…Or: The Bonanza I Found When I Went Looking for the Houppelande of John of Görlitz (Jan Zhořelecký)
As part of my husband’s and my honeymoon trip to Prague, we intended to check off a modest bucket list item, which was to see the extant 14th century houppelande on display in Prague Castle. I also arranged to meet in person for the first time an on-line friend, Petr Voda, who is deeply involved in medieval re-enactment in the Czech Republic. Petr is a devoted researcher and writer on the topic of historical clothing, and so it was a marvelous opportunity to spend time with a kindred spirit in a country steeped in a cultural history that is particularly abundant in 14th century lore.
He met Greg and I on the street leading to the Charles Bridge after we’d been in Prague a few days. We then took the on-foot trek up the hill to Prague Castle, which consists of a compound of buildings including St. Vitus Cathedral. It’s a steep walk, guaranteed to get your blood flowing.
We made our way through the Story of Prague exhibit, which has a fair number of interesting textile fragments and clothing items, including the grave clothes of Rudolf I of Habsburg, who was king of Germany from 1273–1291. He had some control of Bohemia, while the widow of his former rival retained control of the territory around and in Prague. There is more to the story of the clothes themselves, but I leave this to my colleague Petr to tell in his own time, as the information is his.
In particular I wanted to see the surviving houppelande of John of Görlitz (Jan Zhořelecký), which I knew very little about. For those who are newer to the medieval clothing game, “houppelande” is a French term for a voluminous, long gown style worn by both women and men in the 14th and 15th centuries. To my chagrin, we found that this gown had been moved from the “Story of Prague” to a temporary exhibit in another location. This was due to the 700 year anniversary celebration of Charles IV’s birth in 1316—the city was overflowing with special exhibits in celebration. In fact, I tried really hard to publish this blog post on the anniversary of Charles’ coronation in 1347, September 2nd, but missed it by a few days.
It turned out that the houppelande was on our itinerary for the next morning. Petr had kindly made an arrangement to meet Dr. Milena Bravermanová, the textile curator of Prague Castle, at the exhibit containing the houppelande. She would be giving us a personal tour of the textiles there. In the meantime, we retired back to Petr’s home near the Polish border and had a lovely evening with he and his wife, Vlad’ka. Petr showed us his copious research on extant medieval clothing. I think that his scientific approach to data gathering would be valuable to the historical clothing world outside of the Czech Republic and I hope to see more of it soon. Vlad’ka is a great cook, and an impressive gardener.
The next morning we all set out for Prague again. I was surprised by how early the sun rises in that part of the world in early June. I think the sky was bright before 5 AM. We made our way to the Crown of the Kingdom exhibit, which is on display in the Prague Castle Riding School until September 28th. This was the temporary home of the houppelande.
The Crown and the Kingdom Exhibit
This exhibit did not just have the houppelande… it had many clothing fragments from several royal tombs related to Charles IV’s reign. This was a bonanza of 14th century clothing! The last room in the exhibit hall was devoted to the textiles which have been extracted from the royal crypt and studied. The story behind the grave clothes of the family of Charles IV is frustrating in the extreme. To sum it up, the tombs were disturbed and re-organized many times in the intervening centuries. By the time a concerted study was mounted in 1928, the tombs were in a deplorable condition. Much of the surviving clothing has deteriorated into scraps. Equally sad is the fact that it’s no longer possible to know beyond an educated guess whose clothes are whose in some cases. Charles’ four wives’ bodies were all piled into a single coffin, for instance. For a more thorough treatment of this story, I recommend the exhibit catalog, The Crown of the Kingdom, which is available in English. Some of the details that follow are summarized from the catalog text, while other observations are my own. I’ve attempted to differentiate with endnotes.
