The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World Paperback – December 7, 2021
by Virginia Postrel (Author)
From Neanderthal string to 3D knitting, an “expansive” global history that highlights “how textiles truly changed the world” (Wall Street Journal)
All illustrations of Charlemagne are taken from publications of the 19th century or earlier, as no contemporary portraits of Charlemagne have survived.
The Carolingian Fashion Period 987 to 1270.
Content: Earliest times of the Carolingian period — Variety of costume in the provinces — Fashions in the Duchy of France — French taste dating from the eleventh century — Luxury increases with each generation — The dominical —The “bliaud” — Canes of apple-wood — Women in the twelfth century — Headdresses — “Afiche” — Serpent-tails — Pelisses — The thirteenth century — “Greves” and veils are in fashion — The “couvre-chef” in the fourteenth century — The skirt, or “cotte-hardie,” surcoat, or overall, or overskirt, cape, trained skirt, and “gauze” — Accessories — Emblazoned gowns — Various kinds of stuffs.
Earliest times of the Carolingian period
BY degrees, according as the nation acquired unity, and France was in process of self-construction, dress became more original and more special. The remembrance of the Roman occupation and the influences of the barbaric invasion were visibly fading away. Gallo-Roman, Frankish, and German women no longer dwelt on the soil of our country, their place was taken by Frenchwomen of feudal times and of the middle ages, whose nationality became every day more decided. These were our real ancestresses, who neither in their dress nor in their homes were content to follow the fashions of antiquity.
Variety of costume in the provinces.
From the accession of the Capet family until the Renaissance, variety in dress became developed in all those western provinces that were destined to be welded at a later period into one homogeneous France. In Brittany, Burgundy, Flanders, Gascony, and Provence, the women adopted a costume of their own, adding to one general principle of form a number of details. Some of these still exist at the present day, but it would be too tedious to describe them.
Fashions in the Duchy of France
The Duchy of France, which formed the kernel of our modern France, will suffice to afford us an exact idea of olden fashions; just as Paris is nowadays the great centre and starting-point of every innovation in the toilet of our fair contemporaries. Dress, fashion, and luxury varied considerably from and after the eleventh century. William, Archbishop of Rouen, caused a Council of the Church to be held in 1096. At this council it was decreed that men wearing long hair should be excluded from the Church during life, and that after death prayer should not be offered for their souls.
Taste in France became improved through the commercial relations existing with the East, and the rudimentary style of dress of the two earlier races was succeeded by something more artistic, and more easily adapted to the art of chivalry. Women adorned their brows with bands of jewels, wreaths of roses, or golden nets.
It is no exaggeration to say that each succeeding generation saw greater attention paid to dress by both men and women, the latter especially; that caprice began to show itself in those curious eccentricities which still afford us food for laughter, and that luxury reigned in consequence over all the population, in spite of the efforts of those in authority, who endeavored to regulate the tastes of all classes by sumptuary laws.
French taste dating from the eleventh century. The “dominical.”
There are many miniatures of women of rank in the eleventh century, in which they are represented as wearing a mantle and veil. The latter was called a “dominical,” because it was usually worn at the services of the Church on Sundays. Women were bound to wear this veil when receiving Holy Communion. According to the synodical statutes women who were without their veil were obliged to defer their Communion until the following Sunday. At the moment of receiving the Sacred Host they held one end of the “dominical” in the left hand. A crown or a diadem encircled the veil of queens and princesses. Widows wore, in addition, a bandeau covering the forehead and fitting round the face so as to hide the throat and neck. They wore no jewels, not even rings. The veil of a lady of gentle birth reached to her feet, but that of a plebeian might not fall below the waist.
The “bliaud, ” the “garde-corps,” walking-sticks of apple-wood.
In the eleventh century women also wore “bliauds,” a sort of gown reaching to the feet, with deep folds on either side, but scanty in front and behind. The shape of the “bliaud” was afterwards altered, and long sleeves were used in place of half sleeves. For travelling they might wear the “garde-corps,” a long dress, open for a short distance from the edge of the skirt in front, and with long wide sleeves; these they often did not use as such, and in that case they hung loosely at the sides.
They also made use of walking-sticks of apple-wood, such as had been used in earlier times by the Frankish warriors. It is recorded that Constance, the second wife of King Robert, knocked out the eye of her confessor with one of these canes. The Carolingian women, as we have seen, had also made use of walking-sticks.
Women fashion in the twelfth century
From the beginning of the twelfth century many women wore round their head a simple ribbon, ornamented with flowers or embroideries in the case of the court ladies, who wore besides either a sort of chin-cloth surrounding the face, or a “claque-oreille” i.e. a hat with falling brims.
