Estreitement bende: Marie de France’s Guigemar and the erotics of tight dress

 Women 12th centuryEstreitement bende: Marie de France’s Guigemar and the erotics of tight dress

Nicole D. Smith

Medium Ævum: Vol. 77 Issue 1 (2008)


Clothes need to be more disciplinary. (1) (Pearl, corset designer and tight-lacing enthusiast) The twelfth century witnessed perhaps the most startling change in the history of women’s dress: garments that were once expansive and flowing came to be tightly fitted across the body with belts, knots, and laces. Short hemlines–characteristic of Anglo-Saxon tunics, dresses, and jackets–lengthened, while fitted sleeves and bodices ‘revealed and distorted the body by an exaggerated emphasis on length and slenderness’ in the early 1100s. (2) Belts and laces tightened loose fabrics closely around the upper body, and dressmakers achieved a fuller skirt by first cutting vertically from the lower hem to halfway below the waist and then placing a triangular ‘gore’ into each of the slits. (3)

The resulting silhouette featured a marked contrast between a fitted bodice and a full skirt, the train of which was often knotted, presumably to avoid dragging costly fabric on the ground. Courtly women in England and France quickly donned the long tunic, known as the bliaut, as their garment of choice, and the dress soon became emblematic of a fashion-savvy noblewoman in the art and literature of the high Middle Ages. (4) According to several fashion historians, this moment in the high Middle Ages marks ‘the early, modest beginnings of tight-lacing for women’. (5)


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