For the number of manuscripts and portraits out there featuring Burgundian gowns, it always surprises me that I see so few of them on people at events. They have the princess hats, they’re kind of the official mental picture of what medieval ladies wore, and they seem like they shouldn’t be that hard to put together. Maybe it’s just Ansteorra and our logical objections to wearing so many layers.
Maybe there’s a big secret I don’t know about why they’re awful – a friend did suggest that nobody wears them because they’re tied up with the post-plague aesthetic for making sure women look like they could be pregnant. However, people wear bliaut dresses with the belts doubled over, and that definitely makes all but the very thinnest among us look pregnant. My best guess is that we’re not entirely sure how they go together, so wearing them is fraught with “I’m doing it wrong and look dumb” anxiety. I get that – I look pretty dumb in this picture, but it’s from my first year, and people let me slide a lot on things. Although, that hennin is made with an Ikea lampshade, and some women were just thrilled with it. I felt good at the time, but now I’m embarrassed by it.
Fabric is a big deal when it comes to the 15th century. It looks like people live in clouds of fabric and have dresses so long you wonder how they walk anywhere. Maybe people get intimidated by the fact that fabric drape matters an awful lot for something like this and it’s a higher yardage count than many other styles of dress. Why does it matter so much? Just check out this picture of me in a hand-me-down Burgundian… It’s upholstery fabric, which has no real drape, so it creates unnecessary bulk. I’m cool with looking a little bit pregnant, but I’m not ok with looking like a circus tent. In all fairness, I’m not wearing the right stuff under it, I used the wrong thing for lacing rings, and they all popped open and ran away by the end of the night, and I think the belt would have helped a little. But… This would have worked far better in a nice mid-weight wool that could gather and drape without being bulky. The wisdom of experience!
These questions bother me a lot because it’s the style I’m most drawn to when I look through art. I really love the idea of pursuing a full wardrobe and set of skills for the time and place of my persona, but I don’t do that because I get daunted by making Burgundian gowns. Same goes for houppelandes for almost the exact same reason. Nobody wants to splurge on fabric when they’re reasonably sure they’re going to wind up not looking as good as they could have if they’d stuck with something simpler.
Today, I found this tree full of people, and it made me notice some things that would remove some barriers that keep people from making the gowns – namely the one where the materials used are silk and velvet and fur. Just look at the variety in this tree full of women dressed in the Burgundian style (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 202, fol. 9r). There are six hat styles, two varieties of dresses, and some interesting details re: the dress linings, collars, and the triangle parts across the bust. A couple look to be lined in fur, a couple in a contrasting fabric. Some have the plain black placket across the bust, but one has a red one with gold spiral lacing across it. Some backs look to be scooped lower than others.
Cursory research will show you a lot of conflict over each of these details, and while each argument has merit, I think they make for a lot of unnecessary worry about making the dress. While there are plenty of examples of these dresses being absurdly luxurious (heavy silk lined entirely in fur!), we have plenty more examples of them being worn by women of all social classes with a fair bit of variety. A placket pinned across the bust would account for all of those nearly identical necklines, but so would a dress underneath (ah, the kirtle… you make everything make sense).
It’s a dress that evolved from the houppelande, and you need to understand that for things to start clicking and stop worrying. What I’m talking about here is making clothes to wear, not making them for A&S projects. You’re on your own for A&S, kids. You should read Mistress Mathilde Bourette’s amazing presentation, Discovering the 15th Century V-Neck Gown: The Sexiest Bathrobe You’ll Ever Wear. She takes a lot of the mystery out of construction, has a ton of pictures, and is funny.
Having read through that, I feel like I could make myself a nice gown in something like wool, line it in a nice, heavy linen, and try starting out wearing 15th century styles for cooler weather or indoor events. They’re dramatic and romantic, even if they’re not exactly the most practical things to pack up and take to war. Maybe if I wear them, other people will start wearing them too.