Clothing at the end of the Middle Ages

There’s no firm line for where the Middle Ages end and the Renaissance – Early Modern begins. The conventional date is 1453, when the Turks conquered Constantinople. I’ve argued at times for the Black Death, a full century earlier, as the close of the era. Of course, to anyone alive at the time, there was no sudden change between 1430 and 1480. The same food and clothing continued through the period, even as the structure that had supported the medieval period was rapidly shifting.

Men kept their alternation between short and long right through the Tudor period in the 16th century. Hose was topped with short jackets, eventually called doublets and made of Italian cotton. Doublets’ fashion changed with the decade: sometimes padded, sometimes with exaggerated shoulders, sometimes with puffy sleeves. Older men often preferred the dignified long-robe tradition; the houpeland’s wide collar morphed into other styles that changed like the doublet’s variations.

Men’s hats drifted away from the hood-based chaperon (with its trailing liripipe), and toward a modern-looking hat with a firm round top and a short brim. There were two other hat styles that never quite left the scene: the bycocket and a soft baggy cap. We could argue that the bycocket (the Robin Hood hat) changed into the modern style of the baseball cap, since one of its features was a long brim in front that acted as a sun shade, and otherwise it was close-fitting. The soft cap was at times made of velvet, sometimes flatter and sometimes baggier.

The ladies adopted the men’s houpeland, with varying collar styles. Christine de Pisan is shown in a houpeland (and heart-shaped hennin), in which the neckline is close and the collar broad over the shoulders. We see many painted images of ladies at this time with the houpeland’s neckline open, belted at the waist and forming a V up to the shoulders.

Ironically, the ladies’ hat and hair style most popular just after the medieval period officially ended is the one most strongly identified with the Middle Ages. Through 1480, the most fashionable ladies plucked their hairlines and pulled all hair into a tight bun covered with the cone-shaped hennin. The cone-shaped hennin was not always tall; it didn’t point straight up; and its veil didn’t descend from the tip only. But that’s the image passed down to us in popular imagination, much used for Halloween costumes. The actual cone-shaped hennin could be tall or shaped like a flower pot, was tipped to point back, and was entirely covered with a light silk veil that was often pinned with a jewel at the forehead. The veil was large enough to cover the hat and drape most of the way to the floor.

There are two notable beauty traits from the close of the Middle Ages: receding hairlines and extended stomachs. A pregnant woman with a thyroid problem such that her hair is falling out would be considered just perfect in 1475. Women who weren’t pregnant sometimes put a pad under their gowns to create the effect.

Elizabeth Woodville, Queen of England, was called the most beautiful woman of her time. In her official portrait, we can see the marks of fashionable 15th century beauty: severely receding hairline, flower pot hennin with silk veil, and houpeland gown with a broad collar.

The Arnolfini Betrothal shows us the padded-stomach fad in the young bride and a new black domed hat on the groom.

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