The Writer’s Guide to 15th Century Fashion

Just like the 12th century, the 15th century contains many fashion elements that will be familiar to readers and viewers of fantasy and fairy tale adaptations. Fashion was changing during this century and varied in significant ways from the styles of the centuries that proceeded it. It also saw the introduction of several iconic styles of headwear that are still used in fantasy today.

15th Century Fashion

The idea of “fashion” really started coalescing during this century and as fashion trends came and went for the first time wearing “out of date” clothing became a real problem. [1] Europe was also becoming more prosperous, leading to more and more complex clothing styles and expensive fabrics. This prosperity also meant that lower-class people had more money to spend on their clothing and could follow the fashion trends. The variations of clothing between nations became more pronounced, making it possible by the end of the century to look at a person’s style of dress and determine whether they were from England or Italy or Germany.

With England and France too busy with the Hundred Year’s War to focus on fashion, the Duchy of Burgundy became the style world’s beating heart. Its fashion-conscious ruler, Phillip the Good, had access to the finest and most fashionable fabrics from both East and West, from English wool to Italian silks to furs. Wool could be dyed in a rainbow of sumptuous colors and Mediterranean silk-weavers could produce richly detailed designs and opulent silk velvets.

One fashion trend that took hold was slashing. The outer garment was cut, often in a decorative pattern, to reveal the undergarment or lining. It allowed for incredibly colorful outfits. The Germany Landsknechts took the trend to often outrageous extremes.

The houppelande was a popular style that had variations for both men and women. It was a voluminous outer garment, usually floor-length, with large hanging sleeves. The edges were often dagged or cut in a decorative pattern. Appearing in the 1360’s, it stayed popular for over a century. [2]

A 15th century painting depicting both men and women wearing houppelandes. Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-1416). Photo source.

Men’s Fashion

Men were still wearing the linen shirts and tailored hose from the previous centuries although the shirts had become shorter with changing fashions. The most popular outer garment worn during this time period was the cotehardie, a fitted coat-like garment that buttoned up the front. It usually had long sleeves and a “skirt” that extended to the knees. Over time, the cotehardie evolved into the doublet, with the skirt length shortening until it disappeared altogether. The doublet’s sleeves were often full. If another layer was worn, it was the houppelande.

Various hats were popular based on location and social status. The chaperon remained stylish from the 12th century and there were multiple styles ranging from tall to low crowned and wide brimmed to brimless. [3]

Several 15th century men’s styles of clothing and headwear. A detail of front piece to L’Instruction d’un jeune prince, by Guillebert de Lannoy, c. 1468-70. Photo source.

Women’s Fashion

The most common woman’s garment was the kirtle, a snug-fitted ankle-length garment that was worn by all social classes over a long-sleeved linen chemise. The sleeves could be short or long and were sometimes detachable. This style was also sometimes called a cotehardie but the fashion began to fade in favor of the houppelande, which was popular to the middle of the century. [3] The Burgundian gown was also a popular style of dress with a V-shaped neckline that displayed the kirtle worn beneath, long sleeves, and a full skirt.

Italy developed its own styles such as the sleeveless overdress known as the cioppa, a lightweight underdress called a cotta and a sideless overdress known as a giornea. [4] The Spanish developed the verdugada, a gown with a bell-shaped hoop skirt stiffened by reed. This was the beginning of the Spanish farthingale, which would have a big impact on fashion going into the Renaissance.

Women’s hats during this time period were crazy. They include the fairy-tale famous hennin, a cone that extended from the back of the head often ending in or was covered by a veil. There were several versions of the hennin, some with two shorter horns. [5] This style is worn by Madame Vivienne in Dragon Age: Inquisition although she has disposed of the veil. Other styles used various padded or wired shapes covered by veils. In warmer countries, such as Italy, it was acceptable for even married women to wear their hair only covered by a sheer veil or cap. {6}

A woman wearing a fur-trimmed Burgundian gown with a black kirtle underneath. She is wearing a short hennin and veil. Detail from Petrus Christus , created from 1450 until 1460. Photo source.
Giovanna Tornabuoni in the Italian fashion of the 1480’s. She is wearing a giornea over a kirtle. Photo source.

Footwear

Footwear consisted of laced ankle boots but later into the century, poulaines became popular. They sported long toes that could reach ridiculous lengths. To protect their shoes from dirt and mud, middle- and upper-class ladies would wear pattens, which are similar to wooden platform sandals.


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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [1] Wilson, Elizabeth (1985). Adorned in Dreams. New York, NY: I.B. Tauris. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1400%E2%80%931500_in_European_fashion#cite_ref-2
 [2] Laver, Concise History of Costume and Fashion. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Houppelande#cite_ref-1
 [3] Laver, Concise History of Costume and Fashion. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1400%E2%80%931500_in_European_fashion#cite_ref-Laver_33-1
 [4] Payne, Blanche: History of Costume from the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century, Harper & Row, 1965. 
 [5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hennin
 [6] Payne, Blanche: History of Costume from the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century, Harper & Row, 1965. 

7 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 15th Century Fashion”

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