My new thirteenth-century frock for the Manuscript Challenge

Browsing Facebook as one does, a few weeks ago, I came across The Manuscript Challenge  and was instantly seized with enthusiasm to take part… It’s a simple enough idea – choose a specific medieval image and recreate the costume (one or more as you wish) portrayed therein. There are few rules and none on authenticity per se, but it seemed to me to chime with the desire to go right back to the sources in reproducing outfits and hopefully thus going some way towards eliminating some of the costume myths that have grown up.

I was wanting anyway to make myself an early thirteenth-century outfit. I have a wonderful twelfth-century outfit, courtesy of Vicky Bayley (Aquerna Fabricae) and have made a similar period bliaut for Paul, which I am really pleased with.

bliaut imagesBliaut dress at Bolsover

Here we are looking all twelfth century. As you can see, there were a couple of images that I used as inspiration for Paul’s bliaut.

However, as we are working on a Magna Carta programme and going to be involved in several commemorative events for the 800th anniversary in 2015 I thought we needed to have good thirteenth-century apparel as well.

Paul at Chester

As usual, Paul is better equipped already… I made him this embroidered cote (left) a few years ago. It’s based on a manuscript image from c.1250 and I think will do well for the first half of the thirteenth century.

As you can see from Paul’s two outfits, there is quite a change from the twelfth into the thirteenth century. In the earlier period there was a great emphasis on tight fitting, with body shape revealed and emphasised with cut and lacing, but this disappears by the start of the thirteenth century. Now the cut is loose, even baggy, with the excess material belted in or simply left loose.

I have to say that I have not found this thirteenth-century look the most flattering cut for the more ample figure… and although I have made myself suitable outfits before I have never really liked them. So I am determined to do better this time and make myself a stunning outfit in the height of early thirteenth-century fashion that – crucially – I actually won’t mind wearing!

I have been gathering images of outfits from the close of the twelfth century and first half of the thirteenth century, which are all available to view on my Pinterest board for the dress project. I was able to discern a fairly typical style which comprised:

  • a loose, very full, and full (or longer) length under dress. This is often but not always in white and may be a  shift. The sleeves are tight and long, being wrinkled back up over the wrists. It’s not possible to see the neckline.
  • an overdress that is quite tight in earlier images but much looser in later ones – I will be going for the loose look as more thirteenth-century. This overdress is not full-length; it varies from just below the knee to just above the ankle and at all times the fuller and longer underdress is visible underneath around the ankles and feet. This overdress has three-quarter-length and baggy sleeves and is usually but not always held in with a belt. Again, belts become more typical into the thirteenth century.
  • a simple rectangular veil usually quite loosely wrapped around the head.
  • a loosely draped mantle

dress

The Madonna Lactans from the Amesbury Psalter

This is the image that I have selected as my core image for the Manuscript Challenge. It is a portrayal of the Virgin nursing the Christ child (the Madonna lactans) and comes from the Amesbury Psalter, dating from around 1250. I was particularly drawn to this image because of the gorgeously decorated blue textile, which I’ve taken to calling ‘starry starry night’. It’s a design that is quite often seen – again, my Pinterest has gathered several examples from the twelfth through to the fourteenth century.

I have been considering how to replicate ‘starry starry night’, and have decided to go with pearls supported by white embroidery. Pearls are often mentioned on garments – for example Chaucer’s “of perles white were alle hise clothes broded”. This will be considerable labour, but I think will add considerably to the grandeur of the outfit.

The conditions of the Manuscript Challenge dictate that I must replicate the design of the dress for a nursing mother. I have already received helpful advice from other seamstresses on the Challenge. Moreover, having examined surviving garments, I have decided to use the gown of St Claire and Empress Matilda’s tunic as my models, both of which allow for side gores going all the way up. This should allow for an open seam above the breast which could either be subsequently sewn up or simply concealed in the bunching of the fabric.

I have now acquired most of my materials and have begun with the underdrunderdressess (left) – just completed, and made from a vintage medium-heavy linen sheet I bought in France a couple of years ago.  This underdress is very long (just over full-length) and nicely full, with a hem circumference of around three yards. I may end up shortening the underdress for practical use!  For the overdress I have a lovely Italian blue wool and this dress will be lined in red linen. I have some lightweight white linen for the veil, left over from a previous project. I have a length of red wool for the mantle, which I will hopefully be able to line with the remainder of the underdress linen. l still need to decide on what to use for trimming the overdress and the veil – I have some silk/wool material I may use. For the belt I have various possible lengths of braid.

I am about to start piecing the various parts of the overdress – I intend to mark out the pieces on the fabric and do the embroidery before the cutting, avoiding embroidering any material that I don’t actually need to use! I shall post images of the overdress in progress as it goes along.

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