Mention a medieval dress to someone and the odds are the image they have in mind is a loose frock with long sleeves. Type ‘medieval’ into Google, eBay or etsy – and modern L.A.R.P and hand-fasting gowns of that description appear – with most of them sporting the iconic long, trailing sleeves. The proper medieval dress of that description was called a ‘bliaut’ (and was apparently worn by both sexes, though later male bliauts tend to be shorter), and its variants were fashionable across Europe for about 100 years. The earlier examples of the dress of that type seem to be a continuation of the fashions of 11th century – loose gowns often with girdles and long sleeves getting bigger, longer and more elaborate; but it is the second part of the 12th century that celebrated the bliaut at is best – here the look is far more slender, with a slim waist emphasised by the more fitted style of the dress, careful girdle arrangement and, of course those sleeves.
The most iconic look is represented by the famous statues in Chartres cathedral
So what makes the Bliaut proper? Look out for these features:
- Excessively long sleeves – fitted to a degree above the elbow, and opening wider below – and sometimes simply elongated cuffs. The lowest part of the sleeve is often square
- Tight fit on the torso – often showing wrinkles – most likely caused by side lacing
- Girdle – often wrapped twice around the body, with the ends hanging in front (though single girdles or no girdles are also seen)
- Neck openings – can be round, keyhole, or V shaped, often decorated with embroidery, woven braids of applied silk bands in contrasting colour
- Sometimes the long sleeves are knotted for practical as well as aesthetic reasons
Moe examples of bliaut and other fashions of 12/13thcentury – here – 11-13century fashions
There have been several theories concerning the construction of the bliaut. Some claimed that the dress is loose, but that the middle part is a corset, or a stomacher worn on top of the dress and secured by the double girdle. Some believed that the waist part was cut separately and the bodice part and the skirts were gathered and sewn on to it. Personally, I find the theory that it is the side lacing, (a new technique that appeared on the scene at that time), which makes the dress fitted and accounts for the wrinkles on the torso. It also makes sense from a costume evolution point of view – the basic, almost rectangular cut of the previous centuries is still used here with just slight adaptation – whereas a corset of any kind, as well as a stomacher, or cutting the bodice horizontally would be completely out of place, several centuries ahead of its time and too huge a jump to consider seriously. In my opinion it also points naturally towards the development of ‘cotte and surcoat’ – remove the sleeves and unlace the sides and the garment looks disturbingly like later surcoats – though in this case male fashions and heraldic surcoats were probably a bigger influence.
The pleated nature of the fabric often seen on the sculptures is another enigma – most likely it represents very voluminous but light fabric, like silk, rather than fabric that has been pleated to a waistband, etc. To what degree the statues and other representations in medieval art are artistic licence will probably remain a secret forever, so going with the cut, techniques and construction that were known at the time is a much safer bet.
If you wish to have a closer look at the variety of bliauts represented in art across Europe and the construction theories, have a look at this site – very useful! http://www.eg.bucknell.edu/~lwittie/sca/garb/europe_class/europe_bliaut.html
I have used a pattern consisting largely of simple geometrical shapes – front and back are rectangles, often cut on the fold, or with a vertical CF and CB seam, with the waist cut out more to fit, thus softening the lines. Armhole lines sometimes seem to have been slightly softened too – they were probably the newest development in tailoring at the time! The gores are triangles. The sleeve pattern is the most innovative as it incorporates both concave and convex lines, softening the harsh geometrical look.
The dress can be of equal length, reaching the ground all around, or trained. If you can, make the gores as wide as possible – the bigger the hem circumference, the better the folds of the dress look. With the modern, wider fabrics it is also possible to cheat a bit and save time by cutting the front and back with wide skirts, incorporating the side gores, with only the front and back gores – a technique I used once. It did work, though it is incorrect for the period as the fabric widths were so much narrower.
