My trip to Verona, Italy in May of 2014

This is a long, meandering tale. If your attention span is not up to the task, just skim through all the pictures.

Almost two weeks ago I got on a plane and traveled to Italy. But let me back up and give you some history first…

The plan for this trip germinated a year ago in Ottawa, shortly after meeting Christian Cameron – an acclaimed author of historical fiction as well as the author of a popular new fantasy series called the Traitor Son Cycle (under the nom de plume Miles Cameron). Wait… I need to back up even further… My sweetheart, Greg Mele, is an avid student, scholar, and teacher of European medieval martial arts, and as such, travels around North America and occasionally the world to attend and teach at gatherings focusing on these topics. Last year I went with him to the Borealis Swordplay Symposium in Ottawa, Ontario, because Jason Smith, the founder of this event, was kind enough to ask me to present some of my work in the area of medieval martial garments. It was a richly rewarding experience, as I recounted in this post, and I came to realize that there was an intellectual home for my niche interests.

So, we met Christian and soon understood we were of the same tribe – passionate students of late 14th century/early 15th century European culture and in the case of Christian and me, the clothing and accessories in particular. I was delighted when he boldly explained to his fellow Western martial artists that his first love was sewing and making things, though sword fighting was certainly fun too. Christian comes from a background of 18th century and ancient Greek re-enactment, and so already had a well-practiced respect for the accuracy needed for presenting a historical impression.

By the end of that weekend in Ottawa, he had hatched a plot, and Greg and I were lucky enough to be included in it – to create a company of adventuring knights to travel to Verona, Italy the following year, to fight in Il Torneo del Cigno Bianco, a late-14thc-themed living history event centered around a series of deeds of arms on foot.

Brochure for Il Torneo

Brochure for Il Torneo

I myself did not qualify for the title of knight – neither possessing the requisite fine armour nor the knowledge necessary to actually be effective in the lists. I also am female, and the knights in this tournament are (so far) only men, in keeping with the historical norm. However, as Greg’s sweetheart and a fellow material culture enthusiast, I was invited, and I brought my own set of skills to the group’s effort in the form of sewing, research, and clothing advice. We also decided Greg’s mom should go, as she was overdue for an adventure.

The company ended up comprising four knights and a squire: Christian, Greg, our friend Sean Hayes of the Northwest Fencing Academy, Marc Auger, a re-enactment compatriot of Christian’s and member of Hoplologia, and Jon Press, a fan of Miles Cameron’s work hailing from the Bailiwick of Guernsey. Jon wrote Miles (Christian) an appreciative letter one day and was promptly invited to attend the Veronese tournament as Christian’s squire last year, as well as this one. A better choice was never made – Jon was the *perfect* squire. More on that later.

The name of the Company became La Compagnia della Rosa en Sole.

Compagnia with standard

La Compagnia with their standard.

We planned for a year and in some cases, prepped just as long. Me? I left it to the last minute and paid for it while there. I committed to produce a new outfit for Greg and two dresses and a hairpiece for myself, but really only got down to the serious sewing about 3 weeks before leaving. Insane, I know. I ended up leaving a fair bit of hand work to be done while there, and even missed a day exploring Venice and a chance to see the guys fight each other in full armour on the Ponte di Castelvecchio in Verona, due to sewing buttonholes. (Hear my o’ fellow medieval sewers, there are certain rites of passage you should go through to gain fortitude, and one of them is to hand-sew an obscene amount of buttonholes onto a single garment. Another is to bleed on whatever you’re sewing, but that’s one for all periods, not just the medieval ones.)

Without Christian's help on the buttonholes I would have been in much worse shape.

Without Christian’s help on the buttonholes I would have been in much worse shape.

