12th Century Dress – the Bliaut

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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.

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Figure of Grammatica , from the Hortus Deliciarum, c. 1180

The most iconic look is represented by the famous statues in Chartres cathedral

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Figures from the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament), centre portal of the west facade of Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France,

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
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    sleeve shape.Chartres1, http://www.eg.bucknell.edu

  • 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
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    Terence’s Comedies, St. Albans Abbey, mid 12th century, Folio 10 recto

  •  Sometimes the long sleeves are knotted for practical as well as aesthetic reasons
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example of knotted sleeves.Angers – BM – ms. 0243 F077v (fin XII) 2

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

The pattern.

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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.

Materials

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

Method.

  1. Cut all your pieces in your top fabric and lining.
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front piece cut -here using a modern method, cut together with the side gores

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front and back gores – back gore is longer as the skirts will be trained

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the sleeve

  1.  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.
  2.  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.
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gores sewn in, fronts and back sewn, shoulder seam sewn – sides still left open

  1. Sew the sleeves right sides together.

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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.

  1.  Repeat the same steps with the lining.
  2.  Hem the top fabric – at the sleeves, side opening and neck.
  3.  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
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the detail of the front – lining stitched, hiding the stitches from sewing on the handmade braid

  1.  Insert the lining – stitch it to the neck and sides first, then the sleeves , using slipstitch.
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silk lining of the sleeves sewn to the top fabric

  1. 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.
  2.  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.

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  1.  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

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  1.  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.

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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.

Undergarments.

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

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a kirtle, Carmina burana

The sleeves and neck of the underdress could also be decorated with woven braids or embroidery

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wool kirtle with sleeve and neck embroidery

The hair.

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

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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.

  1. Divide the hair into two.
  2. 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.

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  1. 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.

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  1.  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!
  2.  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

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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!

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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

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.Eleanor of Aquitaine, effigy

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)

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bliaut in wool, lined with linen, neck decorated with embroidery on linen, handwoven woolen girdle

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Bliaut in silk, with silk bands decoration

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an Outremer princess – bliaut in silk, with contrasting bands of silk used as decoration and girdle, worn on a chemise only, in Jordan

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bliaut renedered in silk satin as a wedding dress.

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).

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1895 silk gown, kyoto, Kyoto

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grey houppelande with open sleeves reminiscent of the 12th century fashions

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.

Bibliography.

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,

  Britannica:   http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/107728/Chartres-Cathedral

The Bliaut throughout 12th Century Europe, http://www.eg.bucknell.edu/~lwittie/sca/garb/europe_class/europe_bliaut.html

 

 

NYE 2012 – White Mischief party

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   New Year’s Eve is always a good excuse for a party, and since our carefully prepared plans to go and spend ours in the Carpatians, skiing and snowbording, fell through due to various injuries, we needed a back up plan.

  Fortunately, merely a week after I transferred out skiing holiday to my parents,  White Mischief announced their New Year Extravaganza – ideal! We attended Tobias’ event before: we went over to see a Stempunk concert he organized  in Scala in October – featuring one of my favourite bands, Abney Park.  We were both impressed by the quality of the gig,  so we had no doubts this one would be just as good.

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on the way to the Abney Park concert, here just after being laced in in the corset – in the middle of St. Pancras station….

Bedford Borough-20120823-00857  And so the train tickets were booked,  the hotel sorted out for the night ( thanks to BA Airmiles we stayed in Marrior not too far from the venue 🙂 ), and all we need to do was to sort out our attire for the night.

 The theme was Steampunk, cabaret, burlesque,  Victoriana etc – so a lot of choice! In the end, Lucas decided on a Victorian Vigilante style, an elegant dandy in a topper and with a walking stick, and I went for a more eclectic  corset/skirt combo.

  I have decided that for this outfit I was not going to buy any fabric but to make it from whatever leftovers I have living in my workroom and  garage.   I also wanted to experiment with Edwardian corset styles. I had made one before, for the Steampunk traveller’s collection, but this time I had something more complex in mind.  I fell in love with a corset I tried on at my friend Julia’s studio. Julia is a professional corsetier, running both a corsetry supplies business, Sew Curvy, but also making stunning bespoke corsets at Clessidra

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lovely corset made by Julia!

  Julia was generous enough to give me the copy of the pattern, so I planned to adapt it, making sure its modern version is a proper overbust, and to make it in white  and black satin, silver tissue and lots of bling on it .

