The Fitted Dress Neckline: Devil in the Details

While I have consistently indulged in a relatively deep scoop neckline for my 14th century-style fitted dresses, I have done so in a willful departure from what the art of the time actually reveals. In fact, I have come across precious few images of fitted dresses with generously wide shoulder seams that also dip low enough to show cleavage. As it turns out, where you have one, you frequently do not have the other.

I’ve been stubbornly using my signature scoop for a number of reasons, none of them based on historical accuracy. Firstly, the more shoulder coverage you have, the easier it is to achieve the bust support mechanism built into the dress. Secondly, the deeper the scoop, the less vast (for “less aesthetically pleasing” values of vast) my bosom appears, though there is a fine line between “less gigantic” and “way too cleavage-y”. Simply put, it has always been convenient and is not so outlandishly far from the more common necklines seen on fitted dresses of the 14th and 15th centuries to force a different approach.

Now that the rationalizing part is out of the way, I readily admit there are more visually accurate ways to make a fitted dress neckline, and this post dabbles in the possibilities. Let’s walk through the common necklines of the 14th century (and the turn of the 15th).

The Boat Neckline

The rise of the fitted dress, which happened for the most part in the 1340s, gave us a boat neck so severe, it was almost a reverse curve. The middle of the neckline appears to bow upwards, and the dress perches itself at the points of the shoulders. How much of this is artistic convention or accurate portrayal is hard to know, but comparing a number of contemporary manuscripts shows a consistent portrayal of this severe boat style.

As time marched on, the boat neck continued to appear.

Bible Moralisée, 1350-1, BNF Ms. fr. 167 f.7v

Bible Moralisée, 1350-1, BNF Ms. fr. 167 f.7v

English book of hours, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, circa 1345

English book of hours, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, circa 1345

Aristotle Ethiques, 1397+, Chantilly Mus. Condé Ms. 277 (XIX C 10) f.60

Aristotle Ethiques, 1397+, Chantilly Mus. Condé Ms. 277 (XIX C 10) f.60

The Off-the-Shoulder Neckline—a variation on the boat neckline

At the end of the 14th century there appeared a striking style of fitted dress which moved the neckline so far wide that it passed beyond the point of the shoulders to become a true off-the-shoulder fashion. Presented with this tailoring feat, was the gravity-defying lifted and shelf-like presentation of the bosom. Illuminators seem to have delighted in portraying this style on ladies with prodigious endowment. For students of this period’s dress, the Bohemian examples likely spring to mind.

Wenceslas Bible, 1390+, second volume, f.20

Wenceslas Bible, 1390+, second volume, f.20

Wenceslas Bible, 1387,  volume of Willehalm de Orange, Cp. no. 91

Wenceslas Bible, 1387, volume of Willehalm de Orange, Cp. no. 91

Honorat Bovet, Apparicion maistre Jehan de Meun,1398,  BNF Ms. Fr. 811 f.IV

Honorat Bovet, Apparicion maistre Jehan de Meun,1398, BNF Ms. Fr. 811 f.IV

The Curved Neckline

A simply rounded neckline is not as universal as one might assume in this time period, though there is a respectable representation in the figural art. How far off the shoulder and how deep the scoop—these are degrees and variations of the same thing, though the persistent trend is for a very narrow shoulder seam and a relatively shallow curve. This neckline style is interspersed throughout the time of the fitted dress. Note the last image below shows a scoop neckline—one of those “precious few” I mentioned above.

Wife of Sir __ de Redford, 1390, English

Wife of Sir __ de Redford, 1390, English

Abbaye du Trésor, 1400

Abbaye du Trésor, 1400 (neckline outlined in black for clarity)

Les Belles Heures de Jean duc de Berry, 1409

Les Belles Heures de Jean duc de Berry, 1409

Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1400, Rouen Town Library, Ms. 3054 f.24v

Tacuinum Sanitatis, 1400, Rouen Town Library, Ms. 3054 f.24v

Square Neckline

Fitted dresses were not all tailored exactly the same way. There is plenty of evidence that silhouette, including neckline, varied all over Europe. In some cases, the tailoring itself probably inspired the neckline shape, as in the case of dresses made from five or six panels. There are a few well-known Italian examples of two-tone dresses cut with three front panels which likely influenced the squared shaping seen in their necklines:

Birth of the Virgin, 1365, Rinuccini Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

Birth of the Virgin, 1365, Rinuccini Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

Pietà di San Remigio, Giottino,1365

Pietà di San Remigio, Giottino,1365

The square neckline crops up in the art throughout the time period of the fitted dress. The persistence of this style makes it something of a hallmark aesthetic of the time. Were the fronts of these dresses regularly cut with three panels—a proto-princess-seamed arrangement? I suspect this was more common than we can prove within the confines of our limited surviving data set.

Note in the first English example below, the square neckline is gently rounded at the edges. As with all of these images, there is always a question of how much accuracy a given artisan puts into the figure’s clothing. Is this a square neckline with rounded edges or just a stylized version of a curved neckline? Hard to know for sure.