The fabrics – Wool would be the most common, and certainly my favourite, though silk might be the option for the most affluent personages– and more frequently worn by the Franks in the Outremer – silk was cheaper there and more suitable for the climate. It is also through the returning Crusaders that northern European countries would have access to silk – in England at that time it was as a luxury almost unheard of, worn only by the wealthiest magnates of the realm – and usually even they could only afford it as decorative strips edging their bliauts. Silk garments were almost exclusively for royalty.
Lining – it is argued whether all the dresses were lined, and it is likely that some weren’t. For me, lining the bliaut is always a good idea, especially if it is trained. It looks better, lasts longer and wears better – the wool doesn’t cling if you happen to wear a woollen kirtle underneath. Linen is best, though silk can be used as well – probably in contrasting colours for the sleeves. For economy reasons, if lining with silk, only the sleeves would be lined with the expensive fabric, the rest of the lining would be cheaper linen, as it wouldn’t be displayed.
6m of wool or top fabric ( more if you plan a trained gown or very long sleeves)
6m of lining
Silk or linen thread
Optional: silk for decorative bands, wool for decorative woven braids and girdle
- Cut all your pieces in your top fabric and lining.
- Sew the top fabric first – assemble the front part first (the front gore and the side gores if you are sticking to the period correct pattern), then do the same for the back – i you are having side gores at the back sew them in as well, if not, it is only the back gore.
- Sew the front and back pieces at the shoulders Press the seams open. Couch them down if not using lining or if the fabric frays a lot.
- Sew the sleeves right sides together.
4. Turn the sleeves on the right side. find the centre top of the sleeve and place it, right sides together matching the shoulder seam. Pin the fabric of the gown around the sleeve and sew. Repeat on the other side.
5.You now have the entire gown assembled– but the sides are open from the armpit. Try it on, and see if the sleeve fit is correct, but also mark the length of the side opening – it should be just at the seam where the gore starts, but if your figure is fuller you may need to adjust a bit.
6. Take the gown off and sew the side pieces together. Press the seams open.
- Repeat the same steps with the lining.
- Hem the top fabric – at the sleeves, side opening and neck.
- If you plan to decorate the sleeve edges, neck hem etc with embroidered bands, bands of silk or other trims, do it now – any stitches going through the fabric will not be visible
- Insert the lining – stitch it to the neck and sides first, then the sleeves , using slipstitch.
- Hang the gown on a dummy or on a hanger. If possible, leave overnight, especially if working in wool – the fabric will stretch a little bit. Next day, check that the hem is even, adjust if necessary and hem the top fabric. Do not stitch the lining in yet.
- Again, hang the dress. Pin the top layer and lining together, matching the seams. Trim the lining if necessary, then fold the seam allowance under and pin it to the dress hem. Stitch together In this way you should not end up with the lining being too short or not too long. Whatever you do, do not bag line the dress.
- Next step – the eyelets! Mark the eyelets on the fabric around the side openings. Pierce it with an awl, then work an eyelet using a linen or silk thread. Repeat for all the eyelets on both sides
- Your dress is ready All you need to do is to lace the sides with a line or silk ribbon, or a hand plaited lace.
But – it is not the end. The dress on its own is only half the success – you will need a bit more to look and feel the part.
Girdle – the simplest way is to make one from a length of silk, or wool. You can also buy or weave one yourself, from line, wool, or silk yarn – the knotted ends visible on the girdles from the Chartres are most likely loose ends left unwoven. Make sure it is long enough if you plan to wrap it twice about your torso.
The bliaut is not worn on its own. Like all the other clothes in medieval times, it was worn on linen chemise/kirtle/underdress, with optional woolen kirtle worn on top of the linen layer – ideal solution for colder months. The cut of the chemise/kirtle didn’t differ much from the earlier garments (discussed in details in article on the Anglo Saxon garments) – simple garments with gored skirts and tight sleeves – indeed the sleeves were sometimes so tight they had to be closed with stitching on the wearer – an option for the ladies who could afford maids. In the warmer climates it is possible that a silk bliaut would be worn just on a linen chemise
The sleeves and neck of the underdress could also be decorated with woven braids or embroidery
The hair is a bit tricky. The fashionable style was simple two braids, often decorated with ribbons. Simple – if you have the hair for it. My hair, although long, is nowhere near that long, and plaited into two braids looks pathetic – no volume to it at all. The period solution would be to use horse hair to supplement your own tresses but in absence of horse hair, we can use modern extensions
If you hair is short, simply plait the extensions and clip then onto your own hair. If your hair is long enough to plait as well, follow the steps below.
