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…