Roman de la Rose, 1370+,  Arras, Bibl. mun. Ms. 897 f.117

Roman de la Rose, 1370+, Arras, Bibl. mun. Ms. 897 f.117

Six treatises on common Christian matters, Tomáš Štítný, 1376, Prague, National and University Library, sign. XII A.6. f.37

Six treatises on common Christian matters, Tomáš Štítný, 1376, Prague, National and University Library, sign. XII A.6. f.37

Joan de Cobham, 1380, English

Joan de Cobham, 1380, English

Isabeau de Bavière, Jacquemart de Hesdin, 1385-9,  Pierpont Morgan Library Ms. 346 f.2

Isabeau de Bavière, Jacquemart de Hesdin, 1385-9, Pierpont Morgan Library Ms. 346 f.2

Eleynore Corp, 1391, English

Eleynore Corp, 1391, English

Occasionally, fitted dresses with squared necklines are portrayed with a peak between the breasts. These differ from the earlier boat-necked examples, as these dresses clearly have shoulder seams, while the boat neck versions either do not (implying an off-the-shoulder raglan sleeve), or have such negligibly small ones as to render them meaningless. In addition, these figures are often portrayed with a more defined bust, which leads me to wonder if the peak we are seeing is actually intended to represent fabric wrapping around each breast and indenting between them. Or, more simply, it could be meant to evoke the look of cleavage. This probably could use more study.

Fais et dis mémorables des romains, Valerius maximus,1376, BNF Ms. fr. 9749  f.76v

Fais et dis mémorables des romains, Valerius maximus,1376, BNF Ms. fr. 9749 f.76v

Trésor de vénerie, Hardouin de Fontaines-Guerin, 1394+, BNF Ms. fr. 855 p.23

Trésor de vénerie, Hardouin de Fontaines-Guerin, 1394+, BNF Ms. fr. 855 p.23

In the early 15th century, some fitted dress images with square-like necklines show a sweetheart variation—curves over the bosom reminiscent of the top of a heart. I have long wondered if such necklines were in reality cut to this shape or if, like the peak described above, they were an illuminator’s way of showing the slinkiness and tightness of a dress covering the bust, only with the peak turned into a dip. Here’s a fine example of it, along with intriguing seam lines showing a three-part front panel:

Bible Moralisée, 1403-4, BNF Ms. fr. 166 f.24

Bible Moralisée, 1403-4, BNF Ms. fr. 166 f.24

How a new neckline might impact your existing dress pattern

In light of the undeniable variation in fitted dress neckline styles, how might this affect the pattern you use for a fitted dress? Good news and bad news. If you, like me, have a relatively pronounced scoop in your pattern, it will adapt easily to a more shallowly curved neckline, as well as square necklines that aren’t cut too low, and sweetheart styles. It will also adapt well to boat neck styles that don’t go entirely off the shoulder. I have found that as long as you have at least an inch in your shoulder seam, the bust support continues to work the same as it would for a shoulder seam with more length in it. However, as soon as you remove the shoulder support or reduce it to a tiny band tenuously gripping the point of the shoulder, you begin to encounter challenges with bust support and physical comfort. If you try to stretch your existing pattern’s shoulder seams off to the sides in order to grip the shoulder points, the fabric will likely buckle and pouch outward in the areas where your sleeve meets your bodice in the front and back. This will require a refitting of the pattern involving a reduction in the size of your armhole. It can be done, but I advise patience and experimentation.

With the 15th century bust-supportive bra-like finds in the Tyrol, one must wonder if the more shoulder-exposing styles made use of a supportive undergarment for added structure under the fitted dress. In particular, might a long-line style of narrow-strapped bra or “bra chemise” with side-lacing have come in handy? With a narrow strap comes mobility of the strap. Have you ever pulled your modern-day bra straps wide, to the points of your shoulders, in an effort to wear a boat-necked garment without showing the world your bra straps? I certainly have. Regardless, if the fit of your dress is snug enough through the bust and upper abdomen, a certain amount of support will always be present, much like a modern-day strapless bra.

As you can see, there is no one correct neckline for a fitted dress of the 14th century, though there are recognizably common styles. The safest way to get an accurate look is to study the figural art of a particular time and location. Note the trends and make your dresses to match. One of these days I will abandon my comfortable and familiar scoop altogether and make dresses with more representative necklines. One of these days…

Spiral Lacing—Why and how to do it on 14th century clothing

I was recently asked how I placed my eyelets for lacing my dresses shut. I lace the fronts and sides of my dresses using an off-set pattern of eyelets, finished with matched eyelets on each side at the top and the bottom of the opening. This arrangement facilitates a spiral lacing pattern which reliably holds my dresses shut. More on that below.

