than that of the men, the main changes and fashion interest being centred on the headdress. The gown, or cotehardie as it was now called, became close fitting, with full drapery from the hips. Sleeves were long and tight, necklines low and wide. The sleeveless surcote of the thirteenth century was transformed into the sideless surcote. The bodice portion was cut away at the sides, leaving only a broad band of material or fur encircling the shoulders, with panels down the front and back of the body. These panels were attached to bands below hip level from which hung the full skirt. This surcote was worn over the cotehardie and was one of the most important garments of the late Middle Ages. The simple fitted style of dress served to set off the elaborate headdresses and veils which became increasingly fashionable and varied after 1350.
1 Wimple, barbette and crespine
The fashion for uncovered hair and long plaits which was at its height during the reign of Stephen appeared to decline soon after the middle of the century. Instead, the plaits were coiled over the ears or arranged across the back of the head. The hair was usually covered with the couvre-chef which, although quite short, was of the same rectangular or semicircular cut as those worn in the previous period.
During the second half of the twelfth century the barbette and the wimple were the first distinctive items of headdress to be worn by Englishwomen in addition to the age-old veil and circlet. The barbette, which was supposed to have been introduced by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II, was a band of linen encircling the face and pinned in position on top of the head. At first, it was worn by royal and noble ladies with the new style of small veil and a crown or coronet (Fig. 11) but during the thirteenth century it was adopted by women of all classes. The wimple, which appeared about 1190, was a length of fine linen or silk draped across the throat close beneath the chin, the ends being pinned to the hair on the crown of the head. The wimple was always worn with a veil and sometimes with a circlet also and it remained an important item of headwear for two centuries (Fig. 12).
Early in the reign of Henry III the fillet became an important part of the headdress. This took the form of a stiffened band of linen or silk which was worn round the head over the barbette. The band varied in width from about one and a half to four inches and the deeper type sometimes had the top covered, thus giving it the appearance of a hat, and was usually rather plain. The open type on the other hand was frequently pleated or goffered. When those of royal or noble birth wore their crowns or coronets these were placed on the head outside the fillet, the latter showing above the points of the crown.
Young girls wore the barbette and fillet with flowing hair (Fig. 17), but it was more usual for the hair to be braided low across the back of the head or coiled in a large knot at the nape of the neck (Fig. 13). Later it was covered with a net known as a crespine or crespinette. These nets or cauls in many different forms were to be an important part of women's headdress until late in the fifteenth century. They were attached to a band worn round the head, and were very frequently worn in conjunction with the fillet and barbette (Fig. 15 and Fig. 16). The crespine was popular with women in all walks of life and continued to be worn by the working classes until well into the fourteenth century. Those worn by great ladies were made of silk cord studded with jewels or metal at the intersections of the mesh, whilst those of the less wealthy were of coarser material. Figs 14 and 15 show the crespine worn with the hair dressed in coils over the ears or plaits round the head, styles which became fashionable generally towards the end of the thirteenth century. The fillet tended to become wider at the sides in order to fit over these styles (Fig. 16). Before the end of Edward I's reign both the fillet and barbette became considerably narrower (Fig. 15).
2 Wimple and hair
In the last decade of the thirteenth century there was a fashion for arranging the hair in plaited coils over the ears, a style which continued to be worn during the reign of Edward II. The crespine, which remained popular, was adapted to cover these side coils by being divided into two sections attached to either side of the headband. It was also still worn in the original fashion to cover the whole of the head.
Excerpted from Women's Hats, Headdresses and Hairstyles by Georgine de Courtais. Copyright © 1986 Georgine de Courtais. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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