The Medieval Review 10.03.06

Scott, Margaret. Medieval Dress and Fashion. London: British Library, 2009. Pp. 208. . $29 978-0-7123-5067-9.

Reviewed by:

Gale R. Owen-Crocker
University of Manchester

This must qualify as one of the most attractive-looking publications on the medieval conference bookstalls, its deep blue and gold reflecting the robe and cloth of honour of King Louis of Orlans in the cover picture. Inside, the book is equally sumptuous, with alternate openings devoted entirely to colour plates and their extensive captions, and even the text pages embellished with occasional black and white images. The illustrations are almost all of manuscript paintings or drawings, the exceptions being a pair of carved book covers and four extant garments: a French doublet associated with the Blessed Charles of Blois, c. 1364 (?); the mantle of King Roger II of Sicily, 1133/4; the sleeveless, fur lined tunic (pellote) of the Infante Don Fernando of Spain (died 1275); and a late fourteenth-century shoe with an exaggerated pointed toe, from London. Surprisingly, given its emphasis on the visual, the book contains no list of illustrations.

The captions to the plates all contain additional detail which is sometimes digressive but certainly informative. For example plate 75, an early fifteenth-century illustration of the drapers' market in Bologna, Italy, is accompanied by a description of the garments being made and sold, and the added information: "In 1408 the French royal tailors had a week in which to make four matching hoods and houppelandes, and embroider them round the armholes with peacock feathers and on the bodices with broom sprigs." Plate 15, which opens Chapter II, "The Start of Fashion," shows a knight and squire in long-toed shoes. Its caption includes the information: "Ordericus Vitalis attributed the invention of such shoes to Fulk, Count of Anjou, who wanted to hide his bunions. He said they became fashionable because they appealed to people's sense of novelty." The captions, however, though they give entertaining "bites" of information, do not provide a shortcut to the analysis of dress and textile in each image, since they do not repeat the material in the text. It is there that garments, parts of garments, tailoring, colour, and hairstyles are observed, contrasted and discussed in detail.

The book is essentially about dress as evidenced by manuscript art, and so it starts, not at the earliest centuries of the Middle Ages, but at the point where illumination begins to be effective evidence of dress, though the author is (not unreasonably) frustrated by the limitations of the Anglo-Saxon material: "Anglo-Saxon artists also produced manuscripts of some merit, but the artists' style, depending more on drawing than on painting, offered less scope [than German] for colour and interesting details of dress and textiles" (12); and "After the opulent dress found in German manuscripts, the dress shown in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts seems much less interesting, since the rulers are depicted in much simpler and probably more everyday dress" (24). The study extends into the Renaissance period with drawings and paintings by named sixteenth- century artists, ending with the arrival of printing, woodcut illustrations and the costume books of Fran├žois Deserps (1562) and Cesare Vecellio (1590).

The arrangement of the volume is both thematic and broadly chronological; and it is as much about the development of source material as about dress itself. The chapters are: Dressing the Great and the Good, c. 840-c. 1100; The Start of Fashion, c.1100-c. 1300; Fashion and Formality, c. 1300-c. 1400; Dressing Everybody, c. 1400-c. 1500; and Dressing the Present and Past, c.1500-c.1557. Thus the illuminations presented in the first chapter are largely royal "portraits" with some biblical and moral material. The author does not enter much into the great scholarly debate about dating of the beginning of fashion, "a constant series of changes in clothing that has nothing to do with anything more than a desire for novelty" (35), but personally rejects the candidacy of the fourteenth century in favour of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, characterised here as an era of innovation in techniques, cloth, clothing and marketing. The material here is illustrated with images from the wider variety of illuminated manuscripts being produced in this period, including psalters, calendars, law codes, biblical, apocryphal, and moral works, both illuminated initials and larger illustrations. Scott sees the fourteenth century as characterised by developments in clothing construction, by regional dress and by a separation between what was fashionable and what was formal, including the establishment of uniform dress for the servants of a household, the adoption of a traditional costume for academics and doctors of law and medicine, and the preservation of certain dress styles as emblems of status when they had ceased to be fashionable. Books of Hours and treatises on grammar and medicine are now added to the illustrative material. The fifteenth century is discussed as the manifestation of an explosion of evidence about dress and textiles, a period of innovation in terms of the production of secular manuscripts and documentary evidence including wardrobe accounts, a time in which the dress of social classes other than the ruling class is documented, and when an awareness of historical and geographical distinctions in clothing is manifested. The illustrations here include the works of Boccaccio, Christine de Pizan, Petrarch, and Strabo. The sixteenth century, which was to see the demise of the illuminated manuscript and the rise of the printed book, is seen through the eyes of the Flemish illuminators of Books of Hours, which included calendars with scenes of rustic life, and French manuscripts documenting actual events. The evidence widens to include illuminations for occasions such as international alliances and prestigious royal marriages, and events associated with royal deaths and births, as well as attempts to depict historical and regional costume

