European fashion history 1400–1500

Fashion in 15th-century Europe was characterized by a series of extremes and extravagances, from the voluminous gowns called houppelandes with their sweeping floor-length sleeves to the revealing doublets and hose of Renaissance Italy. Hats, hoods, and other headdresses assumed increasing importance, and were swagged, draped, jewelled, and feathered.

As Europe continued to grow more prosperous, the urban middle classes, skilled workers, began to wear more complex clothes that followed, at a distance, the fashions set by the elites. It is in this time period that we begin to see fashion take on a temporal aspect. People could now be dated by their clothes, and being in “out of date” clothing became a new social concern. National variations in clothing seem on the whole to have increased over the 15th century.

General trends
Dominance of the Burgundian court
With England and France mired in the Hundred Years War and its aftermath and then the English Wars of the Roses through most of the 15th century, European fashion north of the Alps was dominated by the glittering court of the Duchy of Burgundy, especially under the fashion-conscious power-broker Philip the Good (ruled 1419–1469). Having added Holland and Flanders to their dominion, the Dukes of Burgundy had access to the latest fabrics of Italy and the East and to English wool exports through the great trading cities of Bruges and Antwerp. Purchases of fabrics through Italian merchants like the two cousins Giovanni Arnolfini amounted to a noticeable proportion of all government expenditure. Especially in Florence, where sumptuary laws prevented the citizens from wearing the most luxurious cloths on which the city’s fortunes were built, the materials of men’s clothing in particular often appear plain in paintings, but contemporaries who understood the difference in grades of cloth very well would have appreciated the beauty and great expense of a very fine grade.

Fabrics and furs 1400-1500
Wool was the most popular fabric for all classes by far, followed by linen and hemp. Wool fabrics were available in a wide range of qualities, from rough undyed cloth to fine, dense broadcloth with a velvety nap. High-value broadcloth was a backbone of the English economy and was exported throughout Europe. Wool fabrics were dyed in rich colours, notably reds, greens, golds, and blues, although the actual blue colour achievable with dyeing with woad (and less frequently indigo) could not match the characteristic rich lapis lazuli pigment blues depicted in contemporary illuminated manuscripts such as the Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry.

Silk-weaving was well established around the Mediterranean by the beginning of the 15th century, and figured silks, often silk velvets with silver-gilt wefts, are increasingly seen in Italian dress and in the dress of the wealthy throughout Europe. Stately floral designs featuring a pomegranate or artichoke motif had reached Europe from China in the 14th century and became a dominant design in the Ottoman silk-producing cities of Istanbul and Bursa, and spread to silk weavers in Florence, Genoa, Venice, Valencia and Seville in this period.

Fur was worn, mostly as a lining layer, by those who could afford it. The grey and white squirrel furs of the Middle Ages, vair and miniver, went out of style except at court, first for men and then for women; the new fashionable furs were dark brown sable and marten. Toward the end of the 15th century, wild animal furs such as lynx became popular. Ermine remained the prerogative and hallmark of royalty.

Slashing is a decorative technique that involved making small cuts on the outer fabric of a garment in order to reveal the sometimes brightly colored inner garment or lining. It was performed on all varieties of clothing both men’s and women’s. Contemporary chroniclers identify the source of the fashion for slashing garments to the actions of Swiss soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Grandson in 1476. Supposedly the Swiss plundered the rich fabrics of the Burgundian nobles and used the scraps to patch their tattered clothes. In reality, images appear of sleeves with a single slashed opening as early as mid-15th century, although the German fashion for “many small all-over slits” may have begun here. Whatever its origin, the fad for multiple slashings spread to German Landsknechts and thence to France, Italy, and England, where it was to remain a potent current in fashionable attire into the mid-17th century.

A second result of the defeat at Grandson was the decline of Burgundy as a fount of culture and fashion. The heiress Mary of Burgundy married Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor but died young. In the last decade of the 15th century, Charles VIII of France invaded Italy and was briefly declared King of Naples. As a result, the French nobility were introduced to the fabrics and styles of Italy, which would combine with German influence to become mainstream fashion of the nobility in France (and later spread to England) in the first half of the 16th century.

Women’s fashion

Gown, kirtle, and chemise
Women’s fashions of the 15th century consisted of a long gown, usually with sleeves, worn over a kirtle or undergown, with a linen chemise or smock worn next to the skin. The sleeves were made detachable and were heavily ornamented. The long-waisted silhouette of the previous period was replaced by a high-waisted style with fullness over the belly, often confined by a belt. The wide, shallow scooped neckline was replaced by a V-neck, often cut low enough to reveal the decorated front of the kirtle beneath.
Hairstyles and headdresses
A variety of hats and headdresses were worn in Europe in the 15th century. The crespine of Northern Europe, originally a thick hairnet or snood, had evolved into a mesh of jeweler’s work that confined the hair on the sides of the head by the end of the 14th century. Gradually the fullness at the sides of head was pulled up to the temples and became pointed, like horns (à corné). By mid-15th century, the hair was pulled back from the forehead, and the crespine, now usually called a caul, sat on the back of the head. Very fashionable women shaved their foreheads and eyebrows. Any of these styles could be topped by a padded roll, sometimes arranged in a heart-shape, or a veil, or both. Veils were supported by wire frames that exaggerated the shape and were variously draped from the back of the headdress or covered the forehead.