The work was worth it – it gave me an excuse to explore turn-of-the-15th century northern Italian fashion for both men and women. My process often starts with the figural art of the time, as extant clothing is sparse on the ground and textual sources — while available — are often harder to track down, translate, and synthesize in a meaningful way (but doing so is a worthy venture I take up from time to time – when I’m inspired). My art survey centered on the Tacuinum Sanitatis manuscripts. There are four well-known surviving illuminated copies executed at the end of the 14th century. They’re known today by the names of the cities where they’re housed: Vienna, Paris, Liège, and Rome. The Vienna manuscript can be seen in a great little book, The Four Seasons of the House of Cerruti, and that’s the one I focused on.

But inspiration did not end there. I immersed myself in the art of Giovanni da Milano, Giovannino de Grassi, Altichiero da Zevio, Anovelo da Imbonate, and the beautiful illuminations of the school which produced Guiron le Courtois (BNF Nouvelle acquisition française 5243 Roman de Giron le Courtois) and Lancelot du Lac et la quête du graal (BNF MS Français 343 Queste del saint graal). I took in the Big Picture – the trends and features which identified clothing as northern Italian in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. I also studied the details – the tailoring of certain sleeves, the silhouette variations, the hairdo details.

I used that newly-mined data to design garments for Greg and I. I stepped outside of my comfort zone, which is the curved-front fitted dress, in order to explore the smooth-fronted, side-laced dresses which appeared in the art.

A clear example of side lacing from the Paris Tacuinum Sanitatis.

A clear example of side lacing from the Paris Tacuinum Sanitatis.

My best friend, Greta (hereafter renamed “Super G”), sacrificed two Saturdays in a row to helping me sew. She also helped me in the fitting of the straight front bodice pattern needed for the dresses I had in mind. For Greg, I designed a farsetto (doublet in Italian, basically). It had 64 buttons on it…. Brass buttons, we hoped, which we ordered from Lorifactor plenty of time ahead, but which never arrived due to a snafu with US Customs. We asked them to send them to our B&B in Italy instead. I was appropriately wary and brought a batch of buttons I had on hand – pressed leather ones that matched the fabric well. This was a fortunate choice, because the buttons never arrived in Italy, either.

In the end, Greg’s farsetto and joined hosen turned out well. He cut a dashing figure, and due to his Italian heritage, looked right at home in the clothing.

Greg in his turn-of-the-15th century farsetto

Greg in his turn-of-the-15th century farsetto on Saturday of the Torneo

I think I did justice to the tailoring and hairstyle I chose for myself (a basic Vienna-manuscript lady with two dresses — a fitted rust-red silk dress with long, fitted sleeves and  fitted gold dress with long, open, mini-angel-wings, as well as pearl-wrapped hair), though I think it would have looked better on a thinner version of me. I haven’t come across any pictures of me in the full outfit that don’t make me cringe, so we shall have to finish this story without them.

The week leading up to the tournament was full of sights to be seen. On Sunday we got an amazing tour of the medieval sites in Verona, thanks to Chiara and Alessio, members of the hosting group for the tournament. Chiara is a professional tour guide, so this was a treat. I didn’t bring my camera that day (still quite unhappy about that), and so missed some great photo ops of Cangrande della Scala’s and Consignorio della Scala‘s funerary monuments. But Sean snapped a sweet picture of Greg and I touching the brass breast (of Romeo & Juliet fame, naturally) for luck in love.

At Juliet's house in Verona; rubbing the statue's breast purportedly provides luck in love.

At Juliet’s house in Verona; rubbing the statue’s breast purportedly provides luck in love.

On Monday, we went to Padua to see the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel, as well as  Altichiero’s frescos in the Oratorio di San Giorgio and in the Basilica of Sant’Antonio. It was a veritable orgy of 14th century figural art. I felt a bit like I had gone on pilgrimage and was finally standing before the exalted relics of my favorite long-dead saints. Photos were verboton at these locations, so I had to rely on Sean’s stealth photography with his phone. My giant camera was not going to get a pass. I haven’t seen Sean’s photos from these sites yet, but we came across some really curious details which I look forward to sharing in a future blog post.

We went to Venice Tuesday, where we soaked up the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of San Marco.

