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…

Comments

  1. interesting! i’ve been thinking about this subject too lately, especially about the possible use of raglan-sleeve construction in the 14th century. i wonder though on what you base your interpretation of the square-shaped neckline clearly having a shoulder seam. in my mind this style of neckline par excellence woult have been made with raglan sleeves? i’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Hi Isis! I’m going to have to give thought to my assertion, because now I am questioning it. I will reply when my mind is fresher and I am not tired. Thank you for asking — it’s a very good question.

  2. Amen!

    This is something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time, and touched on in my series of posts “The 14th Century Bust”. ( http://blackcatsews.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/The%2014th%20Century%20bust) I find it very annoying when people proclaim that the 14th/15th C style is really busty with uber-cleavage – no! that is just modern people forcing modern aesthetics onto a medieval style! Even the moralistic literary sources of the time decry the WIDTH of the necklines, not the DEPTH!

    My one foray into “posh” clothing has a very narrow shoulder seam (1″ long) and I tried to keep it fairly boat-necked (though that is hard as I am quite narrow-shouldered plus have symmetry issues due to breaking my collarbone). I found the GFD method worked fine with that (although I was aiming for more compression and less lift, as in the c. 1360 style). I guess you can decide whether I achieved it: http://blackcatsews.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/blue-wedding-dress-finally-photos.html

    Some of those styles (particularly the off-the-shoulder ones) argue for a non-GFD sort of bust support. Breast taping, in particular, could be a candidate as a) it is mentioned in the literature several times and b) it wouldn’t go over the shoulders. Maybe in attempting to reproduce these styles people would start being less dogmatic in their approach to 14th and 15th Century female clothing.

  3. Jaqueline de Molieres says:

    I’ve been musing for some time over those necklines that hump up – in my opinion, I think the raglan sleeve would give that illusion & the artist probably increased the look of the hump somewhat to accentuate this new fashionable way of doing a neckline. The raglan seam would have to be very tight/fitted. I have not experimented with this, but would like to. I’ve had people tell me emphatically, no raglan sleeves in the 14th C., but how do we really know, with so few extant garments. I’m an experienced seamstress, & it looks like “raglan” to me! Keep up the good work – I enjoyed this article.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      I agree re: the raglan sleeve! I think it’s pretty clearly happening in the 14thc, especially with the really wide-necked “square” styles. It’s probably not like our modern concept of raglan (where there’s this long, visible diagonal seam going from the armpit into the collar bone area), but a version of the concept would be one of the most logical and practical solutions for the tailoring we’re seeing in some of those boat necks and square-necks. My BFF Greta Nappa made a 1350-style fitted dress with a severe boat neck which went just off the shoulder and she used a raglan sleeve and IMO, she NAILED it.

      • there is quite a lot of evidence for raglan sleeve construction in 15th century flemish art. this had to come from somewhere, and it seems to make sense that it originated during the 14th century.

  4. Tasha Kelly says:

    OK! I’m a little less tired than I was when I initially read your comment… re: raglan sleeves, absolutely, I think we’re in complete agreement. I re-read what I wrote about there “clearly” being shoulder seams, and I think what I *really* meant to say there was that there was a difference in the shape of the neckline and one way to recognize the difference was the coverage of the shoulder point (except I called it shoulder seams in my late-night tiredness!). Whether or not that coverage is achieved with a shoulder seam I’m not out to prove. I think it’s obvious that in at least some cases, images look a heck of a lot like raglan construction, just as you say.

  5. Tasha Kelly says:

    An earlier draft of this post had the famous blue Magdalene portrait in it, but I opted to remove it because it was an outlier, time-wise, for the period I was covering. Also, I wanted to avoid waxing expansively on tailoring concepts (raglan versus set-in) lest I turn this “blog post” into a full-fledged article.

  6. Isabel Chamberlaine says:

    What a fascinating article. Not being a seamstress, I don’t really pay attention to clothing topics and details but I have always wondered why the common scoop neckline is used when in the period art they seem to be more boat-like.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      I’m sure I’m in part responsible for the trend, due to my photo-essays on fitting for bust support. They’ve been online for ten years, and a lot of people have made dresses using those instructions, so I’m sure at least some of them just went along with what they saw in my photos. *shrug* Live, practice, and learn! I’ve been around long enough now to find myself having to correct fallacies that I myself put forward at previous points in my knowledge journey.

  7. Tibbe Crosier says:
    • Tasha Kelly says:

      I think it’s a fascinating garment. It appears to have a scoop neckline with squarish tendencies. It would be great to know if it’s truly a fitted dress and if it’s truly from the 14th century. I think a lot of us want it to be both.

  8. Have you ever seen a high neckline on a GFD? I think that they show up in some of the men’s cotes; and they appear to show up in some of the “fitted houppelande” things.

    • Tasha Kelly says:

      Depends what you mean by “high neckline”, I suppose. I’ve seen plenty that don’t show any cleavage, and that are relatively shallow in their dip, though if you’re asking if I’ve seen any that come rather close to the neck itself, I think those would be harder for me to track down in a quick art survey. I’ve found that really high necklines go more in hand with loose dresses/tunics on women.

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