Within these chapters the material ranges in time and place, sometimes, it has to be said, in a rather staccato and inconsequential manner, jumping, for instance, from social and technological innovation, to annual fairs in Champagne, to Luccese silk, to Flemish woollens, to the British wool trade (35-6). The Hundred Years' War, the Byzantine Empire, The Dukes of Burgundy, the Kings of Naples, pass before the readers' eye with bewildering rapidity; but this is not a history book and there is plenty of supporting material in the bibliography for the reader who wants to contextualise the material more.

This purports to be a book about dress evidence from manuscript art but it is much more than that. Margaret Scott constantly refers to textual material, weaving it in and out of the descriptions of dress illustrated in a way that is unique to this author. Consider, for example, her critique of the depictions in the Bedford Hours of John, Duke of Bedford, regent of the English king in France (not illustrated), and his wife Anne, sister of the Duke of Burgundy (plate 82). Noting that husband and wife are depicted in houppelandes of the same fabric indicating equality of status, the author diverts to the fact that Anne and her sister also dressed "alike," adding details of their outfits of 1421: "green woollen houppelandes decorated with 300 small silver buckles and lined with a total of 4000 miniver skins" (thus subliminally alerting the reader to Anne's fur in the Bedford Hours illumination) before returning to the miniature to comment on Anne's "vast horned and jewelled bourrelet" and veering off again to say that Franciscan preachers had an opinion on these headdresses and that children were encouraged to mock them in the streets, but that Anne was not criticised because of her high rank; and that she was extremely charitable and in fact died as a result of an illness contracted through her charitable work (133). Thus, if the author is digressive, it is an extremely entertaining and informative kind of digressiveness. We learn fascinating details of social history: the rise of accountancy, an early instance of marking laundry with owners' names; women's difficulty in hearing and talking when wearing the thirteenth- century veil and chin band; the use of costume dolls. Like a refrain comes the author's constant awareness of the difficulty of cutting successful armholes and her impatience with the impracticality of fashionable shoes.

The style is readable and often humorous: the author frequently breaks off to give an opinion, which amusingly undercuts the scholarly material in the text. For example, having discussed eleventh- and twelfth-century criticisms of men with long, combed hair and long, tight clothing, she explains "The attacks on the new clothing styles for men equated them with effeminacy, but not as a manifestation of homosexuality--indeed, they were a means of making men more attractive to women." Then she adds tartly: "Perhaps women had had enough of uncouth he-men who thought washing and cleanliness were disgusting, and preferred men with a modicum of refinement..." (41); and having described a twelfth-century, silk- clad Christian bride who impressed a Moslem traveller with her "tiny footsteps and cloud-like way of drifting," Scott brings us back to earth with the comment that "perhaps she was walking in the only way possible without tripping over her trailing clothes" (48- 9). She sharply observes that angels disguised as travellers (in London, British Library MS Additional 28162, fol. 9v) "cannot have travelled the one in blue is wearing rather fashionable and impractical shoes with long toes" (77).

In keeping with the popular style of the writing, there are no footnotes or endnotes. However, all the illustrations are documented in detail, and there is an extensive bibliography of general reading and of specific items for each chapter, organized, in each case, into Background; Manuscripts and other Visual Material; Documentary Sources; Secondary Sources--Dress; and Secondary Sources--Textiles.

The naming of garments is a contentious issue. This book names some of them: the author is free with houppelande and houce, chary of barbe and tippet, preferring "chin band" and "sleeve tail" or cornette. There is a glossary at the back of the book which identifies language, date, and gender of wearer, as well as giving a brief description of the item.

This is very much an international survey and the entwining of the evidence makes it difficult to extract a chronological development of the dress of any one country, particularly England. That, however, is the result of the nature of the evidence: many of the manuscripts illustrated and discussed are in the London, British Library collection--but mostly they are not English manuscripts, even when they were made for English patrons.