Dr. Bravermanová spoke at length to us about the stories behind the textiles. It was a wonderful morning, full of new knowledge for me. For instance: some of the grave clothes were rapidly acquired for the funeral of their recipient. They are presumed to have been hastily made using simplified patterning without linings. In fact, the houppelande is one of these garments, which I’ll discuss further along in this post. (1)
Another more obvious example of a hastily-sewn garment is the sleeveless surcoat possibly ascribed to Joan of Bavaria, wife of Wenceslas IV, who died in 1386. The overly-simplistic tailoring is obvious at first glance. The front and back pieces were cut in one piece that had been folded at the shoulders. There was no consideration given for the slightly-forward cant of human arms or any other differences between the front and the back of a typical female body. If the body was lying flat and being sealed up forevermore, there would be less incentive for the clothes to fit perfectly. (2)
Some of the clothing was obviously worn by the person in life, as more care had been put into its cut and make. For instance, fragments of the bodice and skirt of a dress ascribed to Blanche of Valois, the first wife of Charles IV who died in 1348, show that the front closure’s small buttons were made of fabric, with shanks created from the thread used to attach the buttons to the garment.
As in other extant examples, the buttons were attached to the edge of the front opening, rather than being set in from the edge. (3) The dress apparently had been made with a sewn-on skirt, gathered into the waist area. (4) Perhaps most intriguing about the bodice fragment is the appearance of a trapezoidal expanding panel set into the neckline, and a gore inserted as high up as the breast. This indicates the top half of the garment was quite full and made from at least seven panels (six in front and one in back) or more likely eight or even twelve. I confess I’m having a hard time imagining a garment with such a full bodice being gathered into a skirt at the waist. (5)
With the bodice, there is a fragment believed to be part of a cloak which was pleated around the shoulder area. The conservation report from 1928 apparently described this and other similar strips of fabric as “wings”. However, it failed to note that the fabric used for the strips was different from that of the dress fragmants, lending credence to Dr. Bravermanová’s theory that the strips were part of a cloak. (6)
Based on the shape of the piece, if it indeed had been part of a cloak, it likely came from the front, as it has the slant one would find around the front neckline. The cloak would have been completed from a set of trapezoidal pieces, using similar tailoring principles to those found in the houppelande discussed below. As you can see in the following images, Blanche’s cloak (if it was indeed Blanche’s and indeed part of a cloak) was likely a modest one that was tailored to lay over the shoulders and meet its edges in the center-front, connected with a brooch. It could have been pleated into a firm, decorative band (now missing) that outlined the cloak’s neckline. (7)
Charles’ third wife, Anne von Schweidnitz, was the likely owner of a short-sleeved, green surcotte of some interest, due to the remaining fragment of the short sleeve. (8)
The dress is probably a rapidly-made funerary surcotte, due to its extremely simplistic tailoring. What’s most interesting is the surviving sleeve cap, showing a rather atypical s-curve design.
Cutting the sleeve cap in an s-curve allows the seam to run down the back of the arm, which comes in handy for creating shapes into which the elbow can bend, as well as placing buttons in the perfect outward-facing position on the forearm. It’s not as useful for short sleeves with no extension past the elbow. What makes this example atypical is the differing heights at the two ends of the sleeve cap. For an s-curve sleeve cap to work, the ends must be the same height. Otherwise, the the long seam edges will not match up. Since the sleeve cap appears to be fragmentary at the top, it’s possible that some of it is missing.
There is also a dress (in fragments) believed to have originally been red, and perhaps belonging to Anne of the Palatinate, Charles IV’s 2nd wife. I find it of special interest because of its surviving sleeve piece. Based on its concave sleeve cap, it clearly represents the underside of a sleeve (the part that would lay against the body, ending at the armpit). The missing half would undoubtedly have a convex curve to complete the sleeve cap. If they were sewn together side-by-side, they would form a typical s-curve sleeve cap. In the case of this sleeve, one seam runs down the back of the upper arm while the other runs down the front of the upper arm. (9) Dr. Bravermanová has made the conclusion that the sleeve may have been cut this way to accommodate an integral tippet. (10) Indeed, this cut simplifies the tailoring for such a sleeve, and the tippet would hang perfectly off the end of the sleeve from this angle. I would probably tweak the speculative shape of the second half of the sleeve to make the convex portion of the sleeve cap larger to match the width of the concave portion. If indeed a tippet had existed, its shape would be narrower and its edges would remain parallel to each other, in the fashion of tippets seen in art in the early 1350s throughout Europe, at the time when Anne died (1353).
