Examination in France

I made arrangements to visit the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Chartres, France on the 1st of July, 2011 to examine the pourpoint of Charles VI, a crimson-colored, padded and quilted jacket dated roughly to the late 1370s. This was planned as part of the fulfillment of my contract with the Society of Antiquaries of London for the Janet Arnold Award.

I do not speak fluent French, and so a local French-born acquaintance, Mathilde Poussin, kindly translated my missives to the museum for me. I was granted 3 hours, beginning at 9AM, on Friday, the 1st of July. Sadly, the museum had recently lost some funding, and that Friday was to be the first of an indefinite number of Fridays when the museum would now be closed instead of open to the public. As a result, I was able to examine the garment in the same room where it is on display. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

My trip to France was scheduled to be a full week, so that I could also take in some cultural and historical highlights, mostly concentrating on museums and cathedrals in Chartres and Paris. My friend Greta Nappa came with me, and she made the trip about 10 times more enjoyable than it would have been had I gone alone.

Greta in Chartres

Greta in Chartres

We started our trip by meeting a local friend, Mathieu Harlaut, who is a core member of the Company of Saynte George, for lunch in Paris. We made final arrangements with him as to when and where we would meet the morning of the examination. I needed a native French speaker to accompany me, in case the curator at the museum did not speak English. Mathieu was the perfect candidate, being of the same small, loose-knit worldwide community of medieval clothing students as I was.

Turn-of-the-15th century female figure on Chartres Cathedral

One of the few late 14th/early 15thc figures outside the Chartres Cathedral

Greta and I then traveled by train to Chartres and checked in at our B&B. We stayed with a delightful lady named Danielle who took her time and spoke in very slow French with us, thereby allowing us to comprehend and speak back, as halting and incomplete as we were. She was an excellent teacher. I was also glad I’d invested in French lessons before the trip.
We had a day to spend before our appointment at the museum, so we explored the gorgeous Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral, inside and out. We also visited the 12th century church up the street from our accommodations, which had been converted to an art gallery and which also hosted a medieval box garden. We explored the quaint city streets and ended up having dinner at a restaurant where no English was spoken. We stumbled through our communications as best we could. Unfortunately, I ended up with a form of sausage I truly disliked, because I mistook it for the American version of Andouille. I shall never make that mistake again.

The day of the appointment, we met Mathieu in front of the museum and at 9AM sharp, we were allowed into the building. We met with the curator, Monsieur Philippe Bihouee, who did not speak English after all. I was triply glad I’d arranged for Mathieu’s inclusion in the adventure. He did most of the talking for me.

The garment had been pulled from its display case and sat on its dummy in the middle of the room, surrounded by photographic lights. I indicated that I would prefer to examine it before photos were taken, and so a table was brought in, the garment was unbuttoned and removed from the dummy, and then I set to my task in earnest.

I put on white cotton gloves, pulled out my various measuring instruments and notebooks, and began to measure. Not only did I measure lengths, of seams and distances between points, but I also measured depth of the padding and distance between the quilting lines. I took all measurements in inches, because they are more meaningful to me conceptually than metric units are. I have since translated all measurements to metric, and these will be available as part of my forthcoming paper on the results of this day’s work, appearing in Waffen- und Kostümkunde in July 2013.

After measuring, I began to examine the construction techniques used. I noted how the placket behind the buttonholes had been made, how the neckline had been finished, and how the hem and front openings had been finished. I noted the types of stitches seen and unseen and was able to compile a storyline for the order in which the garment was put together. Greta took notes for me on my laptop as I worked and spoke. Mathieu assisted in the handling of the garment and with communicating with the curator.

Greta, Tasha, the pourpoint, and Mathieu

Greta, Tasha, the pourpoint, and Mathieu

After about 2.5 hours of non-stop intense scrutiny, I felt I’d covered the minimal ground needed to go home and write a paper revealing useful detail about the garment’s construction. That left us with one half hour to have photos taken by Monsieur Bihouee. He used a high-end digital Nikon camera, along with professional lighting. I directed him for the photos I thought I would need. Finally at the dot of 12 noon, we finished the photography and I was given a DVD of the raw image files. Those images will be published also as part of the forthcoming paper.

Mathieu, Greta, and I went to a local restaurant with outside seating and celebrated our victory.

For the rest of my week in France, we went to Vincennes (which is pretty much Paris) and sublet the apartment of my French teacher’s best friend, Aurelie, for 4 days. We visited: The Cluny (twice), The Louvre, The Musee de l’Armée, Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, and the donjon at Vincennes, which was perhaps the scene of a perfect moment of time travel for me.

