At the end of the 11th century, Europe came in contact with Byzantium and the Saracen Middle East in a big way. Prior to this, contact had been limited to ambassadors and rare travelers. Charlemagne’s successors had been imitating Byzantine robes at court, but few of them had actually been abroad. Now, with the First Crusade, a wide swathe of Europe’s nobles and commoners actually went there and came back.
The first Crusade-related fad was called, in French, the “bliaut.” (Probably the T was still pronounced at that time.) The two defining bliaut traits were that it was made of very lightweight silk and that it was heavily pleated. There were versions for men and for women.
The bliaut for men had a close-fitting top that laced in back. It had long sleeves and a heavily embroidered collar. Hanging below, front and back, was a very wide silk shaped like two semi-circles. Each had been pleated along the straight side until, together, they were shortened enough to fit neatly around the man’s waist. The bliaut skirt just hung there to be decorative; the garment was worn over a cotte (tunic) that took care of actual coverage/warmth issues. The bottom edge was embroidered to help weight down the light silk in its pleats.
Women began wearing corsets in the 12th century. These garments were made of leather, tightly laced at the front and sometimes stiffened more with wood or metal ribs. Later, even men began to wear the “corse” (from med. French, related to “corpse”).
The women’s bliaut began with the wives of Crusader Kingdom officials. For them, the Crusades were all about the bazaar shopping. They bought up silk in unheard-of quantities and brought or shipped it home. Their bliaut was not necessarily modeled on anything the Byzantine women were wearing; it may have been a 12th century dressmaker’s best guess at what to do with all this tissue-paper fabric.
Both the gown and its sleeves were cut of very wide pieces of silk that was gathered, pleated and crimped down to the proper size. The bliaut appears to be the first gown to have a real tailored armhole. A few inches down from the shoulder, the fabric was released into a wide, pleated sleeve hanging almost to the floor. Across the chest, the gathers were released just above the breasts so that the gown flowed in pleats around the body.
The Hollywood negligee look was not what they were after, though, so a “corsage” went over the gown. It was sleeveless, like a V-neck vest, and always close-fitting (laced at back). It was probably made of silk as well, possibly of several lightweight layers. Some corsages were quilted in gold thread along diagonal lines, while others wrapped the lady in a wide hip belt like a cummerbund.
Even before the bliaut was imported, ladies had been working on two trends: defining the waist while draping themselves in ever more fabric. The older way was to have a laced-up waist gown with such excessively voluminous sleeves that they had to get tied in loose knots just to take up fabric and make them manageable. The other way to manage super-long sleeves was to cut a slit halfway up, where the hands actually were, so that fingers could emerge to do needlework. Unlike the lightweight bliaut’s pleated sleeves, these impractical sleeves were often on wool gowns and could serve a second purpose: built-in hand muff.