Women of the people wore veils or cloth hoods; those of high rank hoods of velvet. These head-dresses were very becoming to Frenchwomen, who altered them but slightly in the progress of time. In addition to these, we remark in old illuminated MSS. head dresses of hair only, a very simple and yet elegant style. From 1130 to 1140, women of noble rank divided their hair into two thick plaits, falling in front of the shoulders, or, parting it as before, they fastened the two long locks together by means of narrow bands of silk or of gold tissue. Such hair-dressing as this required much care and attention. Long plaits remained in fashion until about 1170, when our countrywomen began to conceal their hair under a veil, or by a band passing under the chin and fastened on the crown of the head, while the hair was gathered together in a chignon at the nape of the neck.
At the same period they preferred plaques to necklaces. They wore these plaques on the chest as brooches or clasps.
Parti-colored garments. The Afiche, Sleeves à la bombarde.
The “afiche” or chest-clasp was generally of a circular shape, and ornamented at each end with a network of fine workmanship in precious metal set with pearl. The handkerchief, of some valuable material, hung at the waist with the keys. At the end of the twelfth century, Mabille de Retz, a noble and learned lady of Provence, wore a fur-bordered gown without a waist-band. The left side and left sleeve of the bodice are white, the other side blue. Parti-colored garments were already in vogue.
At times women wore their sleeves à la bombarde, like the leg-of-mutton sleeves, of which I shall treat when writing of the Restoration. At other times they ornamented their gowns with gold round the throat; again, they preferred before everything a dress à queue de serpent. The Prior of Vigeois raised his voice against the long-tailed gowns. “The tail,” said he, “gives a woman the look of a serpent.”
Pelisses, Greves and veils are in fashion.
The Council of Montpellier forbade the appendices in question under penalty of excommunication. Tunics made of fur were called “pelisses.” The sleeves of “bliauds” were trimmed with puffs, braid, or embroidery. Beneath the “bliaud” drawers or the “bache” were worn.
One hundred years later women divided their hair in front, forming a parting that was called a “grève” (or shore). Many of them began to dress their hair without extraneous ornament, in all kinds of ways, and with no little skill. They wore a veil, as was rigorously enforced by the Church; for according to an Article of the Council of Salisbury, no priest might hear the confession of an unveiled woman. This veil covered the head so entirely that it was impossible to see whether a woman had any hair or not.
The couvre-chef in the fourteenth century
In the 14th century Frenchwomen left off the veil in favor of the “cornette,” a sort of coif or hood. Their hats were called “couvre-chefs” (or head-coverings). The frame was of parchment, covered with fine cloth, silk, or velvet. But the couvre-chef did not remain long in fashion; it lasted during a few years only, probably on account of its extraordinary appearance.
The skirt, or cotte-hardie, surcoat, or overall, or overskirt, cape, trained skirt, and gauze.
With regard to head-dresses women were about to fall, as we shall see, into strange and costly vagaries, and even to take pleasure in offending against the laws of modesty. For a very long period Frenchwomen had assumed a costume almost similar to that of men, and consequently of a grave style. They had worn both the skirt or “cotte hardie” and the surcoat, with a pointed head-dress, from which hung a veil covering their shoulders and neck, something like the gimp of a nun. To the surcoats were added enormous flowing sleeves, which softened the severity of their appearance, and made them more agreeable to the eye.
In the romance of “Ermine de Reims” the following passage occurs: “Two women approached me, wearing surcoats a yard longer than themselves, so that they must needs carry in their arms that which would have dragged on the ground; and they had also long cuffs on their surcoats, hanging from the elbows. . . . .”
The greater number of the romance writers of the Middle Ages describe costumes of a similar nature. The surcoat worn by men and woman alike in the reign of St. Louis, derived its name, in all probability, from the German word cursat, signifying a sort of gown. A garment worn over their cloaks by the Knights of the Star, an Order instituted by John the Good, was also called a surcoat. The surcoat was passed over the shoulders. It was as wide behind as in front, and was hollowed out at the sides. It reached to below the hips, where it was attached to a very long skirt. Marguerite de Provence, the wife of St. Louis, wore a surcoat of ermine, and a gown, the lower edge embroidered with pearls and precious stones.
According to some bas-reliefs in ivory (twelfth century) the Queen of France wore a dress buttoned in front, with sleeves also buttoning from the elbow to the wrist; a mantle open at the sides so as to afford a passage for the arms, and a large collar that left the throat and neck uncovered, ending in two points. The other figures wear gowns closed in front, and in some instances with double sleeves. The upper sleeve is wide at the edge and reaches only to the elbow.
