V-necked Thoughts

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about 15th century dress. You see, the Wars of the Roses era (1455-1485) was my first period of historical interest and I’ve been obsessed with the construction of clothing from that era since the early 1990s. Before I studied Irish clothing and examined the Shinrone Gown, Moy Gown, Dungiven and Kilcommon Outfits, I was interested in the clothing of the mid-15th century.

The problem, of course, is the paucity of extant garments for this period. The other problem is the almost complete lack of English pictures of dress in this time period. But since we know England was following the styles of Burgundy, that’s not as big a problem. But we must be ever conscious of the fact that we aren’t looking at pictures of English people. But I digress…

Today I woke up thinking about all the ways in which I have seen the so-called “Burgundian” V-neck gown constructed by amateur and professional costumers, and how I’ve never seen anything that really looked like the period portaits. I’ve seen gowns with waist seams, gowns with plackets, but never gowns that use known period construction techniques to replicate the look seen in period portraiture.

During this reverie, my mind went back to a lecture I attended a few years ago. Robin Netherton was speaking at a local college about her Gothic Fitted Dress technique. And at the end of her day of lecturing, she touched briefly on the subject of the V-necked gown. It was pretty obvious from the way she presented the tecnique that she is convinced of its validity, but even back then when I knew so much less than I know today about period construction, I doubted it.

You see, her idea is that the “V” of the late (1470s-ish) V-neck (the one that doesn’t quite come off the shoulders but no longer descends below the belt) is actually cut more narrowly and deeply, and then pulled into the position we see in the portraits. This use of the bias (diagonal grain) makes the neckline stretch to reach the shoulder and yet adhere closely to the chest, just like we see in the portraits.

(Apologies to Robin Netherton if I’ve in any way mistated that idea. If I am at all mistaken, she is welcome to correct me and I will amend this blog.)

And indeed this technique does achieve the look in the portraits. Furthermore, it uses known period construction methods to do it. I would be going around the internet and touting its brilliance if it weren’t for one thing: V-necked gowns were lined with fur. Fur doesn’t have a bias.

If you look at the portaits, manuscript illuminations and other pictures of the V-necked gown from the third quarter of the 15th century, you would find it difficult to identify a gown that you were certain was not lined with fur. Even in the smallest depictions of the V-necked gown in manuscript illuminations, a dot of white (or black or brown) paint at the wrists, neckline and hem indicate this fur lining.

Of course one can never say ALL V-necked gowns were lined with fur. But the pictorial record definitely shows this to be the norm. And given that the 1470s were during the so-called “Mini Ice Age” (more specifically, the Spörer Minimum), a period of low sunspot activity that lead to low temperatures worldwide, the idea that all overgowns were lined with fur should not be shocking. Ever wonder why you don’t see cloaks or other definable outer clothing in 15th century pictures even when people are standing in the snow? It isn’t that they didn’t wear outside clothing; it’s that they wore it all the time, indoors as well.

Undoubtedly Robin has done a lot of experimentation, but I just don’t believe the proposed technique is how tailors in the 1470s made this dress. I do, however, think that if it works for modern costumers, they should feel free to employ it in their constructions. But as you know, I’m seeking the way they did it and this technique doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because of the fur lining.

Stay tuned…


© 2008 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.