Until the 13th century, Northern European ladies’ hair had been styled fairly simply, usually in a long braid. By the middle of the 1200s, this was changing, and by the mid-1300s, upper-class hair was styled in fiendishly complicated ways.
It all began with hair nets, called crispines, crispinettes, or cauls. These nets were made of heavy gold, silver or silk thread, at first as a simple bag to cover the head. Hair was braided or coiled and pinned, with the gold net holding the braids in place. The barbette went over the crispine, and a headband or cap on that.
Since the caul/crispine was a showy head-dress itself, and it also helped hold hair in place, hair styles became more ambitious. The first notable development was the Ram’s Horn style made famous long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away by Princess Leia. Ladies of the late 13th century parted hair down the center and pinned two coils over their ears. Crispines covered these coils, and sometimes a kind of wimple was pinned or tucked to the top of them. The lady might have her hair covered only by the gold net, but her neck covered with white silk, now called a gorgette (Fr. la gorge, the throat). In a further style development, the coils of parted hair were wrapped in white silk that might cover the back of the head. If the coiled hair didn’t look just like rams’ horns before, once wrapped in white silk it certainly did.
Ladies’ heads began to take on a wide appearance. Hats slowly widened and silk mantles became oval-shaped to drape gracefully over the coils. Once a wider shape was fashionable, then even wider shapes were more fashionable. Natural hair was not enough, so some padding under the coils helped them stand out.
In the middle of the 1300s, the trend of wide headgear with side coils went to the next level. Instead of coiling hair around, they made the braids into stiff pillars on each side of the face. Most women didn’t have enough natural hair to fill out the proper pillar size, so they used extensions. The braids, doubled back and forth to make the pillar’s thickness, went into a gold hair net that was specially shaped to hold them. This was usually attached to a headband or crown. (This historical re-enactors’ site calls them “Templars.”)
By the turn of the 15th century, hair styles and hats were based on the idea that no hairstyle could be too wide. The type of hat begins to be called a hennin, but there were many types: this early one is known as the cross-tree hennin because it required a real wooden and wire framework. It was completely artificial; little natural hair showed and the cauls holding “side coils” were shaped like boxes. Writer Cristine de Pisan was always painted wearing something like this.
By the mid-1400s, the long horns of these headdresses were angled to point back as well as out, perhaps because ladies could not fit through doorways. Now the shape was of a heart, its structure was based on a padded roll of silk that ran around the top of the headdress. Sometimes it was a wide circle, flat on top; in other styles it sloped up at the sides like a satellite dish or cows’ horns.
1450 ends the Middle Ages in a technical sense, but to our eyes, medieval fashion lasted another 75 years. In fact, the best-known “medieval ladies’ hat” was developed in this early Renaissance time. The heart-shaped hennin turned into a hat made of two points that stuck out to the back, covered with veils: the butterfly hennin. The veils were often the points, stiffened with starch or held by wires.
After two centuries of extreme width, the hair styles and hats finally became narrow and tall instead. The two cones of the butterfly hennin came together in one tall cone that stuck as much backward as upward. We now see the cone-shaped hennin, often covered with a light silk veil that might drape almost to the floor. It didn’t really stick out of the top as in cartoon.
But times were in fact changing, not just in technical historical timelines. While court ladies vied with each other for height, expense and other extremes of butterfly, heart-shaped and cone-shaped hennins, the upper middle-class ladies of Flanders began wearing a much more practical cap. Based on turbans (now worn in Constantinople by the thousands!), the cap was round and close. It had no difficulty fitting through doors. The imitation turban cap really marked the beginning of modern hair and hat styles: next stop, the Tudors. (But my essays will instead turn back to the 13th century and look at how the rest of fashion was faring.)