Late Medieval Fashion Redressed

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.

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