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About Houppelande
A Text by L. Allison and Lyn M. Parkinson
Site Note:
This text was graciously given by L. Allison and Lyn M. Parkinson and I send them eternal thanks, for their generosity.

A piece of clothing is never just a piece of clothing.  It is part of an entire outfit, and has a past, a present, and leads to the future.  The houppelande was worn in England, France, Germany, Italy, and other countries.  While local variations of fashions and accessories existed, the basic line seemed to appear almost spontaneously among Europe’s capital cities, each of which deplored the current fashion and blamed some other country for inventing it.

Visual sources, of a secondary documentarial nature, such as contemporary paintings, illuminations, statuary, tapestries, and brass rubbings, as well as written descriptions in letters, sermons, wills, and inventories are references we need to re-create houppelandes and their accessories.  Some accessories, such as shoes, belts, and pouches still exist.  This means looking, looking and more looking, yet without falling prey to believing everything we see.  Some painters had no more idea of tailoring than I have of iron smelting; their versions of contemporary costume would have been impossible to reproduce. 

Some of the costumes depicted were deliberately changed from the contemporary to indicate antiquity, foreign lands or something else the painter was telling his viewer.  Short sleeves, for example, almost always mean Near-Eastern dress, except when they are shown on a woman either at home or in great distress, as Van der Weyden’s Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross, when they indicate the depth of distress by showing that she had not stopped to put on her overgown and attach her false sleeves.  Short sleeves can indicate lack of time, as when ‘Death’ is shown as a woman with short sleeves, or no sleeves—death comes suddenly to most.  Look with care at the illustration you wish to copy.

The cotehardie had been the garment which first put an end to the use of cloth in the rectangular shape that it came from the loom.  Some of the kirtles that preceded it had some shaping in pattern pieces, but did not stray far from the rectangular.  It was also the first garment to be cut along the principle of ‘conspicuous waste’ but was nothing to the amount of both use and waste of the cut of the houppelande.  The great amount of fabric in the houppelande produces some problems for the wearer,  as do the accessories.

The stance must be upright, and slightly backward leaning, in order to balance the elaborate headgear usually worn with houppelandes, and to carry the weight of the  fabric—outer layer, occasional interlining, and lining.  The arms are often held bent at the elbow, to keep the funnel sleeves out of the dirt, and to show off the rich fabrics of the lining and the undersleeves.  The undersleeves may be false, tying into the short sleeve or armsceye of the cotehardie beneath.  Steps are short, steady, regal.  When the shoes with long, pointed toes are worn, the steps begin to be a little mincing.  Care must be taken, if wearing a train, to kick it discretely out of the way when turning, and not to kneel on the skirt at Court so that you can’t get up, or fall over when you try.  Gestures are constrained.  Those big sleeves could knock over all sorts of things if the gestures were large and expansive.  Brocade is not made more handsome by the addition of gravy.  The movements must express elegant stateliness rather than freedom or mobility.  Freedom and frivolity exist in thought and attitude, rather than in action.

Costume historians and art works provide several suggestions for the cut of the houppelande.  Miliia Davenport describes the female houppelande as being a gored skirt attached to a tight-fitting bodice, but if this is true, it occurs towards the end of the period of true houppelandes, as they begin to make the transformation into the ‘gown’ of the middle third of the fourteenth century, taking on the ‘Burgundian’ line.

Mary Houston shows two diagrams, both of which have a shaped waist before the flare of the skirt.  These two are probably more the type of gown of the middle class, either before or after the main period of the true houppelande.  She mentions a houppelande of Richard II, illustrated in the Wilton Diptich, which is cut with the straight diagonal line from armpit to hem.  The shaped waist would give greater ease in mobility.

Herbert Norris describes the cut of the houppelande as being the same as an earlier lady’s dress, again with straight or shaped bodice to the waist, which he shows as having several widths of fabric sewn onto the sides of a center panel to produce the desired width.  This method of sewing decreasing lengths of additional fabric widths to the center panel is shown in the sixteenth century book of the Spanish tailor, de Alcega, so it is period for us and may very well have been the fourteenth and fifteenth century methods.  It has the benefit of keeping the grain and the fabric pattern all on a vertical line while cutting.  Thus, it would not matter to the cut of the houppelande whether the fabric width was the ‘great measure’ of Brussels or a 22" width of hand-woven silk.  The ‘great measure’ of Brussels’ wool was probably in excess of 60" wide, since England’s laws were already attempting to enforce a limit of 60" width for wool.

Willet Cunnington states that the houppelande was cut in four pieces, with a seam front and back, and one at each side.  This would have made an average, wool houppelande about six yards in circumferance at the base, supposing a fabric width of about 60".  I believe, from the pictures of ungirdled versions, the drape and fold of fabric, and the changing heights of the men’s belts, that the general cut would have been a segment of a circle, forming a three dimensional cone when joined.  If the quarter piece resembled a right angle along the hem and seam line, the angled seam would be excessively on the bias.  The true bias stretches, especially when subjected to great weight and you do not want much stretch in a houppelande.