In the meantime, I should not assume that every reader will know what I mean by “spiral lacing”. This is a method for lacing a dress using a single lace which is threaded through eyelets in a spiral pattern, usually from bottom to top on front closures, and from top to bottom on side closures. (It is a matter of physical convenience. Try it out and you will see what I mean.) On one side of the opening, the lace pokes through the eyelets from the outside in, while on the other side the lace pokes through the eyelets from the inside out. This is the same principle at work when sewing a whip stitch.

In this first photo, I’ve sewn the edges of two pieces of fabric together using a whip stitch.

Whip stitch

Whip stitch

When opened out so that both pieces lay flat and their edges abut each other, a diagonal pattern appears.

Spiral stitching

Spiral stitching

When drawn tight so that the edges overlap, it becomes recognizable as the pattern seen in a myriad of period figural imagery for both women’s and men’s laced clothing dated to the 14th century in Europe.

Edges overlapped

Edges overlapped

Catherine Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick c.1370–1375

Catherine Beauchamp, Countess of Warwick c.1370–1375

Philippa of Hainault, c. 1367

Philippa of Hainault, c. 1367

Tacuinum Sanitatis, BNF Ms Nouvelle acq. lat. 1673, f.96r, c. 1390s

Tacuinum Sanitatis, BNF Ms Nouvelle acq. lat. 1673, f.96r, c. 1390s

 

Sir Nicholas de la Beche, England, c. 1348

Sir Nicholas de la Beche, England, c. 1348

 

Images of dresses with lacing clearly portrayed on them are far less common than dresses portrayed with no clear closure method, but there are enough such examples to put to rest any question about whether or not fitted dresses were laced closed in the 14th century. If a front-laced dress is good enough for Philippa of Hainault, the beloved wife of Edward III of England, a front-laced dress is good enough for us modern-day re-creators.

Some reasons for less copious representation of closure methods in art can be varied and have been covered in my paper, “How I stopped worrying and learned to love layers”. Particular to lacing, most figural imagery shows women wearing more than one dress at a time. Lacing is far more likely to appear on a foundation layer dress than on the outer dress which does not need to be quite so tight as the layer beneath it, and can therefore be more easily made a pull-over or a buttoned dress. Another roadblock is side-lacing—through the years I’ve found a number of 14th century examples of side-laced dresses (one being the side-laced over dress from the Tacuinum Sanitatis above) and it is all too obvious why this almost hidden location for lacing would be ignored by illuminators. It’s frequently tucked under arms where our view is occluded.

But I have digressed with a defense of lacing! Back to the patterns used.

If the stitches seen in the photo called “Edges overlapped” above were actually a lace drawn through eyelets, we would see that the eyelets are off-set, meaning that no two eyelets sit exactly across from each other. The finished effect, however, is one of maximal closure with the least possibility for gaps between the two edges.

There is another detail which bears further examination. At the top and bottom of Catherine’s dress, we see the first and last lines of lacing sit horizontally, unlike the rest of the lacing between them, which is diagonal and off-set.

Close up of lacing at top

Close up of lacing at top

Close up of lacing at bottom

Close up of lacing at bottom

This allows the edges to line up so that the ends of the opening will match up. In particular, this matched eyelet arrangement works best at the top of a front-laced dress, where an off-set neckline would be glaringly noticeable.

Jen Thompson’s Zen of Spiral Lacing is a great read on this topic. Students of 14th century clothing should read and internalize this concise web article and in particular the second diagram, which shows the arrangement I discuss above and corroborate with the Countess of Warwick’s effigy. Here’s an expanded view of the simple stitches I sewed to mimic this pattern:

Spiral stitching with horizontal stitches at top and bottom

Spiral stitching with horizontal stitches at top and bottom

To be clear, not every single example of lacing in figural imagery shows the exact arrangement seen on the countess’ effigy. There are variations, such as no clear example of a matched set of eyelets at the top or the bottom. (If you ignore this finishing touch, however,  your closure edges will have a harder time staying even with each other without upwards or downwards shift on one side.) Another variation is lacing that appears to run in horizontal rows, rather than off-set, diagonal rows as seen in the image below.

Froissart, Poems, BNF MS fr. 831, f.1, c. 1395

Froissart, Poems, BNF MS fr. 831, f.1, c. 1395

 

Whatever one’s preference for the placement of eyelets and the pattern of the lace’s path, here are some good takeaways:

1) Lacing was used on fitted dresses and men’s fitted garments in the 14th century.

2) Lacing was used on the front of garments and on the sides of garments. It is unclear whether or not it was used on the backs of garments. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, but within the context of currently known research, it is much less defensible than lacing on the front or sides.

3) A single-strand spiral lace was the most common lacing approach, given its prevalence in the art. This means that cross lacing—where there are two laces crossing over each other—was far less common. I’ve come across a couple of images of men’s martial surcoats laced this way, but that’s it so far. You can see those images in slide 15 of my presentation on 14th Century Martial Surcoats in England and France.

Go forth and lace up!