Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Mongolian link for hennin?

I've stumbled recently onto a tumblr post linking the emergence of the tall hennin with Mongol influence in Europe. I've never heard of such a connection before and I find it quite dubious, so I replied with a post briefly illustrating the gradual evolution of the headdress, which I will – in a slightly more annotated version – copy below.

The tall steeple hennin was in my opinion a result of gradual modification of the existing fashion for impressive headdresses. Rich oriental fabrics and adornments and what the contemporaries perceived as exotic fashions were certainly a great source of stylistic change and inspiration in the medieval European fashions (albeit, it would seem, introduced quite often in a form which testifies to the skewed, fancified image of how in reality the styles looked like) – but a direct relationship to a particular Mongolian headwear just seems to be a too far-fetched a notion to me.

But it may well be that I am wrong! I would like to hear opinions of other medieval fashion enthusiasts – have you ever heard about the connection before and does it seem plausible to you?
European cultures have always assimilated and copied the fashions and tastes of other cultures (and vice-versa) and there are many, many examples of such in European art and design throughout the history that are well-attested for and obvious. For example, there are entire styles based on the fascination by “the exotic” in the 19th century and earlier, such as turquerie, chinoiserie and japonism; there is the Medieval Moorish art in Spain and its influences beyond; the obsession with sub-Saharan African art starting in the 20th century etc. These are just a few – and very formative, indeed – examples of the top of my head.

The notion of the hennin being an imitation of Mongolian fashions seems simply far-fetched and unreasonable to me, as I think there is a much better, well documented explanation, that I will try to illustrate below.

But first, on the topic of headdresses in general:

Large headdresses are extremely impractical. That exactly is the reason why they are very often worn by high classes – in many societies with class division, the richer and nobler the person, the more ridiculous and unpractical his gear becomes. Wearing expensive and over-the-top garments and headdresses is simply the most straightforward way to manifest your power and riches and the fact that you belong to a class of people that does not have to work to feed themselves.

Here are just a few examples of various pointy hats worn throughout the ages and all over the world:

5th century BC. Pazyryk (Scythian); Ukok Plateau. Headdress of a Pazyryk (Scythian) lady. source

c.1880 Druze woman wearing tantour
A Hittite relief, supposedly depicting a king. source

13th century fresco depicting Pope Innocent III, wearing a papal tiara. source

A Japanese ceremonial hat (eboshi). source
As you can see, tall hats seem to be a thing that developed in many cultures throughout the world many times. There isn’t a single source for tall headdresses, of which every other tall headdress is a descendant. It is not unreasonable to imagine that there existed a tall headdress in Europe that was not related to a tall headdress of a different culture.

Fashions always change. Their characteristic features tend to grow gradually more extreme. And when there is nowhere left for them to grow, they transform. Vertical becomes horizontal, low becomes high, elaborate becomes simple. Tallness and pointiness are sliders, so to speak, not switches – variables that are easily exploitable in ever-changing fashions of medieval Europe, as I will try to demonstrate in this post.

How what we call the hennin today became the fashionable headdress of a lady of a European court is well-documented in the art of the period, and it is a process that is gradual – spanning through many decades – and regionally specific.

Mongol invasion occurred in the 13th century, but it concerned the Slavic territories of Eastern Europe. Mongols never got to France and the Low Countries, where, some two hundred years later, the hennin evolved. I have yet to see an example of hennin from Eastern Europe – the part of Europe which had the best chance to take on some of the fashions of the Mongols, which were, of course, long gone by 15th century.

To illustrate the evolution of the headdress, here are several examples of period art, more or less in chronological order, to support my point:

1410s, Christine de Pisan presenting a book to Isabeau of Bavaria.

At this point, the headdress consist of the twin “buns” of hair, probably covered by a net, high at the temples. There is also some unseen kind of supportive structure covered by a curving bejeweled padded roll of fabric – aka bourrelet (which itself probably descended from the rolled-up brim of the hood and is also a feature of the male headdress).

1445-50. Isabella of Portugal, Duchess of Burgundy.

The hair is encased in two bejeweled cones, covered with a transparent veil. Compared with the previous example, the headdress is less horizontal and although it does preserve the overall shape, but the padded roll and the hairnet-covered buns seem to be combined into a single structure. As in the previous example, there is a black loop on the forehead.

c. 1445-1450. Seven Sacraments Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden
Woman in blue wears headdress very similar to Isabella’s above and the one in red has many layers of frilled veils in place of the padded roll, but the shape of the headdresses of both women are similar.

Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, Ms-5070 réserve, Decameron - 120r. Flemish.
Another combination of padded roll and buns covered by hairnet, this time even more vertical.

Bibliothèque royale de Belgique, mss. IV 684 et IV 685 - Jan van Boendale,Brabantsche Yeesten
In this example, the padded roll is either very slim, or the veils are pinned straight to the “horns”.

c. 1450-1474. Bibl. Mazarine, MS 1559, fol. 196v

1455-1460. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 6465, fol. 338v

The image is small, but you can still see that the veil-covered headdresses are divided in the middle, although their focus is entirely vertical at this stage. The rolls seem to be absent, too.

second half of the 15th century. Cambridge, Harvard University, Houghton Library MS Richardson 031 9v

1460c, Bibliothèque nationale autrichienne, codex Vindobonensis 2617.