The Doge's Palace

The Doge’s Palace

Sunset on the grand canal

Sunset on the grand canal

Bocca di leone — rat out your friends, frienemies, and enemies here!

Bocca di leone — rat out your friends, frienemies, and enemies here!

Wednesday was a day of rest and sewing for me, while Greg, his mom, Jon, and Sean went back to Venice for more exploration. I spent a quiet day sitting in the dappled shade outside the villa where we were staying for the week, sewing. In the evening, Christian, his wife Sarah, and their daughter Bea returned from a trip to Chioggia and cooked dinner, to which I was thankfully invited, as I had no other dinner options and no transportation to go get some elsewhere.

On Thursday we went as a group to see Castelvecchio and the museum attached to it, in Verona. Finally, a museum that allowed photography!

Saint Cecilia, mid-14th century; note her long,  split braids — the 12th century visits the 14th.

Saint Cecilia, mid-14th century; note her long, split braids — the 12th century visits the 14th.

Next, we visited the Basilica of San Zeno. Some great art to see there, too.

San Zeno fresco of St. George and the Princess; she looks pretty unconcerned.

San Zeno fresco of St. George and the Princess; she looks pretty unconcerned.

The weekend of the tournament was a busy one. On Friday, May 30st, we all went to the site, Castello Montorio, which sits atop a steep hill. The castle was a stronghold of the della Scala family, who ruled Verona for most of the 14th century, until Gian Galeazzo Visconti took over.

The list below Castello Montorio

The list below Castello Montorio

So already, the setting was slightly magical by American standards, because we in this hemisphere don’t get to play history in the shadow of 600-year-old castles. The site was set up as a sprawling camp with a list, a row of merchants selling very high-end gear, and vendors of modern-day food and drink. (By the way… no hot dogs and Coke for these folks… The food was gourmet by our sad North American standards, and the drinks ranged from espresso through limoncello.) There was a performance stage as well as an archery area, where members of the hosting group, Doppio Soldo, gave talks and helped the public try out bows and arrows. The camping setups were top notch; something to aspire to.

Merchants and demonstrators set the bar high.

Merchants and demonstrators set the bar high.

That evening there was a man-at-arms tournament with one-handed sword and shield. We watched our friend Alessio Porto compete in the lists and enjoyed the honorable comportment of the participants.

Alessio fighting; fool watching.

Alessio fighting; fool watching.

 

I was dressed in street clothes, as I had not yet finished my sewing. Greg wore the Charles de Blois coat I’d made him for his birthday in 2012, because the farsetto was not yet done either. Aii! I missed so much because of all that sewing. A lesson learned.

Greg in his Charles de Blois-style cotte

Greg in his Charles de Blois-style cotte

After the tournament, we left for dinner, intending to find a nice spot in the center of Verona and drew bemused stares due to the historical clothing. We finally settled on a restaurant on the Piazza dei Signori —

Piazza dei Signori Verona, picture by Lo Scaligero

Piazza dei Signori Verona; a statue of Dante Alighieri stands in the center. Picture by Lo Scaligero

—which straddled both that piazza and the inner courtyard of the Palazzo della Ragione.

Palazzo della Ragione, picture by JoJan

Palazzo della Ragione, picture by JoJan

We sat under the loggia, our table providing a view of the courtyard and the beautiful medieval stairs leading up to a higher floor.

The men of our company informed me that they wanted a picture taken at the top of the stairs. Rain was threatening and my knees were not at their best, but I could feel something Important in the air, so I complied. When we reached the top, they immediately left — except for Greg. I turned and looked at him, and then I was sure… he was going to propose marriage. He got down on one knee and said some beautiful things to me, and asked me to be his wife. He gave me a ring that his beloved grandmother had worn, and I said “of course,” because there was never any question that he is the One. I kissed him to seal the deal, and then he stood and spread his arms wide, and yelled, “She said yes!”  We heard applause from below, both from our party and others dining at various locations around the courtyard.