The exhibit also includes a pair of fabric slippers reaching almost to the knee. The slippers are patterned the same way that one of the hosen fragments from the Museum of London finds is patterned, with a separate vamp that wraps under the foot. The bottom of the foot rests on a cross-shaped set of seams. This design gives an aesthetically ideal 14th century silhouette to the feet. It’s the only one I use when I make hosen and I recommend it, especially when making hosen from wool. Walking on wool fabric will quickly full the seams, flattening them until they can’t be felt at all. (11)
Other items of interest in the royal crypt collection include fragments of two kruselers. (For information on Kruselers, see Isis Sturtewagen’s article A Frilled Veil; The Headwear of Catherine de Beauchamp. Isis also has other papers: Frilled & Pleated Headwear in North-West Europe (1350-1400) and De-/Re-Constructing Frilled and Pleated Headwear which are not published in print or online that I know of, and Unveiling Social Fashion Patterns, A Case Study of Frilled Veils in the Low Countries (1200-1500) which is published in Medieval Clothing & Textiles 7 (2011). For a more general set of resources including visual examples, see Larsdatter.com’s Frilled Veils page.
The larger and more historically significant of the two kruseler fragments in the Crown of the Kingdom exhibit is made of gossamer-thin silk crepe that has been folded over sixteen times. This piece is 275.6 inches long (700 cm) and almost 19 inches wide (48 cm), according to the informational plaque. The frilled edge was created using doubled warp threads with a weaker twist than the internal warp threads have. Once the fabric was removed from the loom, the loss of tension allowed the material to become decoratively wavy. The layers are placed so that each one is slightly recessed from the next one, to enhance the visual effect. It’s impossible to know whether the current arrangement of folds is original, or if it was refolded at some point in the past after the tomb was opened. (12) I do wonder if the weave is crepe-like in order to encourage the layers to stick to each other. A smoother weave would be more likely to slide around. The layers don’t appear to be sewn to each other.
There are multitudes of busts which adorn St. Vitus’ Cathedral, and only one of the royal women who appear among them wears a veil with kruseler characteristics — Elizabeth of Bohemia, or Elizabeth Premyslid, the mother of Charles IV, who died in 1330. She is portrayed with a low-profile kruseler-style veil and wimple. It’s unlikely she wore this in life, as the bust was carved much later, around 1375. The sculptor probably used a modest contemporary version of the style to portray Elizabeth in the most respectable light.
The earliest examples of kruselers in a Bohemian source I could find is from the Velislav Bible, dated 1325–1349. Based on the clothing and illumination style, the illustrations of women wearing kruselers appear to have been drawn closer to the latter date than the former. (13)
The Houppelande of John of Görlitz/Jan Zhořelecký
And now finally, let’s talk about the houppelande. If you are fascinated by medieval European fashion, you have likely seen the sparse photos of John of Görlitz’s houppelande, which many of us in the Western hemisphere first found on the site Kostym.cz, a Czech resource for extant medieval clothing examples. It’s the only extant houppelande that I know of. For a concise summary of the garment know as a houppelande, see Rosalie Gilbert’s page on the topic.
John of Görlitz was the son of Charles IV and his fourth wife, Elizabeth of Pomerania. He was born in 1370 and died abruptly at the age of 25, in 1396. He was living in a monastery in Neuzelle, which sits on the modern-day German border with Poland. He apparently retired there after having fallen out of favor with his half-brother, King Wenceslas IV. Accounts state that he went to bed healthy one night and died in his sleep. Some believe he was poisoned, (14) but it is also possible that he may have had a sudden medical event that caused his death.
I don’t know how many people know this, but the latest conservation report written by Dr. Milena Bravermanová in 2005 has been translated to English and is available online here. The referring page is The Brazen Burgundian. I found this only after I had met Dr. Bravermanová and received a copy of the original report in Czech from my friend Petr.
There is a seamed diagram of the garment (front view only) in the report, which is a fantastic resource for better understanding the tailoring used to make voluminous gowns around the turn of the 15th century in Europe.
Placing multiple trapezoidal panels together while retaining a set-in armhole shape on the panels that encase the sleeve is ingenious. This is achieved by attaching all the trapezoidal panels to the neckline, leaving the shoulder seams to the four panels that have armholes cut into them. This makes the shoulder seams themselves smooth and simple, and bunches the fullness toward the center of the chest and back. This is less obvious on the garment itself, however, because the supporting form underneath it is built with extra bulk in the chest and upper back area in order to better distribute the fullness of the fabric. The front is made from nine panels, as is the back. There is a center panel, and then an equal number of panels working their way out to the side seam from there.
