So, at the two extremes of skirt patterning, we have the rectangular skirt pattern which puts just as much fabric at the waist as at the hem, and we have the circle skirt with its huge hem and wasteful cut. This is where the hybrid, the conic segment skirt pattern, comes in. It’s nothing new. You’ve probably heard it called by its more familiar name: the gored skirt.
Gores themselves show up way back in time. Jean Fouquet’s Madonna, painted c.1450 using Agnès Sorel as a model, very clearly shows a shaping seam over the left breast that continues down past the waist into where the skirt increases in fullness, quite similar to a modern princess seam. (Sorel was the official mistress of King Charles VII of France. She was quite the fashion figure of her time, although a rather ironic choice for the subject of the painting.) Many of the gowns and some tunics from the Herjolfsnes colony in Greenland, abandoned in the late 1300s or very early 1400s, show gored skirt panels and/or triangular insets for shaping. (Particularly items 37, 38, 39, 41, 42, 43, 45, and 63. Much gratitude to Marc Carlson’s page on the topic.) Likewise, the Moy Gown (age a matter of some discussion) uses triangular insets at the sides and the center front/back of the skirts to achieve a gore-like effect.
In all of these cases, the main of the garment is constructed in panes that begin at the shoulder and continue, uninterrupted, to the hem. Additional panels may be set in at or slightly below waist level, but there’s no waist seam. And then, out of the blue, something magical appears:
You’ve probably seen this image before. It’s the one everyone uses when they talk about the first appearance of the spanish farthingale, or vertugado, in the later fifteenth century. There’s more on that in another post, and this time, it’s not really what we’re interested in. We’re interested in the join between the bodice and the skirts. Instead of the smooth line of shoulder-to-hem gores seen previously, we have the abrupt transition between a tightly fitted body and a large, artificially supported skirt. This is particularly visible on lady in waiting in the red dress, where the artist appears to have added fine black outlines to differentiate her from the other lady in waiting in a red dress directly behind her. One of these black lines encircles her waist.
This is where I totally geek out, because the presence of a waist indicates a totally different approach to shaping clothing to fit the human body. See, European fashion went through round abouts a thousand years of shapelessness (ie, the Dark Ages, when the body was a tool of the devil, and having one was something of a spiritual conundrum). Somewhere in the twelve or thirteen hundreds, the notion of wanting to look like something other than a sack of potatoes, or the more risque belted sack of potatoes, started to catch on. When you look at the pieces of the Herjolfsnes gowns or the shaping seams on Fouquet’s Madonna, you see that yes, indeed, the garments have been shaped to the body beneath them. If you take a good, close look at the piecing on the Herjolfsnes gowns, there’s a lot of detail in the shaping. The pieces are incredibly subtle, with areas of slight curve in the seams near the hips and through the torso. That could be dismissed as some sort of lack of skill on the part of the cutter or seamstress, but to me, the shapes look very much like what I’d expect from a pattern that was draped on a form. I suspect that, through the torso, these garments were fitted to individual wearers. The T-tunic of the dark ages became the fitted gowns of the high medieval era via an approach that boils down to the classic “then remove everything that’s not an elephant” school of sculpture – it’s more of a method than a pattern. Draped patterns are like that – they work closely with the form, rather than trying to quantify or idealize it.
But that all changes in the blink of an historical eye. The shapes we see on the ladies in Benvarre’s Banquet are very different to what’s come before. They’re geometric. They’re conic in the skirt and torso. Tailors have taken the older shapes of high fashion, like the incredibly fitted panels of Fouquet’s Madonna, and thought about new ways to make the same sort of fit with fewer seams. They started imagining ways to idealize the human form with cloth and osiers and lacings. Suddenly patterns don’t depend on the body; the body depends on the patterns. And that is the very incredible point in the history of European clothing where pattern-making really becomes an art in its own right.
Why the change in cut? Well, the official answer runs something along the lines of “changes in the popular fashion”. I don’t believe fashion just happens. Styles tend to change in response to specific social pressures and/or technological advances. The appearance of both the farthingale and the waist seam happens round about the same time as the major boom in in exports from the Italian silk industry. I’ve heard the theory before that farthingales were originally designed to show off amazingly expensive brocaded silks. Separating the skirts from the bodice allows both the skirt and bodice to be cut with far fewer seams, thus fewer interruptions in the pattern of the brocade. (A gored skirt can be made with as few as two seams, whereas the gowns from Herjolfsnes contained up to ten panels – that’s a lot of seaming!)
Next: I Stop Blithering and Get Drafting….