Post-engagement kiss

Post-engagement kiss

The next day, Saturday, the men arose early to go into Verona to spar on the Ponte di Castelvecchio, the beautiful bridge leading across the Adige River to the Castelvecchio. Again, I stayed back to sew (there is a terrible theme going here). From the pictures and video I saw, it was a resounding success for them, as well as the tourists who happened upon the scene and got to enjoy some flashmob medieval fighting.

Ponte di Castelvecchio, which was faithfully rebuilt in the late '40s, thanks to WWII destruction.

Ponte di Castelvecchio, which had to be faithfully rebuilt in the late ’40s, thanks to WWII destruction.

Ponte di Castelvecchio

Another view of the Ponte di Castelvecchio, scene of the flash-fighting.

Later in the day, after I’d finally finished sewing, we all got dressed in our medieval finery and made our way up to the Torneo to see the sights, meet people, and attend the Knight’s dinner, presided over by the “Il Conte” hosting the event (portrayed by Simone Morbioli).

Simone addresses the knights

Simone addresses the knights on Sunday

Christian, the captain of our visiting English company, outdid himself with a sumptuous array of finery fit for a proper noble, let alone the capitano di ventura he was portraying.

Christian in finery

Christian in finery; note the beaver purfelle on his gown.

 

While the light was still out, I got to hang out a bit with Giulia Grigoli, one of our contacts and an event organizer, who was wearing a beautiful reproduction of a dress seen in one of Giovanni da Milano’s most famous works, a fresco in Florence (see caption for details).

Giovanni Da Milano, Birth of the Virgin, Rinuccini Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

Giovanni Da Milano, Birth of the Virgin, Rinuccini Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence

The dress was made by a lovely lady named Monica Rossi. You can see more of her work on Facebook, here.

Giulia, Beatrice, and Margherita, a friend of Giulia's with a lovely tippeted dress

Giulia, Beatrice, and Margherita, a friend of Giulia’s with a lovely tippeted dress also made by the same tailor, Monica Rossi.

 

Giulia and her sweetheart Maurizio were the reason we were all there, and they were the kindest, most gracious of hosts.

Bea, Giulia, Maurizio, and Sarah at dinner on Wednesday night.

Bea, Giulia, Maurizio, and Sarah at dinner on Wednesday night.

The dinner that Saturday night was utterly magical. We ate inside a large pavilion with red walls, one side open to the cool night air. A talented group of medieval musicians played softly at the back of the tent, providing the perfect ambiance. Candlelight glow warmly illuminated our tables, and the courses and conviviality were unmatched by anything I’d experienced before this. We slowly dined on dishes that once graced the tables of 14th century nobles. We drank wine, toasted many worthy subjects, and laughed the night away.

The knights' dinner on Saturday

The knights’ dinner on Saturday

Jon, Christian’s squire, served at table, and was amazing. He has the perfect combination of good nature and alacrity of service, and we all pretty much adore him.

Jon Press, head squire

Jon Press, head squire

At the end of the evening, Greg stood up with Alessio, whom he named “Bocca de Ferro”, due to an injury he’d received in the man-at-arms spear tournament —

Greg, Bocca de Ferro, and Sean

Greg, Bocca de Ferro, and Sean — Greg “helpfully” hides Alessio’s bandage

— and gave a thank-you speech to our hosts. He began in Italian and eventually settled into English with Alessio translating. He explained to our hosts that we had figured out the strategy of Italian knights — to serve so much good food and drink to the visiting foreign knights, that they would be incapacitated and therefore unable to fight well in the lists the next day. This got a hardy laugh from all.

It is worth noting that the dessert servings were so gigantic and delicious, we all set to whimpering as our stuffed bellies had to cry “uncle!” before we could finish it. We escaped into the night as the grappa came out, and we were told later that many of the knights stayed up at least an hour or two longer, drinking grappa and talking. We doff our proverbial hats to their fortitude.