 The first stage was redrafting the pattern and making a mock up.  A bit tricky, but armed with both experience and with Julia’s corsetmaking dvd book, I managed the task, getting a comfortably fitted toile.

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the toile!

 

 all that remained was to make the thing in the proper fabric ( even more tricky as the silver tissue proved to be stretchy….

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corset in main fabric, final fitting

 

 And then stitch on all the decoration –  I accummulated quite a lot of  leftover freshwater pearls over the years, and thought this would be a good wway to utilise them. In total there is about 600 on them on the corset, each one sewn individually by hand. I do admit, I stitched the last ones on the day, already in the hotel…

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bling galore!

 

 On the day, we made sure we were well fed ( Nandos! ) and made our way, in pournign rain to the venu at Sheperd’s Bush.

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Arrived!

 The place was heaving but we made a wise provision of booking a table – and soon our friends, Heather and Matthew joined us.

 The event itself –  well the entertaiment was great! the compere was provided by Professor Elemental ( another favourite performer of ours) and all the other artists: trapeze performers, singers, dancers etc were exceptional.  a thoroughly enjoyable evening was had by all – and a few pictures froom the night below!

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Professor doing his thing…

  

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One of the 3 burlesque performers we were lucky to see on the night

 

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stunning act by this incredible girl!

 

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Great acrobatic jiving couple

 

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and a rather bizzare act of a man to did amazing things with ping pong balls.

 

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a funny act by the girls

 

 On the way back we strolled through the centre of London – very nicely lit!

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 And  back in the hotel we even had enough stamina left for a little ‘after the party’ photoshoot:-)

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going for the seductive look here….

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and having some fun dancing in the corridors….

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more dancing…

  Altogerher – a lovely party, happy with the outfit ( might wear it for our Spectacular ball again…) – so Thank you White Mischief!

Being Katherine of Aragon

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  A few years ago I was contracted to ‘do’ Katherine of Aragon for  one of the events organized by Black Knight Historical. I have done Tudor work with them before,at another event, organized by Griffin Historical, at The British Museum in London.  No specific character was required at that time, but within minutes  I was branded Anne. Not my favourite character ( I can hear the outraged cry of many Ann’s fans!), but it was fun 🙂 I have been Anne a couple of time later and always enjoyed it.

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Anne at the British Museum

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BKH event in Kent – after hours fun. Anne has a new steed!

 But it was Katherine that always had a special place in my heart- for her serenity, patience, unwavering convictions and sheer obstinancy. Also, she was a foreigner here and has come to love the country as her own – and we share that trait too.   The commission required more studying, learning about Katherine’s background and ( but of course! ) a new outfit.

Since the timing for the event weas loosely agreed on the early years of Katherine;s marriage to Henry, 1510-15 or do, the new gown was based on the  tournament roll picture, where Katherine, freshly delivered of a son, watches her handsome prince joust.

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The Westminster Tournament Roll, the College of Arms.

 

The project was interesing, epecially recreating the early bonnet, but it was done ( the article how to recreate the look can be found here🙂 –  and Katherine appeared in the Peterborough Cathedral for the Royal audiences, side by side with her husband the king, for the first time.

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 It wasn’t the last time either – the event and the show was so popular, it has been booked, again, and again. It is a regular feature at the end of January, as a part of Katherine of Aragon festival held there. the festival commemorates her death ( Katherine is burried in the cathedral) and celebrates her life: there are  lectures,  tudor interpretors, dancing, music – in short, both education and entertainment combined.

 And of course, being out so often,Kathrine needed another gown too… this one is silver tissue:-)

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at Katherine’s grave, holding her symbol – a pomegranate.

  I have come to realy enjoy the event –   and not only because wearing a nice frock and being a royalty for a day, in lovely surroundings is fun. Interacting with public is different everytime – people ask different questions every year and as I prepare for the audiences and do my research, there is always something new to be learnt – about the customs of the period,  the dance, or about the remarkable woman who sat on the English throne next to her famous husband. or just as a chance to brush up on my Spanish:-)

 A short video form the last festival can be found here

 The knowledge and the kit came useful as well – Katherine appeared at the Blicking Hall, together with the other queens, and the new dress, with a new hood, served for Mary Tudor, the sister of the  king, for another event – a Christmas at Blickling Hall.

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  articles how to make tudor gown and French hoods if you want to have a go:-)

 

 Many thanks to the event organizers, as well as a certain Thoomas More, and a faithful lady in waiting, Eleanor:-)

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