- Divide the hair into two.
- Take the extension ( they usually come in fort of one long skein of hair), fold it in half and start plaiting with your own hair – 2 strands of extension and your hair as the third strand.
- Plait a few strands to secure them, then re-arrange the strands – you will need to divide the extensions so that the third strand is formed. If your hair is long enough, simply continue plaiting till the end of both real hair and extensions. Dividing the extensions tend to be rather messy, especially if you are using artificial fibre, but it can be done in such a way that it is difficult to spot where the real hair ends.
- You now have a finished plait. You can leave the ends loose, or secure them with ribbons. there are mentions of metal fillets used to secure the braids ends, and you can just see the contraption on the Chartres figures, but I haven’t found anything like that around – if you know where I can get them, please do let me know!
- You can now leave the braid as it is, decorate it with long silk ribbons, simply crossing the ribbon over along the length of the braid
There is an alternative method, where you can use only two strands of hair and weave the ribbon around them – but with the extensions it doesn’t look too good as the ribbons slide a lot!
If you are a young unmarried woman, you can wear your hair in braids without any other covering – though chaplets of flowers will look nice on them. Otherwise, you will need a veil and a fillet.
Veils at that point slowly started to depart from the big rectangular kerchiefs worn earlier, and were simple affairs of smaller rectangles or much more graceful oval ones. They were made mostly of linen, though silk was used as well, if the family could afford it. Veils were secured by a fillet – a hand of woven braid for common women , or a circlet of metal – in case of the noble ladies, the metal diadem was shaped, with a slightly flared outer ridge, and often encrusted with jewels.
Mine was made to order, and is a simple brass hoop, slightly flared – and quite heavy – it definitely leaves a nice dent on my skin after the whole day of wearing it!
In the last decades of the 12th century a barbette started to be worn – a strap of linen worn under the veil, passing under the chin and pinned on the top of the head – an example can be seen on the effigy of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine
Barbettes were useful as it was easier to pin the veil on and they framed the face nicely – they were in use for the next century or so finally disappearing in the 14th century, though chin straps resembling barbettes were seen with the 15th century hennins. They really herald a new style for the 13th century – with the hair gathered in a bun at the nape of the neck.
All you need now is a woolen hose and shoes – latchet style with pointed toe, often with straps , and if it is cold, a mantle or a cloak semi circular or circular, wool, lined with either linen, or wool)
There you have it, a nice and cosy woollen garment, or a lighter one in silk – whether for re-creating Outremer fashions of for contemporary weddings bliaut remains the iconic medieval dress. Elegant, graceful and stylish, it was ‘resurrected’ a few more times in the centuries to follow – in the late 14th/early 15th houppelandes and then in the Victorian times, when the Pre-Raphaelite movement reached back to the medieval times for inspiration ( the Accolade, lady of Shallot – and the Japanese gown from 1895 –, http://www.kci.or.jp/archives/digital_archives/detail_222_e.html).
Nowadays the style became popular with the fantasy movies like the Lord of the rings – the flowing, gentle lines work perfectly as the attire of the timelessly elegant elves.
Kyoto Costume Institute, http://www.kci.or.jp/archives/digital_archives/detail_222_e.html
Gutkowska – Rychlewska Maria, Historia ubiorów, Ossolineum, 1968
Francois Boucher, A History of Costume in the West,
The Bliaut throughout 12th Century Europe, http://www.eg.bucknell.edu/~lwittie/sca/garb/europe_class/europe_bliaut.html