The strange piecing drawn at the bottom of the front panels in the seam diagram is mystifying, though. While it is possible the original maker did this for decorative reasons, I would be more inclined to see it from a fabric conservation point-of-view, since the garment was assembled in haste due to the unexpected demise of its wearer. And yet, I’ve not yet been able to puzzle out how those particular angles and cuts would ever be necessary when working with rectangular cloth.
One thing this diagram and the exhibit catalog does not mention is the grain direction, and I did not think to record it when viewing it in person. But, even without that information I can come to some educated guesses based on the presumed shapes and number of pattern pieces. Since the pieces are all basically trapezoidal (which really means isosceles triangles with a squared off upper point), and there are eighteen of them in the body, I would guess that they were cut six abreast, laid so that every other piece was upside down. This would allow almost every scrap of fabric to be used and would have been done three times to accommodate all eighteen pieces. Moreover, since the fabric was velvet, which has a nap, the maker would hopefully have taken care to match all the pieces going in one direction on one side of the body, and the pieces going in the other direction on the other side of the body. (15)
According to Dr. Bravermanová, the houppelande—while of the latest style near the turn of the 15th century—was hastily constructed after John died. Indeed, it has no lining, (16) and the sleeves are oddly long in proportion to the body. Even in haste, the maker took the time to sew so many panels together, rather than taking a short-cut with wider panels or making the garment more narrow. The garment lies over a shaped form with underlying evenly-placed humps which allows the folds of fabric to wave in a sumptuous and uniform manner. In real life, however, this unlined garment would have fallen in more haphazard folds, pressed down by a belt. A version made for a high-class man at that time would also have likely been fur-lined, helping to hold the structure of the flowing folds. (17)
As many of the grave clothes for the royal men were more tunic- or dalmatic-like and thus more suitable for a coronation than for every-day fashionable wear, it’s clear that the custom was to bury actual rulers in ceremonial clothing, including a semi-circular cloak, while a royal non-ruler like John could be buried in something perceived as more contemporary at the time. (18)
A few more details I gleaned upon seeing this houppelande up close: the front opening and the long vertical seams are top-stitched in tiny running or stab stitches of silk thread. No doubt this is for the purpose of finishing seams on the inside using a run and fell method. While the garment was originally made from velvet, it’s very damaged and doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to anything we would recognize as velvet today. (19) The conservation report states that it may have at one point been black velvet, though it appears taupish-brown all these years later, with perhaps the slightest cast of yellow-green about it. The shoulders are somewhat narrow for a full-grown man, but John was reputedly a slim fellow, and was at most 5 feet and 6 or 7 inches (172–173 cm). Perhaps his somewhat small frame extended to his shoulders.
I saw many other clothing fragments at this bountiful exhibit, but these were the highlights for me. My only regret is that photography was not allowed. I would have taken far more photos, had it been, and I could have perhaps reported more.
- Discussion with Dr. Bravermanová
- My thoughts
- My thoughts
- p. 100 of the exhibit catalog
- My thoughts
- p. 100 and 102 of the exhibit catalog
- My thoughts
- p. 102 and 104 of the exhibit catalog
- My thoughts
- p. 103 of the exhibit catalog
- My thoughts
- p. 108 of the exhibit catalog
- My thoughts
- https://cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Zhořelecký and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_of_Görlitz
- My thoughts
- p. 110 of the exhibit catalog
- My thoughts
- p. 92 of the exhibit catalog
- My thoughts
Bravermanová, Milena. Personal Communication. June 2016.
Bravermanová, Milena, Petr Chotěbor [editors]. The Crown of the Kingdom. Prague: Prague Castle Administration, 2016.
Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Pritchard, and Kay Staniland. Textiles and Clothing c.1150–1450. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2001.
Fajt, Jiří. Charles IV—Emperor by the Grace of God: Culture and Art in the Reign of the Last of the Luxembourgs 1347–1437. Prague: Arthis, 2006.
Royt, Jan. Medieval Painting in Bohemia. Prague: The Karolinum Press, 2003.
Šroňková, Olga. Gothic Fashions in Women’s Dress. Prague: Artia, 1954.
Voda, Petr. Personal Communication. June 2016.