The next day, Sunday, June 1st, the knights fought in spear and long sword tournaments. I baked in the sun as I watched, unwilling to give up my precious seat as I took photos from the modern viewing area. Hence, one of the marshaling nobles was pretty much constantly in the middle of all of my photos. I will work on adjusting my priorities when trying to capture good photos. At least he’s wearing something with fabulous fabric!

This would have been a good action shot, but...

This would have been a good action shot, but…

I confess I did not want to wear my headdress again, and so I wore only my first dress (rust red with long, fitted sleeves) and let my hair fall free. It was far from historically correct, but I was pretty exhausted by this point, and it was the best I could summon.

The day was great, though long, and we lost Christian for a long swathe of it, due to a finger injury he sustained that required treatment off site. Our group found a tree under which to siesta. I couldn’t help but think of it as the “English Diaspora” tree, due to it serving as shade for people from the U.S., Canada, the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and the UK, as we also had a visit from Guy Windsor (from the UK by way of Finland).

Our English diaspora shade tree, and our B&B hosts

Our English diaspora shade tree, and our B&B hosts, who came to watch the action

Now back to the tournament! Greg fought well, as did Sean.

Sean, bringing it

Sean, bringing it

 

Greg, parrying

Greg, parrying

Which one of these is not like the others?

Which one of these is not like the others?

Christian, alas, had injured his finger during the spear tournament earlier that day, and had to sit this one out. Marc had also injured himself and could not participate. I thought that Greg and Sean demonstrated martial sprezzatura in their bouts while simultaneously placing honor above all else. These deeds were not about winning at any cost. They were about the joy of crossing weapons with a worthy opponent. They won some and lost some and all agreed it was a good day of fighting.

That evening we retired to our B&B where our hostess fed us a dinner to end all dinners — a singular honor which we were looking forward to. Course after course of delicious Italian food was set before us, culminating in shots of grappa, which I declined, but which several others accepted with gusto. I coined a new verb: “to grappinate”, which is the act of an Italian person plying a North American with grappa until they are either under the table or begging for mercy.

It was so pleasing to see Senora‘s enthusiasm for our avocation, one which is frequently misunderstood and unappreciated by those not involved in it themselves. In fact, she enjoyed it enough to ask for a loan of medieval clothing so that she and her friend Max could be dressed in it at dinner.

Sunday night dinner at our B&B; our hosts are wonderful people

There are many other tales to tell of this trip, but I think that’s plenty for one (extremely long) blog post. The end result of this adventure for me is that I have a profound appreciation for playing this history game in Europe, the source of all of our fascination. I believe that events like Il Torneo del Cigno Bianco are just the ticket to satisfy my yearning for an immersive experience in the coming years.

Martial Beauty: Padding and Quilting One’s Way to a Masculine Ideal in Fourteenth Century France

Last year in May I presented a paper called “Martial Beauty: Padding and Quilting One’s Way to a Masculine Ideal in Fourteenth Century France” as part of the DISTAFF sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. The paper went over well, and I was offered a chance to submit to the Medieval Clothing and Textiles Journal. I was thrilled to have that opportunity, but life got in the way and enough time has passed that I now realize I should just get this work out there. I won’t have the time or the focus to polish the paper to a level appropriate for such a distinguished journal, and so I made the decision to put it up here as an article.

MS Français 12399 Book of Modus and Ratio f.134v France 1379

MS Français 12399 Book of Modus and Ratio f.134v France 1379

The topics under discussion in that paper are very much a work-in-progress on my part. I am far from expert in understanding all the terminology used for padded and quilted garments, though I do believe I’m more knowledgeable now than I was a year ago, thanks to the research done. I consider the paper an exercise in hypothesis and synthesis born at least partially from other people’s digging up of primary sources. While I dug for and found some of the sources I used, a fair number of the textual sources seen in the figures were supplied by five colleagues in an online discussion forum. I am indebted to their scholarly efforts. I mention their names at the top of the article. I also was led to this topic—the use of padding and quilting in both martial and peaceable contexts for men in the fourteenth century—from the work I did on the pourpoint of Charles VI of France. I think now that I would call it a coat-armour (not to be confused with a coat of arms).