The donjon at Vincennes

The donjon at Vincennes

I stood in a gloomy stone room where His Majesty Charles V of France – the father of the king whose garment I had just examined – had spent so much of his time in the 1370s. I could feel the ghosts of those long-ago people in their impossible finery, taking for granted the exquisite embroidered tapestries that surely hung on the walls there 640 years ago. I felt like I could see it all, just out of the corner of my eye.

Applying for the Janet Arnold Award

Most people reading this blog already know who Janet Arnold was. For those who do not, she was a clothing historian who brought gravitas and academic acceptance to a much-neglected aspect of material history. She published multiple books that brought extensive understanding of 16th through early 20th-century tailoring to us. Sadly, she has passed away, but her scholarship has changed our beloved field for the better, forever.

Another legacy of Ms. Arnold is the prize in her name, administered by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Every year the Society may award funds to an independent scholar to facilitate the study of extant historical clothing.

In November of 2010 I stumbled across the Society’s page describing the award and how to apply for it. The surge of intense excitement I felt can only be described as visceral. I felt it in my gut. I felt as though the requirements had been written for me. I was long overdue for first-hand experience examining the beloved historical garments I studied from afar for so many years.

Most who know me might assume that I would attempt to gain access to study the pourpoint of Charles de Blois. I’ve worked with the garment’s pattern many times over the years, have written articles about it for my site, and have released a commercial pattern so that others could make it more easily too. But as much as I love that garment, I knew almost immediately that I first wanted to see the pourpoint of Charles VI, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Chartres, France.

The pourpoint attributed to Charles VI of France

The pourpoint attributed to Charles VI of France

To date, there is little understanding of how this garment was constructed. The museum’s catalog provides some information, but not nearly enough for experienced medieval tailoring specialists to fully understand how to recreate it faithfully. To be specific, its striking wasp-waisted shape has remained elusive in modern re-creation circles, not just because we tend to be more physically large than our brethren 600 years ago, but because many of us are doing something flat-out wrong in our construction techniques. More often than not, the resulting jacket resembles more of a shapeless bag than the highly structured garment seen in the few photographs of the beautiful red pourpoint. This is why I chose this somewhat mysterious garment as my objective for applying to the Society: to fully understand how this padding and quilting technique was done in 14th-century France.

My first hurdle was to gain access and permission from the curators at the museum, in writing. This was a non-negotiable requirement for application for the Award. I knew that firing off an email, even if I had it translated into French, might come across too informal and thus reduce the importance of my query. I met with Pierre Terjanian, the J. J. Medveckis Associate Curator of Arms & Armor at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, who advised me on etiquette. I believe that his input made all the difference in how my request was received.

The morning of the day on which the museum would have received my query (which I had 2-day express-mailed), I checked my email and was delighted to find a gracious invitation to come study the pourpoint. I did a victory dance around my dining room. Then I proceeded to finish my application to the Antiquaries Society for the Janet Arnold Award.

It was a lot of work and required me to put together a curriculum vitae for the first time. I also had to put together a proposed budget and fill out a long application, among other tasks. The deadline for application was in early January 2011. I finished it and sent it off just in time, again by way of 2-Day Air.

I knew that the Society had a committee to review applications and this would happen sometime in March of 2011. Their website stated that I would find out by the end of that month. March came and went, however, with no word. In early April I began to grow nervous and decided to write an email, asking if a decision had been made, even if they could not share what that decision was, just yet.

I received back an email in which I was told I had been granted the funds I’d requested to cover travel and study in France. A contract would be forthcoming shortly, along with a check. What a great day that was!

It was hard to believe that I was getting in to see the Charles VI pourpoint in person… that I would be allowed to pick it up in my own hands, open it up, and study it up close. But indeed, this was going to happen. Ms. Arnold had commented on her wish to study the pourpoint in her article on the pourpoint of Edward, the Black Prince. It never did happen for her, though.

In the mid-90s a colleague of mine, Tracy Justus, spoke with Ms. Arnold in person while she was in Virginia giving a talk at the Museum of the Confederacy and Agecroft Hall. She asked why she had not covered French garments in her books. Ms. Arnold replied, “My dear, have you ever tried to get into a French museum collection?” 

I am all the more grateful to have been given this opportunity.

I’ll be posting further on this topic in the coming weeks and months. But to cut to the chase, my paper on my findings will be published in Waffen- und Kostümkunde in July 2013. When that becomes available, I’ll post my full reconstruction process here, along with all the photos of that process.