At the same period both men and women wrapped themselves during the severe cold of winter in a cape or cope, a long mantle with a hood that could be drawn over the head in wet weather. The “chape à pluie,” hood or cope, was probably gathered in front. How indispensable it must have been to ladies in travelling! It preserved them from cold and fog, and was as useful as the waterproof of the present day. An ancient writer speaks of a count and countess whose poverty was so great that they had but one “chape” between them. In the reign of Louis VII. only virtuous women had the right to wear these garments in the streets. By retaining only the upper part of the chape or mantle, the hood came into existence, with its curtain or cape for the shoulders. To this was generally added a roll on the top, and a veil hanging down behind. The chaperon or hood was a sign of plebeian estate, and remained in fashion for several centuries.
The long-trained skirt of princesses and noble ladies, with turned back collar and narrow closed sleeves, was sometimes open down to the ground in front, and sometimes closed and trimmed with buttons, and covered with a mantle. The lower part of the face and throat were hidden by a “guimpe.” Ladies frequently adopted the “gauzape” or sleeveless gown, which was emblazoned, long-trained, and bordered with ermine, thus distinguishing them from plebeians; for the most part they wore a handsome hood, or a coronet of pearls, and an aumônière or bag, remarkable either for its material or the needlework lavished upon it.
This was generally speaking either a gift, or embroidered by the fair hands of the wearer. When the lady was travelling, her aumônière contained besides coin and jewels, a few simple medicaments, writing-tablets, etc. It was a small bag closed by a clasp or a running-string. It was destined to remain in fashion during all the Middle Ages, and afterwards to reappear as a passing caprice at various periods.
The costumes of Blanche of Castille
The costumes of Blanche of Castille (1188 – 1252), and of Marguerite of Provence, are interesting examples of the fashions of their day. Feminine dress first became splendid in the thirteenth century, when great ladies and wealthy bourgeoises with their long tresses and with something in their carriage not unlike the Greek priestess, or the Roman matron, began to wear closely-fitting gowns, frequently ornamented with a belt of silk, or cloth of gold; the surcoat, and the fur bordered mantle. A veil, fastened on the crown of the head, flowed over the shoulders. Occasionally the gown was open on the chest, and disclosed a sort of collar or chemisette artistically embroidered.
The ladies of highest birth then began to emblazon these closely fitting gowns, fastened high at the throat. On the right side they placed their husband’s coat of arms, on the left that of their own family. They cut open their sleeves in an extraordinary way, from elbow to wrist, whence hung a piece of the stuff. A gown was made “historical” by embroidering it with fleurs de-lis, birds, fishes, and emblems of all sorts, and thus became a portable guide to genealogy.
Various kinds of stuffs
Let us here remark that materials for garments had greatly increased in number. There was “cendal” almost the same as our silk at the present day, and “samite” which apparently greatly resembled cendal. The latter was made in every color, both plain, and striped in two or three shades. Samite, a thick silk of six strands, was, for the most part, white, green, or red. Then there was “pers,” or dark blue cloth; “camelin,” a fabric made from camels’ hair, of which “barracan” was only a variety. The warp of the barracan assumed the appearance of bars, whence many historians derive the name of the material itself. There was “isambrun” also, viz. cloth dyed brown; “molekin,” a linen material; “brunette,” a brown stuff; “bonnette,” a green cloth, and “galebrun,” a brown colored cloth.
There was also a material still coarser than camelin called “bureau,” there was “fustaine,” a strong stuff manufactured from cotton, and finally “serge,” woven of wool and occasionally mixed with thread.
The arts of weaving and dyeing had made extraordinary progress; a taste for handsome materials had spread even among the lowest ranks of society. It would appear that the silk manufacturers of Rheims were not very scrupulous. They cheated their customers by introducing wool or thread into stuffs that they sold as pure silk; or they made use of silk badly dyed. At Rheims and many other places the saying, “He lies like a dyer,” passed into a proverb.
- The history of fashion in France, or, The dress of women from the Gallo-Roman period to the present time by Augustin Challamel, Frances Cashel Hoey, John Lillie. Publisher: New York, Scribner and Welford, 1882.
- Costumes civils et militaires des Français à travers les siècles. 1883. Author: Jean Baptiste Marie Augustin Challamel. Engraver: Meunier, Jean-Baptiste. Ouvrage couronné par l’Académie francaise.
- “Modes et Costumes Historiques“. Edited by Hippolyte Louis Emile and Polidor Jean Charles Pauquet.