Late Medieval Fashion Redressed

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.

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