Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands – new exhibition at The Morgan Library and Museum

Medieval fashion, as seen in the manuscripts and early printed books from the Later Middle Ages, is the subject of a new exhibition at The Morgan Library and Museum entitled Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands. The exhibition, which opened yesterday, includes more than 50 works of Northern European origin from the Morgan’s renowned collections, and also features four full-scale replicas of clothing seen in exhibited manuscripts. It will run through September 4.

Covering nearly 200 years prior to the beginning of the full Renaissance in France about 1515, Illuminating Fashion examines a period in which clothing styles changed more rapidly than had previously been the case, often from one decade to the next. Social custom, cultural influences, and politics—such as the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) and the occupation of Paris by the English (in the 1420s)—had a notable impact on fashion, and medieval illuminators deftly recorded these shifts in taste.


The exhibition also touches upon how artists used clothing (garments actually worn) and costume (fantastic garments not actually worn) to help contemporaneous viewers interpret a work of art. The garments depicted were often encoded clues to the wearer’s identity and character.

“The Morgan is delighted to present this captivating exploration of an important aspect of late medieval culture,” said William M. Griswold, director of The Morgan Library & Museum. “As is the case today, artists of the medieval era understood how people used clothing to communicate their status and role in society. As fashions evolved, illuminators followed suit in manuscripts, providing not only an illustrated record of changes in dress and social customs, but also a symbolic visual commentary on the values and morals of the people they depicted.”


The exhibition is organized in eight sections, the first of which is entitled, “Fashion Revolution, 1330–50.” During the second quarter of the fourteenth century, fashion moved in an important new direction as the largely unstructured garments of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries gave way to tighter, more form-fitting clothing for both men and women. This was primarily due to advances in tailoring and in the use of multiple buttons.

A new man’s garment—the cote hardy— revealed the shape of the torso and arms while tighter bodices and sleeves for women became popular, as did exposed necks and shoulders. The sides of women’s outer garment, the surcot, were given seductively large, peek-aboo openings. Men as well as some women turned the chaperon (a hood with an attached cape and tail) into a fashion accessory that lasted over one hundred years (it appears in the exhibition repeatedly).

For example, the manuscript of the Vows of the Peacock on view (ca. 1345–49) shows the image of Fesonas and Cassiel the Baudrain Playing Chess. The four young men in the miniature are all dressed at the height of the new fashion. They wear the new short garment, the cote hardy, which is buttoned down the front; it is tight at the skirt, bodice, and sleeves. All sport chaperons, two of which are dagged (cut into decorative strips). Some wear delicate shoes, while the youth in blue wears chaussembles: hose with leather soles. The two women at the left wear the open surcot. The woman in blue wears the closed surcot, furnished with a lined slit for access to the kirtle (the garment worn beneath). She also wears tippets: thin decorative bands of clothing falling from the elbow.

The next section, “Wasp Waists and Stuffed Shirts, 1350–90,” reveals how the catastrophes of the bubonic plague, which first struck in 1348, and the defeats of the Hundred Years’ War had a stagnating effect on the development of fashion for much of the second half of the fourteenth century. While the look for women changed little from the previous period, men’s fashions did develop under the influence of military dress. With a short flaring skirt and a cinched waist, the pourpoint (snug-fitting buttoned-down jacket also known as doublet) was padded at the chest and shoulders, giving its wearer a distinctive ‘hour-glass’ silhouette. Long pointed shoes (pouleines) and belts worn low on the hips complimented the look.


In a German Missal (a liturgical service book used by the priest at Mass) created before 1381, three fashionably dressed young people are hawking at the bottom left. The youth wears a red pourpoint with a dagged hem, a particularly tight chaperon, narrow belt, and open shoes. For medieval audiences of the late fourteenth century, the especially fancy clothing of the hawking trio carries connotations of the vanity of secular pursuits, as fashion in the art of this late medieval period was often a metaphor for the wasting of money and energy on the material world.

“Luxury in a Time of Madness, 1390–1420” is a dramatic contrast to the previous section. This thirty-year period is one of the most sumptuous, elegant, and luxurious of all the Middle Ages. Fashion flowered, ironically against the continued backdrop of political instability represented by the madness of the French king, Charles VI, and the incessant Hundred Years’ War. Men’s and women’s fashions were dominated by a new garment, the houpeland. Men’s houpelands featured enormous sleeves and a skirt ranging from full-length to upper thigh. The pourpoint remained popular, but now often finely embroidered and equipped with large sleeves. Women’s houpelands were always full-length, with bombard or straight sleeves. The simpler cote hardy, with its voluminous skirt and tighter upper body, continued to be worn. Women also began to wear their hair in temples, a double-horned coif surmounted by veils or a tubular burlet as seen on Delilah in the French Bible historiale (ca.1415–20). Fitting with the time, Delilah’s houpeland is trailing and high-waisted with bulbous sleeves and an open V-shaped collar. Also on view in this section is an important fifteenth-century treatise on hunting by Gaston Phoebus, the Livre de la chasse. The well-dressed trainer of huntsmen wears a luxurious, blue fur-lined houpeland with gold embroidery and dagged bombard sleeves.

