What clothing did French Renaissance Noblewomen wear? As a writer, I ask myself this question each time I need to describe a woman. I focus on noblewomen because courts set the fashion. People of every class copied the one above it as closely as their finances allowed. Styles varied from one country to another and from one year to another during the period. Fashion historians can recognize and identify the changes by details such as skirt shape, collar height, lacing, material, and date them to the decade and country.
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Sometimes the shifts occurred swiftly because of a dramatic event. For example, after the first French expedition into Italy of 1494-95, French fashion adopted Italian styles within a year or two. The choices of important figures also played a critical role, as with Anne of Brittany, whose use of the Breton hood immediately changed women’s headdresses in France.
Fabrics for French Renaissance Clothing
Renaissance sempstresses made undergarments and light dresses almost exclusively of linen. Wool was the most popular fabric for indoor and outdoor clothing, used for items from fine gowns to heavy capes, to shoes and boots, depending on its weight. They wove most of the finer fabrics of the age from silk, including satins, taffetas and velvets.
Fabrics available to noblewomen included silk, satin, velvet, and brocade. Decoration for clothing included furs, feathers and jewels. They used leather for protection as jerkins or doublets, or as soles for boots and shoes, belts and gloves.
Weavers made the luxury fabric cloth of gold from genuine gold, beaten very fine, then rolled around silk thread. They then wove this gold thread into gold fabric. As you can imagine, it was very costly and very heavy/
Categories of Clothing worn by French Renaissance Noblewomen
The shift was the basic undergarment for everyone—man, woman and child and it was almost always made of linen. The variety came in its quality, the fineness of its weave and its finish. Fine lace trimmed the light, soft linen shifts of noblewomen. We do not know whether woman wore either bras or drawers at this time. Some say yes, some say no. There is evidence that sometimes women had their breasts bound, but why and when is not known and may be linked to lower ranks.
Gowns were almost invariably sleeveless and fastened with laces, either front or back.
Undergown—also called petticoat or kirtle—Often red, this sleeveless wool gown had vertical, thin, wood-slat boning sewn into the bodice (or pair of bodies) to give support, refine the waist, flatten the chest and give the bust a conical shape. In the early period (until 1530+/-), sempstresses sewed the bodice to a pleated ankle length underskirt. With Spanish influence (1530–1560+/-), an added a cone-shaped vertugadin, or farthingale, worn under the skirt of the kirtle shaped the overdress.
Front panel—Maids would tie a front panel at the waist if the next layer, the overdress, had a front opening. Made in a roughly triangular panel of rich, highly decorated cloth such as cloth of gold or silver, silk, or brocade, and worn over the front of the vertugadin, its colour usually contrasted with the overdress. The shape of the farthingale changed at the end of the period (1590s+/-) flattening at the top to give the gown a bell-like drape and a narrower ‘wasp’ waist.
Overdress—or outer garment, topped the outfit in luxury. Made of costly material, like silk, brocade, satin, cloth of gold or silver, in special colours or black (the costliest), its gold thread embroidery, jewels, and other rich adornments attested to the wealth and rank of the wearer. Sometimes designers joined bodice and skirt as one piece, or the skirt could be tied to the bodice with cord through eyelets. The skirt became shorter, not quite touching the floor no longer sported a train as the century wore on.
The most important accessories were the sleeves, the collar and the head covering.
Sleeves always came separate from the gown and often in several pieces. During the century, the styles changed from long to short, and loose to tight. By the end of the century, they were so wide and puffed they almost looked like sausages. At the shoulders where the sleeve attached to the dress, maids pinned rolls of fabric over the join to hide it. Sleeves could attach with cord to the shoulder of the dress, or extra hanging pieces lined with fur could fasten just above the elbows to the upper sleeves. Sempstresses could add lace ruffles at the wrists.
Headdresses. While there were dozens of variations, three styles dominated French fashion: the French hood, the gable hood, and the jaunty hat atop the head, perhaps with a flat one under it. Women almost always wore a linen cap or coif under the first two. Early in the period, the Breton, or French, hood was the most common, and the hat gained pride of place late in the century.
Necklines and Collars
Necklines and collars show obvious stylistic changes. Early in the period women wore square cut open dresses revealing their upper chest and lower neck, with a transparent partlet and jeweled chain. Necklines varied significantly over the century from wide and square, rounded down or rounded up and low on the bosom, or with the round neck open at the centre for a few inches.
A partlet was a piece of cloth inserted into the neckline of a dress from the top of the bodice to the top of the neck and from shoulder to shoulder and closed either in front or back. Made from thick or fine cloth; its design could be elaborate and jeweled, or simple and austere.
Collars and Ruffs
Collars on dresses also varied widely. Ruffs and stand-up laces collars did not appear until the discovery of starching for fine linen. Then they grew larger and more elaborate, reaching outlandish dimensions by the end of the century.
Collarettes, standup collars often edged with lace, finished open-fronted dresses. Often, maids sewed on the fine lace only after the woman completed her attire.
Dresses that closed at the back usually added a circular, closed ruffle at the throat called a fraise. These fraises also grew larger as the century progressed,
Shoes changed in style from long and pointed to round-toed and soft-soled made with cloth uppers. They closed with ribbons or string. With them, women wore knitted stockings to or above the knees tied on with garters. Outdoors, women tied wooden chopines under them.
Cloaks and Surcoats—for outdoor wear with hats or hoods and gloves. Cloaks often had hoods and were made of heavy felted wool. They wore surcoats, sleeveless and long (rather like a long vest), over an over gown for added warmth.
Managing the Wardrobe
With all the layers women wore, they needed maids in order to dress. With cloth so expensive and clothing so difficult to make, brushing it was better than washing it to keep it clean. Wealthy people washed themselves and changed their shifts regularly, often daily, and used table napkins and finger bowls when eating to keep hands clean.
Clothing my French Renaissance Noblewomen
To write my fiction, I have studied clothing during the French Renaissance, (both male and female) but I am no expert. One thing I have discovered is that less is more when it comes to describing the clothing. Using the technical terms for each costume part http://www.tudorshoppe.com/Merchant2/renaissance_costume_glossary_2.shtml does not help readers so I don’t do it anymore. If I need them, I look them up.
Study the paintings and manuscripts of the period as your best sources. From the dates of the paintings and their geographic locations, you can discover the styles in fashion in different countries at different times.
Sources of Information
Bibliography of Fashion Resources
The Facebook page devoted to French renaissance costume is worth visiting. It is a private group so if it is your thing you’ll have to join.
The You Tube site of the amazing fashion historian Bernadette Banner https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSHtaUm-FjUps090S7crO4Q
An excellent bibliography much better than anything I could offer, Le Costume historique. If the link doesn’t work, copy the following into your browser [http://lecostume.canalblog.com/archives/bibliographie/index.html].