13th Century: Coif, Barbette and Wimple

As the Cyclas made its way into women’s fashion too, head coverings were changing very much from the 12th century’s hoods. While hoods were still much worn among many social classes (and continued to be worn for several centuries), men began wearing linen coifs while women began binding their heads with linen bands.

The coif was a close-fitting cap styled very much like a modern ladies’ swimming cap. A strap ran under the chin to hold it in place, and it covered most of the man’s hair. During the years when men wore the coif, their fashions ran to shorter hair. The coif was worn indoors and outdoors; during the period of its fashion, men are not shown in any setting without the coif. Other hats were sometimes put on top of it; a king might place his crown on top of his linen coif instead of on his hair.

I am not sure how the word “coif” was pronounced. In modern French, it would be like “kwahf.” In medieval French, it may have been more like kweef or even koif.

Until this time, ladies had been wearing their hair mostly in one or two long braids, with a light fabric “couvre-chef” pinned on somewhere or wound about like a hijab. But now they began the first stage in a series of increasingly complicated hats and hair styles. It began with a linen band wrapped around the head, vertically. It passed under the chin, covered the ears, and was secured with a pin near the top of the head. The “barbette” was sufficient head covering for fashion, at times. During the 13th century, women are almost never pictured without a barbette. It was required even with a crown.

The barbette could be combined with the 12th century couvre-chef. But more often it went with a wimple, which was a white linen or silk cloth that passed under the chin, draping to cover the entire neck. At times the wimple was worn alone, pinned at the ears, but it is most often seen in combination with other head covering. We use the word “wimple” to refer to a nun’s head covering, but in the century when the fashion began, the wimple itself was only the part that covered the neck.

The barbette could also be combined with a linen headband. The fashion is very strange to modern eyes: a fine lady with her head wrapped in perpendicular white bands, one like she’s playing Injun and forgot the feathers, and the other as if she’s in an old comic film pretending she has an infected tooth and can’t talk.

Barbettes were most often paired with a round cap that had straight sides and a flat top. Beginning simply, the caps became billboards for the wearer’s wealth. With those straight sides, it was a wonderful display panel for pearls and gold thread. The odd part to modern sensibility is that the cap was the added extra; the barbette was the required element.

With these added head decorating options, women began to put their hair up as the Byzantine fashionistas did. Braids were pinned into buns or tucked under barbettes and caps. The upper class ladies of Germany, France and England began to look very different from their grandmothers, after centuries of relatively little change. Their grand-daughters would take the headgear to even crazier heights, but that’s in the next century.

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