Here’s the article. Enjoy.

Anatomy of my bodice pattern for 14th century bust support

I’m going to break down the tailoring details of how I typically attain 14thc century bust support, and more specifically, the kind that looks right for the last two decades of that century in Western Europe. Please note, though I talk about a specific method in this post, I happen to also like other methods with different tailoring techniques and placement of the lacing. I also can’t wait to see the work that develops from the Austrian bra-like finds. There has long been an undercurrent of rumor that visible historical costumers like me are dogmatic in our approach to such things, but I find that silly. By the very nature of what I am seeking to learn, there is no corner on the market of knowledge because so much is still yet unknown. All I have ever done is conduct experiments based on viable theories. And what fun it has been!

***

Henri de Mondeville, before his death in 1320, wrote in his work Cirurgia (translated into English):

“Some women, unable or unwilling to resort to a surgeon, or not wanting to reveal their indecency, make in their chemises two sacks proportioned to their breasts, but shallow, and they put them on every morning, and compress them as much as they can with a suitable bandage. Others, like the women of Montpellier, compress them with tight tunics and laces…” (bolding mine)

I first became aware of this gem from Will McLean’s blog, A Commonplace Book.

I suppose that makes me very much a “woman of Montpellier”, because I prefer to wear dresses requiring lacing and a tight fit in order to wrangle my bosom. Although, one really must ask, what did a surgeon have to offer the amply-endowed 14th century woman? I am both intrigued and afraid to know!

As with any journey from Point A to Point B, there is more than one way to solve this whole bust support issue in European 14th century clothing, with more than one result in comfort, aesthetics, and silhouette. I am partial to a front-lacing dress with curves built into the center front edges and the side seams. Of course, as discussed in a previous blog post, I still fudge the silhouette with generous shoulder seams, but I am of the opinion that changing that aspect of my pattern will not affect the rest of it enough to invalidate the version I’m sharing in this post.

This comfortably traditional pattern of mine for bust support has evolved through the years. It’s a silhouette that works well for the 1380s into the early 15th century, judging from the artistic portrayals across multiple geographic locations and media usage. I could stand to adjust the shoulder seams and neckline shape as already mentioned, but otherwise, I’m quite happy with it. To see how different this pattern is from my earlier efforts, take a quick look at the final pattern shape I came up with for the curved front seam method in my old photo essay on this topic. Keep that page open, and then compare to the photo of my more recent pattern below. Virtually unrelated!

There are a number of signature features to this bodice pattern’s tailoring. By analyzing them individually, we can better understand a form of patterning that will be effective for the challenge of wrangling the female bust.

Here’s a photo of the most recent custom bodice pattern which I use for my own late 14th century-style fitted dresses:

Tasha's traditional bodice pattern

Tasha’s traditional bodice pattern

Keep in mind that the principle at work behind this tailoring method is “negative ease”, which means that it’s skin-tight. This is not a pattern intended to skim the upper body. This is what my body silhouette would look like if it were flattened out and quartered. (YUCK!) Now I will highlight specific shapes and explain their purpose.

Under-bust points on the front piece

Under-bust points on the front piece

On both the center-front edge and the side seam there is a sharply defined point where the bust curve ends and the lines below the bust begin. When laced close, this creates a band of strength just below the bust which prevents the bust from creeping downward. It also creates a sharply defined pocket within which the bust can rest.

Bust curves on front piece

Bust curves on front piece

Note also that both the side seam and the center-front edge have a defined curve in the bust area. This helps distribute the bust evenly across the entire chest and helps reduce the tendency for the bust to collect in the middle. I find the curve on the side seam especially useful and important, even for women of a smaller size. The less important curve is the one in the front, as long as the side’s curve provides room for the bust.