Women also wore the chaperon, a draped hat based on the hood and liripipe, and a variety of related draped and wrapped turbans.

Women’s footwear
Women from the 14th century wore laced ankle-boots, which were often lined with fur. Later in the 15th century, women also wore “poulaines”. They used pattens to protect their tight shoes.

Style gallery

1 – 1410–11

2 – c. 1455

3 – 1480

4 – 1423

5 – 1470

1.Image of Christine de Pisan in a cotehardie. She wears a wired “horned” headdress with a veil. France, 1410–11.
2.This Portrait of a Lady by Rogier van der Weyden shows the hair pulled smoothly back from her face and confined in a caul or early hennin beneath a sheer veil. The gown has a wide V-neckline that shows the dark kirtle beneath and is worn with a wide red belt and a sheer partlet at the neck, Netherlands.
3.Mary Magdalene is portrayed in contemporary dress of 1480. The low front opening now laces over the kirtle or an inserted panel or plackard, and the gown is draped up to reveal the richer fabric of the kirtle skirt.
4.Italian headdresses. The woman on the left wears a veil twisted into a turban. The woman on the right has her hair held in a long, thick braid encased in sheer fabric and twisted around her head. Her simple gown laces up the front with a single lace, 1423.
5.Florentine woman wears sleeves of figured silk with the fashionable pomegranate motif, 1470.

Men’s fashion
Shirt, doublet, and hose
The basic costume of men in this period consisted of a shirt, doublet, and hose, with some sort of overgown (robe worn over clothing).

Overgowns and outerwear
The Houppelande, in Italy called the cioppa, is the characteristic overgarment of the wealthy in the first half of the 15th century. It was essentially a robe with fullness falling from the shoulders in organ pleats and very full sleeves often reaching to the floor with, at the start of the 16th century, a high collar. The houppelande could be lined in fur, and the hem and sleeves might be dagged or cut into scallops. It was initially often worn belted, but later mostly hanging straight. The length of the garment shortened from around the ankle to above the knee over this period. The floor-length sleeves were later wrist-length but very full, forming a bag or sack sleeve, or were worn off the arm, hanging ornamentally behind.

Early in the 15th century, the hood remained a common component of dress for all classes, although it was frequently worn around the neck as a cowl or twisted into the fantastical shapes of the chaperon. Hats of various styles—tall-crowned with small brims or no brims at all, hats with brims turned up on one side for variations of the coif, or low-crowned with wider brims pulled to a point in front—began to compete with the draped chaperon, especially in Italy. A brimless scarlet cap became nearly universal for young Florentines in particular, and was widely worn by older men and those in other cities.

Style gallery

1 – 1405–10

1 – 1460s


4 – 1468–70

5 – c. 1470

1.The lord on the left wears a long figured houppelande with full sleeves lined in fur, while the men of his household wear short solid-coloured overgowns with parti-coloured or matching hose. Several of the men wear hoods around their necks, and some wear hats. France, Livre de Chasse, 1405–10.
2.Back view of the conjoined hose of the 15th century. The man on the right has slashed undersleeves. Note V-shaped back neckline, 1460s.
3.Late in the 15th century, a new style of loose overgown with revers and collar appeared. Italy, 1495
4.A prince (right) wears a long floral patterned overgown, while his attendants wear very short doublets with hose. All wear long pointed shoes, France, 1468–70.
5.Parti-coloured hose are worn with a sideless overgown belted at the waist. Italy, c. 1470.

Children’s fashion

1 – 1401

2 – 1447–48

3 – 1461

4 – 1474

5 – 1476–78

1.Charles, 6th Dauphin, drawn after his tomb effigy. He is wearing a herigaut with tucked sleeves.
2.Charles, son of Philip III of Burgundy, wears a gold floral figured short overgown, black hose, and pointed shoes with pattens underneath, and a “pudding-basin” haircut 1447–48.
3.Young boy holding a teething ring wears a short overgown with a sash and open-toed shoes, Italy, 1461.
4.Two Gonzaga princes wear the family colours with parti-coloured hose with ornamental points (laces).
5.Margherita Portinari a banker’s daughter of Bruges wears a green dress laced up the front with a single lace over a dark kirtle. Her hair is worn loose under a black cap with a pendant jewel, Netherlands, 1476–78.

Working class clothing

1 – 1405–10

2 – 1410

3 – 1410

4 – 1410

5 – 1437

1.Older huntsmen wear looser overgowns belted at the waist while younger men wear fashionable short gowns fitted through the body and belted at the hip. The higher-ranking figures wear less practical clothes and chaperons, Livre de Chasse.
2.Peasant reaping in linen braies and shirt, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, c 1412–1416.
3.Man and woman shearing sheep. She wears a black hood with a long liripipe and a scrip or bag at her waist. He wears a floppy black hat tied under the chin, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry.
4.Women raking hay work barefoot and wear their kirtles looped up over long-sleeved linen smocks, Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry.
5.Workmen on a dock wear short overgowns with hats, Italy, Angelico, 1437.

Source from Wikipedia