Interesting Tidbit…

So I had an interesting conversation with a friend of of mine who happens to be a medieval historian and he revealed an interesting fact that I hadn’t heard before and I thought I’d share it with you. This post has nothing to do with ecclesiastical garments but I had to post this now so I didn’t forget!

All the upper class women in medieval and renaissance paintings have beautiful long gowns with these great trains. Using a great amount of material was not only a way to show off your wealth as it turns out but a way to ascertain the difference in classes. Apparently it was also the way to differentiate upper and lower class women. Apparently upper class women were taught to walk from a very early age with excessively long skirts and were able to carry things, climb stairs and do normal daily activities without ever lifting their skirts. Lower class women wouldn’t be able to function with the longer floor trailing sleeves and skirts because they were used to having free limbs with their shorter skirts and sleeves.  Below is an excerpt from an article posted by Lady Melisande of Hali in regards to an experiment she did to test the theory.

“Ladies did not ever touch their skirts, or so certain experts claimed. They not only crossed halls, they carried objects in both hands and walked up and down stairs without ever lifting their trailing skirts in the least. That’s what the miniatures show, too. That’s how you spotted a peasant in clothes too good for her: she either handled her skirts, or she tripped.

Lady Kathea von der Eiche and I were fascinated by this dictum, so about the fall of 1977 we made some overlong skirts, and tried to see if it were possibly true. It can be done, but at all times you must “behave like a lady”: no rushing, no running, no striding. You move in a placid glide, absolutely erect and not watching your feet, no more than you normally do to check the footing. Standing straight is necessary, especially in a dress which hangs from the shoulders rather than a skirt which hangs from a waistband. If you stoop, the front of your dress drags even more, and you cannot move the skirt in the proper manner with your hips and legs.

Moving slowly keeps you from over-running the front hem. You wear the soft-soled lady’s shoes of the period, through which you can feel much of your footing, so you know when your hem is under your foot before your weight is committed to it. We wore ballet slippers or Scottish dancing shoes, but a ladies’ dress flat, while hard, is thin enough when you know what you’re doing.

At each step, you sweep your foot in a small arc along the floor, in towards your ankle, then outward and forward. This brushes your hem out of your way. Your thigh and hip follow, further pushing the skirts forward so that the hem doesn’t drag back towards you. You then have clear ground on which to take your not-overlong step; you pull your toes back from their farthest extent when you do go to put your foot down. The first few steps are the hardest; once the rhythm takes over, the sway of the heavy skirt back and forth works with you, or you work with it.

When walking up or down stairs, you use the moving knee to flick the skirt up, and put your foot down quickly so as to beat the fabric to the tread. Yet the pace is still slow, because you must wait each time for the skirts to settle. Moving the hips in the wake of the foot gives this locomotion a gentle sway, very attractive in the soft, heavy gowns, in an age when the hips, rather than the bust or legs, were the primary focus of sexual attractiveness in women.

This mode of movement is confirmed by dance practices. The pavanne can be danced with bald, straight-forward steps, as is common in many dance classes. This well suits Renaissance gowns with their farthingales. However, the Medieval pavanne was danced with two levels of undulation: one horizontal, one vertical. The first undulation is an exaggeration of this sweeping step, footed by the man as well as the lady. It was, in fact, our clue to surviving the skirts.

Note that Lady Kathea and I had the advantage of dance training, historical information, and lots of determined practice. It still remained a matter for concentration, like doing a tricky dance with one part of your mind while conversing with another part. A noblegirl would have started having her hands slapped for handling her skirts at a tender age, and by her teens would have moved this way without thinking. It took quite an emergency for her to pick up her skirts and hustle.
So any peasant who was going to pass as a noblewoman would not only have to take a couple of years indoors to lose her ugly tan and restore her skin’s smoothness and translucent pallor, she would have to have someone teach her how to walk in this very artificial way. Also, a noblewoman putting on a coarse gown is not going to look like a peasant as she strolls down the road, swaying slowly with her toes low to the ground. Well-born fugitives had a very difficult time of it, unless they simply avoided inhabited places. As a result, in this period people really didn’t try to pass as other than they were: a nobleman incognito travelled as a nobleman on hard times, not as a commoner.

In artwork, you may notice how the hems of gowns sit on the floor: they do not turn under, but bend to the outside so that you can look inside the rolls of fullness. This is how they naturally lie when either they have trailed you, or been kicked outward by your toes.

Note that this did not continue forever. In the next fashion, a lady always had one hand tied up holding a bunch of overskirt high on the abdomen, showing off the underskirt and giving the full-bellied, “Pregnant Virgin” look. An Italian breviary of 1380 (Boucher, pg. 204 above at left) perfectly shows the start of the transition. Most of the ladies stand in the puddles of their skirts. One alone has drawn up her pink overgown with her wrist (note that her hand is not clenched on the cloth) only to show off the azure undergown, NOT to clear her feet, which are still enshrouded in dragging blue hem. Yet in “Hunting with falcons at the court of Philip the Good” (Boucher, pg 211; this Duke of Burgundy reigned 1419-1467 at right), the lady with the red gloves, directly below the musicians on the left, is strolling blithely towards us with idle hands, a foot of hem on the sward, while the next lady to the right has a handful of hem — but no show of toes! There must have been a long period, a generation or two, when everyone went through the usual fidgets about whether to be elegant and dignified (old-fashioned) or to be dashingly modern and fashion-forward (handle their skirts).”

I realize this is a longish post but I thought that this was absolutely fascinating. I’m still trying to find more proof but I hope you enjoy this entry!

Categories: Medieval, Medieval women, Women | Leave a comment

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