England. Church of St Giles at Little Malvern Priory - Elizabeth Woodville with daughters. source
At this point, the supportive structure is probably joined to form a truncated cone to which the padded roll or the veil is attached. The roll curves, echoing the “horns” of the earlier headdresses. The daughters in the background seem to wear the same cone headdress as their mother, but without the padded roll.

1450-80. Bibliothèque de Genève, Ms. fr. 64
As you can see, the hennin didn’t appear “out of nowhere”. It was just a notable, opulent stage in the transformation of the fashionable medieval headdress and this transformation is very well documented in the art of the era. There is simply no evidence of a Mongol influence in the evolution of this headdress.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Late 15th century winged coif

Completed in July last year (2012, that is), it was really my first historical sewing project. Made from old scrap cotton that had been lying around for years, the headdress is done  done using these instructions. It is entirely handsewn - and as I was (and still am) unskilled and sew slowly and made a few mistakes in construction, so it took me about a week. (I would say 15-20 hours. I know, it seems ridiculous for such a small piece of fabric.) The stitches are crooked and everything is a bit uneven, but still - I am extremely happy with myself and how it’s turned out to look like, and most importantly that I have finally accomplished to complete something.
I’m not sure the size of it is optimal for my head, and whether I’m wearing it exactly right, though.

this is late 15th century French manuscript; I'm fairly sure it's in Bibliothèque nationale de France

same; I promise I will source it when I match it to the right manuscript

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tabletwoven silk band

I don't especially like tablet weaving because I find the necessary preparation for it wearisome and because the threads I've worked with so far tended to knot and fray and kind of full together - which is kind of a pity, really, because I find the technique fascinating and have read a lot of theoretical articles on it. 
 Yesterday I decided in the morning that I should try to do something with the huge reel of tussah silk that I purchased some time ago and haven't gotten the opportunity to try sewing with it yet.
I pulled out my old weaving tablets, made of playing cards (previously I used ones made of thick cardboard and it proved to be a frustrating experience) and started threading the holes with metres and metres of silk thread. Although I only used twelve tablets, the rigging itself took me several hours.
I was surprised how thin the band turned out; it is only 4,5 milimetres (0.18 inches) wide. I only worked on it for a few hours, so it is far, far from done, but I have to say I am quite pleased with how it turned out so far. It is such a simple, delicate thing. The silk retains its subtle, inconspicuous sheen, and the colour of the undyed tussah is really beautiful. Yesterday night I worked on it while watching the first part of the Hollow Crown series and I enjoyed those peaceful moments very much. :)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Hinging the sleeve

So far I went through three sleeve mock-ups and I am nowhere near content with the cut and fitting.  

For quiet a long time, I wasn’t decided on how exactly I would do the sleeves. At first I thought I should simply go with an all-over looser sleeve, omitting the tightening (and thus the buttons or lacing) at the forearm.  (I thought about braving the grande assiette for a while, too, but at this stage the torso of the dress has already been fitted and sewn. And it would probably be better to first experiment with this technique extensively and create some sort of a pattern before applying it onto a dress.)
In the end I decided for practical sleeves, quite loose at the shoulders (and probably also with a diamond-shaped gusset applied to the armpit, so I won't be in constant fear of ripping the seams open when reaching for something), but with tightly fitted forearms. I've wanted to be able to move my arms freely, but also to make the sleeves snug at the lower arm. And I decided to try to construct the sleeves of my kirtle using the elbow hinge.

Tasha Kelly made several wonderfully informative articles - available on her blog, La cotte simple - on the Charles de Blois’ doublet, including the sophisticated construction of the sleeve, which uses both the grande assiette and the elbow hinge. Even though I knew I didn't want to try the assiette yet, I immediately took a liking to the elbow hinge and the idea of tight sleeves without compromising the arm's mobility

At first I wasn't sure how to fit the two parts of the sleeve together and around my arm, but in the end I simply first made up the upper part of the sleeve and then pinned the lower sleeve in the place where the arm drops into a dip at the elbow. My totally awesome mom then helped me pin the "wings" of the upper edge of the lower part of the sleeve so that I could bend my arm without bursting the fabric open at the elbow, thus creating the hinge. I fitted the forearm myself, curving the seam more or less along the ulna, that is from the back of my arm at the elbow to the lateral (pinky) side of the wrist. The seam of the lower sleeve is a continuation of the seam of the upper sleeve, which runs along the back of the arm

The white pattern is the upper part of the sleeve, ending above the elbow. The brown pattern is the lower, forearm part of the sleeve. The "wings" form the hinge, creating additional space for the elbow when the arm is flexed.
Then I made a new mock-up and pinned it on. This is how it looks like now:

 So far so good. It is comfortable at the elbow; maybe just a bit too tight at the forearm - but that can be easily remedied.

But when I let my arm drop...

I can't say I'm surprised. Of course there would be some bulging - presumably proportional to the tightness of the sleeve and the roominess of its elbow part. But this just looks... a bit too much, perhaps? Maybe it will look slightly different when done in dark wool on linen, maybe it's simply a price for having the cake and eating it too (super fashionable tightness AND mobility). Or maybe I could try widening the upper sleeve, so it would be looser and the bulging wouldn't show this much? Or I can reduce the wings of the hinge, and simply accept that the extreme bending at the elbow simply won't be very comfortable.

I'd guess it's time for a new mock-up. :)