Fifteenth-Century Body Decorations

The fifteenth century was a time of transition in the ways that people ornamented their bodies. The use of jewelry and accessories became more and more prevalent and showy over the course of the century, reflecting the growing richness of the various kingdoms of Europe and paving the way for the absolute excess of display that occurred in the sixteenth century.

As in the early Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500), bathing was not a regular practice throughout most of Europe, except for in Italy. Wealthy people might bathe once every few weeks and the poorer classes bathed far less frequently. In order to mask what must have been very strong body odor, wealthy people used large amounts of perfume. Perfumes of the fifteenth century were fairly simple, consisting of crushed blends of natural products such as flowers and spices. (The extraction of oils to create modern perfumes did not occur until the sixteenth century.) Some people carried small metal balls called pomanders that were filled with crushed flowers or herbs; they waved these in front of their noses to mask offensive odors.

Makeup provided women with subtle ways of enhancing their appearance. The general trend during the fifteenth century was toward understated, discreet makeup, so women did not use bold colors for rouge or eye makeup. Instead they used a variety of treatments to make their skin appear pale and used subtle shades of pink to add blush to their cheeks or red to color their lips. Women continued to use white lead and other dangerous chemicals to whiten their face, unaware of the consequences to their skin and health. Because they didn't bathe very often, these toxic layers of white face paint might stay on for several days.

As the kingdoms of Europe became wealthier, members of the royal courts used jewelry to display their wealth. The wealthiest citizens of the city-states of Italy, especially Florence, and the kingdom of Burgundy, in present-day France, led the way in the use of jewelry. They hired expert craftsmen to make detailed gold jewelry, including necklaces, rings, and pendants. They also showed the first preference for diamonds, and jewelers developed new cutting techniques to show off the brilliance of this gem. The love of jewelry soon spread throughout Europe and certain forms of jewelry became especially popular. Necklaces and wide jeweled collars displayed precious gems or plaques and pendants of gold. Jewels were also added to the belts that were worn with most garments. These belts, some of which could be quite broad, might also be adorned with gold chains holding keys, a mirror, or a scented ball. The most popular form of jewelry was the ring. Rings could be worn on every finger and were custom made with detailed designs and many different jewels. Earrings were not common during the fifteenth century, except in Spain, where they became popular toward the end of the century.

Another important accessory of the period was a pair of gloves. The skills of tailors increased in the late fourteenth century, allowing for the creation of very finely fitted clothes of thin leather made from the skin of deer and rabbit. Gloves might have decorative fur cuffs and were often perfumed, partly to mask the smell of the leather.


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Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.

Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.

Irvine, Susan. Perfume: The Creation and Allure of Classic Fragrances. London, England: Arum Press, 1995.

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