Under-bust flare on front piec

Under-bust flare on front piec

Notice that the lines extending out from under the bust points are mostly straight for about three inches of length before they flare generously. This is the aforementioned band of strength which stabilizes the bust and gives you confidence that everything is going to stay where it should for long periods of time. The subsequent flare allows the dress to skim over the tummy while maintaining the appearance of a defined waist. Much of the later 14th century and early 15th century figural imagery portrays women with higher waists than we modern folks are used to. If it is too close-fitting across the belly, every little variation in your curves will show, and that’s not always desirable (or comfortable!) either.

Armholes on front and back pieces

Armholes on front and back pieces

The armhole is deeper in the front than in the back. They are both cut with a strong curve and end right up in the armpit, though you can see that the back piece’s armhole is somewhat shallower than the front piece’s. This improves range of motion of the arm in its natural position (slightly towards the front of the body). It also places the armhole seam at the fulcrum of your shoulder joint’s movement, which keeps it from binding your mobility. My initial photo essays on the draping method for this style showed the armholes much larger than I would now deem ideal for this style of dress.

The curve of the center-back seam

The curve of the center-back seam

The center back seam closely follows the curve of the body all the way to the top of the rear end. This accentuates the S-curve at the bottom of the spine — a feminine feature much appreciated aesthetically. You may have also noticed that the back piece is much thinner than the front piece. This is because there is typically more of you on the front of your body than the back, if we are using the side seam as the splitting point.

Tasha, August 2012

Tasha, August 2012

Here I am, wearing a linen dress I made from the pattern above. Pretty comfortable and definitely supportive.

Other people have different signature bodice patterns that they are equally happy with, and I encourage you to experiment until you find the right one(s) for you.

The Medieval Buttonhole

To skip the talkity-talk below and go right to the tutorial, click here. But I recommend you read on anyway.

Buttonholes… the mere thought of them strikes cold fear into the hearts of European 14th century clothing enthusiasts. The 14th century was probably the most insanely over-buttoned century ever. We few, we committed few, will hand-sew upwards of fifty of them on one garment with grim determination. Our fingers grow sore, the tedium reduces us to hunched lumps on our sofas, staring at the fabric and thread before us, repeating a mantra in our minds that goes something like this: “Only 27 more to go… Only 26 more to go…. Just do two more and finish this side tonight…” You find yourself enjoying your masochism on a detached plane of awareness, noting that when it is all done, it will be your garment with the most badass buttons on it, and that will be reward enough for your suffering. And, if you are going to put yourself through all of that, shouldn’t your buttonholes look righteously medieval?

I am partial to what I call the “boxy buttonhole”, because it’s the most documented style of medieval buttonhole from my favorite time period. It is a simple design— a row of buttonhole stitches placed close together to create a long, thin rectangle of stitching on one side of the buttonhole’s opening, following by a mirrored row of stitches on the other side. The result is a neat, rectangular shape.

Buttonhole from lower center-front opening of the pourpoint at Chartres, France

Buttonhole from lower center-front opening of the pourpoint at Chartres, France

In France, this buttonhole style can be found today on the extant pourpoints attributed to Charles de Blois and to Charles VI. In England, fragments found in London are much the same. For more reading on the topic and to see English examples, check out the Museum of London’s Textiles and Clothing, 1150–1450.

To make a proper boxy buttonhole which will look just like the originals, correct material choices are important. In addition, you must understand how your fabric will behave when you slit it open and encase it with thread to make the buttonhole.

I recommend only ever using silk embroidery floss on buttonholes because silk is strong and documented as a preferred fiber for such tasks. A less-twisted option like Soie d’Alger or Soie Cristale will work, but a more tightly twisted floss such as Elegance or the thicker Grandeur works better.

Elegance and Grandeur, by Rainbow Gallery: excellent for hand-sewn buttonholes

Elegance and Grandeur, by Rainbow Gallery: excellent for hand-sewn buttonholes

There’s a brand of Japanese silk thread I rather like, called Fujix Tire, whose Buttonhole Silk #16 is gorgeous. It is what I used to recreate the buttonholes on my reproduction of the pourpoint attributed to Charles VI.