Further, when adding gores to enlarge the skirt, the bias side deam line is thrown higher on the side, until it will form a 90 degree angle with the front and back seams.  Stand up in that, and you have more weight than ever on that side seam, and gravity has produced an angle of pleats that are not duplicated in the paintings of the period.  You also have most of the weight of the garment resting on the outer edge of your shoulder, which is carrying the tremendous weight of your long, funnel sleeve.  And if you wore a bagpipe sleeve, the weight wouldn’t have been reduced by more than a third.

The pie-shaped wedge is the cut, with the neck at the pie point, that duplicates the pleats, and will continue to do so, when both edges of the pie are expanded the same amount by the insertion of gores.  The weight of the garment body is now shifted higher, with the straight grain of the fabric running approximately from the side of your neck to the ground, as though you stood in a tepee, with your head out the smoke hole (which has been tailored to fit your upper body). 

Birbari has a drawing, p. 51, that shows a very wide circle segment; the center point of the straight grain in hers would have the line run from the center front of the neckline to a point on the hem which would be approximately under the arm when the wearer is standing. This would give a true bias line to the garment’s center front.  If you were 5’3", according to her grid, you could cut it out of a 48" width.

Most paintings would appear to show no seams in either male or female houppelandes, but with that tremendous volume of cloth there had to be many joinings.  One male houppelande is quoted by Diana de Marley as being twelve yoards in circumference at the hem.

The more extreme versions were produced by the addition of both gores and gussets, or godets.  You can still make a segment of a circle by using the extended width of cloth formed as Norris and Alcega suggest, but once the garment is on the wearer, the additional widths on the sides fall, making the seam lines appear to be ‘raying’ out from the wearer’s feet, and changing the look of the beautiful brocade patterns from which many houppelandes were made.  Since the cotehardie has been shown to use gores and gussets, that should be the natural way to cut the houppelande, as well.  John the Fearless of Burgundy acquired a houppelande made with 24 gores, which is mentioned by Margaret Scott, in her A Visual History of Costume, the Fourteenth & Fifteenth Centuries, p. 106.

The houppelande appears in French literature in 1357.  Stella Mary Newton’s Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince quotes French royal accounts in 1359, which describe garments made for King Jean while he was a prisoner of the English.  She also says, "Machaut’s poem, Le Confort d’Ami, is addressed to…Charles the Bad of Navarre…written in 1357. …Their men themselves should be dressed alike (in other words, in livery), whereas at the moment one wears blue, another green; …There is one who wears a yellow baldrick…another wears a houppelande, another a pourpoint…But all wear shoes with long points which have come to be called poulaines."  Pp. 70-71.

Jean van Eyck’s painting, Leal Souvenir, 1432, is a painting of a bust of a man in three-quarters’ view, apparently wearing a thick wool houppelande.  This shows a narrow, up-standing collar which does seem to be lined, not just edged, with fur, as it leans outward from the neck. The shoulder seam is visible, as is the opening line of the houppelande, which, though closed, has no visible means of closure.  The pleats begin a little below the throat, are unconstructed, and deepen as they reach the waist;  this can only happen when the garment body is cut as a segment of a circle.  However, no seams of gores are visible, so this would have been a a four piece houppelande, basically, although we can not see the skirt.

Artwork of the period shows a variety of pleat types.  The thickness and frequency of the pleats gives an indication of what the fabric might have been.  There were very thick, full pleats that must have been equivalent to our coat or blanket wool, and some Italian ones that could only be the thinnest of summer silks.  The best wool cloth came from Flanders, and some of the Flemish painters depict solid color gowns that have weight, but pleats that have a crispness rather than soft roundness, which leads me to believe that they are painting a very fine grade of tightly woven wool broadcloth.  A current fabric which might duplicate that is a medium Pendleton wool broadcloth.  The modern wools which contain polyester will not give a sharp, natural crease, and they ravel.  Agnes Geijer says that the best wool cloth, termed broadcloth, had a leather-like solidity which was a prerequisite to cutting the dags of leaf, cross, flame, and other shapes.

Most pleats were unconstructed, falling naturally with the weight of the garment, and held in place by the belt.  Towards the end of the period, as tailoring and style became more precise, the pleats do begin to appear constructed and arranged, in the fullest gowns of the nobility. Stay tapes were used to hold the pleats in a set position and fullness. These tapes are set horizontally inside the coat, and the inside of the pleats are tacked to them.  This can be seen in a painting by Lotto, St. Dominic resuscitating Cardinal Fossanuova’s nephew, Carrara Gallery, Bergamo, plate 91 in Birbari.  The belt was still often used to keep them in place, but the wearer had a more sophisticated and formall look to him than in the earliest years.  Another method of controlling the pleats was to tack them to the lining, or interlining, so that they could not release.  The pleats, whether constructed or unconstructed, were not sewn into the shoulder seam.

L. Allison and Lyn M. Parkinson

If you sew lengths of fabric together, then cut a sort of triangle, allowing for the neck, armsceye, and shoulder shaping at the top of the piece, but drawing straight cutting lines from a to the bottom corners, I believe you will have the four quarters of the houppelande.  It may take more or less than five widths of fabric sewn together to get the circumference you wish to have.  The shorter the wearer, the shallower the angle, so if making a court houppelande for a very tall man, you might well want seven widths of fabric. The apex of the triangle is actually the top shaping

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2005 January 28