Military occupations are seldom kind to fashion. The occupation of Paris by the English had a depressing influence on fashion for the decade that Duke John of Bedford was regent in France. In the “Terrible Twenties, 1420s” French nobles fled the capital and art commissions dried up. Fashion, likewise, declined, as a simpler approach to dress prevailed. In the Hours of William Porter (ca.1420–25), the leaf depicting the Decapitation of St. Winifred shows the tyrant Caradoc wearing a new garment that evolved from the houpeland: a robe (gown). Short, unwaisted, but belted at the hips, the gown presents an unflatteringly bulbous silhouette. In sharp contrast to the huntsman in Gaston’s treatise, the garment is unembellished with any gold embroidery.


The fifth section of the exhibition, “Peacocks of the Mid- Century, 1430–60,” sees the end of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453. Political stability fostered fashion, and the thirty years of the middle of the fifteenth century were an exuberant period. These decades saw the last of the houpeland. Men more often wore the gown: full- or knee-length, belted at the waist. Women’s gowns featured wide V-necks with contrasting collars and parlets (plackards worn at the midriff). Their headgear atop the temples continued to evolve, growing ever more extravagant. In the Hours of Catherine of Cleves (ca. 1440), the duchess of Guelders is depicted as a personification of piety distributing coins to the poor while dressed in a magnificent orange ermine-lined houpeland. Her long, voluminous sleeves are open, revealing the gold of the kirtle worn beneath. She wears her hair encased in horns to which a veil is attached. From her high-waisted (but unseen) belt hangs a slender knife case and a purse from which she selects coins.

“Late Gothic Vertigo, 1460s and ‘70s” represents the fashion of the Middle Ages for most people today. This is mainly due to the women’s towering conical headgear, the turret, from the top of which flowed long transparent veils. The Romance of Tristan (1468) beautifully illustrates Geneviève wearing a vertiginous coneshaped turret anchored to her head with a frontlet, a band of black velvet. Her gold gown offers the silhouette characteristic for this period: a voluminous skirt; a high, narrow waist; and a wide flaring collar.

“Twilight of the Middle Ages, 1480–1515” examines the period of transition in Northern Europe—the Middle Ages were not yet over and the Renaissance had not yet begun. Both King Charles VIII (died 1498) and Louis XII (died 1515) invaded Italy, and these military campaigns exposed France to Italian art, culture, and fashion. The look for men changed abruptly. Long loose open gowns came into style, and by the 1490s, these gowns became especially voluminous and bulky as illustrated in the Morgan’s copy of the very rare Dance of Death printed in 1486. The knight on the page is wearing an open gown with side lapels. The garment is long and loose and, lacking the pleats of the previous decades, hides rather than highlights the male form. His hat, with its low crown and brim, is also new, as are his shoes. These are the demy pantouffles, rounded-toed slippers with an open back.

The exhibition closes with “Dawn of the Renaissance, 1515 and Beyond.” King François I was famous for his interest in Italian art and culture; he induced Leonardo da Vinci to join the French court. While Italian fashion had begun to influence northern clothing in the early sixteenth century, by the accession of François to the throne in 1515, the true Renaissance began in France, in art as well as in fashion. This is elegantly illustrated in the frontispiece to the king’s own copy of the Romance of the Rose (ca. 1525) in which François, surrounded by courtiers, is depicted accepting the volume from its scribe. He and his court are all dressed in new Italianate style. Doublets, in rich fabrics, are slashed on the chest and arms. The calf-length gowns have wide collars but short puffy sleeves. Shoes are square-toed. Indicative of his lower status, the scribe’s gown, with its hanging slit sleeves, is a tad out of date.


To enhance appreciation for the fashions of the era, four full-scale replicas of late medieval ensembles are presented, using period hand-sewing techniques and authentic materials—including silk velvet, gold brocade, linen, straw, and ermine. One is of the youth in the blue cote hardy from the Vows of the Peacock, indicative of the “Fashion Revolution.” Another is the luxuriously embroidered houpeland of the aristocratic huntsman from the Livre de la chass. The voluminous gown and towering turret worn by Geneviève in the Romance of Tristan is brought to life in three-dimensional reality. Also featured is the houpeland of Catherine of Cleves, a replica on loan from Museum Het Valkhof in the city of Nijmegen, the Netherlands; the garment recreates the elaborate ensemble she wears while giving alms.

Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands is accompanied by a publication of the same title. The 464-page volume includes 300 color illustrations and contains in-depth discussion of dress in late medieval art, encompassing examples not only from illuminated manuscripts from collections around the world, but also from panel paintings, woodcuts, sculpture, and tapestries. The book is the culmination of a thirty-year study by Dr. Anne H. van Buren (1927–2008), a specialist of Northern European art of the period, assisted by Roger S. Wieck.

The Morgan Library and Museum began as the private library of financier Pierpont Morgan, one of the preeminent collectors and cultural benefactors in the United States. Today, more than a century after its founding in 1906, the Morgan serves as a museum, independent research library, musical venue, architectural landmark, and historic site. In October 2010, the Morgan completed the first-ever restoration of its original McKim building, Pierpont Morgan’s private library, and the core of the institution. In tandem with the 2006 expansion project by architect Renzo Piano, the Morgan now provides visitors unprecedented access to its world-renowned collections of drawings, literary and historical manuscripts, musical scores, medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, printed books, and ancient Near Eastern seals and tablets.

For more details about this exhibition, please visit The Morgan Library and Museum website

See these videos about The Morgan Library and Museum

See also this video about a similar exhibition currently taking place in Paris, France

Source: The Morgan Library and Museum

See also our Feature on Medieval Dress