A buttonhole I sewed on my reproduction of the pourpoint at Chartres

A buttonhole I sewed on my reproduction of the pourpoint at Chartres

I would avoid super-slippery silks such as Trebizond, as well as thin sewing thread like Au Ver a Soie 100/3. Mind you, Trebizond is fun to fingerloop and Soie 100/3 is the only silk thread I use for regular sewing.

Au ver à soie and Trebizond silk flosses

Au ver à soie and Trebizond silk flosses: don’t use these for buttonholes!

You may be tempted to use the full set of strands in thicker-wound floss in order to cover ground faster, but don’t give in to this temptation, because your resulting buttonholes will bulge and buckle in an awkward manner and the opening may shrink too small from the thick thread crowding it. Instead, I recommend splitting thickly-wound floss in half (or close to half, if the number of strands is uneven).

 

Soie d'alger: slightly too thick to use without splitting the strands in half

Soie d’alger: slightly too thick to use without splitting the strands in half

Soie d'alger split into 3-strand and 4-strand lengths

Soie d’alger split into 3-strand and 4-strand lengths

Elegance floss is a good thickness to use whole, without unraveling the strands, as is the Fugix Tire Buttonhole #16. Elegance is my go-to workhorse floss for buttonholes and eyelets for this reason. Grandeur is what I use when I’m in a hurry and I am willing to cheat on the time involved. Admittedly, the buttonholes are slightly more bulky than I think they should be.

As for fabric, the biggest annoyance factor will be its tendency to fray where you have slit it open for the buttonhole. With this in mind, the easiest fabrics to put buttonholes on will be wools, especially fulled wools. Silk fabric runs the gamut from relatively easy to control fray-wise to nightmarishly hard to control, and linen will pretty much always be somewhat of a pain, but do-able. Many of us line our clothes in linen. Keep this in mind when lining an area where buttonholes will go — sometimes it’s better to self-line with the outside fabric (as long as it is not linen) to avoid the frustration of dealing with the frayed bits poking out visibly through the front of the buttonhole and between stitches.

For those familiar with modern machined buttonholes only, the approach taken for finishing a medieval buttonhole is quite different. With a machine, you sew tight zigzag stitches back and forth, sometimes in a thin teardrop shape, sometimes rectangular, with a strong, reinforcing bar tack at both ends, etc.. When finished sewing, you slit the inside open, making the actual hole appear.

 

Machine-sewn buttonhole with bar tacks. It is more visible on the left in this photo, but there is a small bar tack on each side

Machine-sewn buttonhole with bar tacks. It is more visible on the left in this photo, but there is a small bar tack on each side

For medieval buttons, you cut the opening first, and then you encase that opening with buttonhole stitches. The result is a much stronger, long-lasting buttonhole which, if you are neat and diligent, will not suffer from frayed threads even over time and use.

Judging from the limited 14th century extant buttonhole samples, they did not routinely come with bar tacks for reinforcing each edge. Instead, the stitches appear to abruptly end at each edge, often with a crisp, rectangular shape (hence my descriptor, “boxy”). So, how was each end of the slit reinforced to prevent tearing from tension and use?
I have a method for achieving a strong buttonhole without bar tacks which looks like the original extant examples. In wearing garments with buttonholes sewn in this style, I have found that bar tacks are not strictly necessary as long as the overall quality of the buttonhole is sturdy and tight. I’ve created a tutorial that walks you through the steps for creating a handsome medieval buttonhole in the boxy style.

I recommend you try this out in practice form before committing it to your good garment fabric. You will need fabric, embroidery floss, a needle with a big enough eye for the floss, and snips. If the snips are sharp-pointed, you can use them to cut the opening for the buttonhole by folding the fabric and cutting a slit into it. Otherwise you can use a straight edge tool (pressing down flat on the fabric, against a self-healing mat, for instance), or a seam ripper (be careful with this tool or you will find yourself mending an extra-long tear!).

Now, on to the tutorial!

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…