The fifteenth century saw transformations in the nature of costume and culture that are key to our understanding of Western fashion. Up until the fifteenth century, the clothing customs of most cultures had been determined by tradition, the availability of certain kinds of fabric, and the skill of the tailor. Ancient Egyptians wore similar clothing for nearly thirty centuries, for example, and the long wool garments worn by Europeans in the sixth century were not that different from those worn in the fourteenth century.
In the late Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500), only the wealthiest members of a royal court had the resources to regularly change their costume and accessories. But during the early years of the Renaissance, or cultural rebirth, which started in the fifteenth century, more and more people began to acquire the wealth that allowed them to dress more extravagantly and keep up with the newly popular styles. In Burgundy, a kingdom in present-day France, and in Italian states such as Florence, greater numbers of wealthy merchants, nobles, and others competed to wear the most striking and elegant clothes. Certain people, such as Philip III (1396–1467), duke of Burgundy, who ruled from 1419 to 1467, became trendsetters, people who introduced a fashion that others followed. The clothing styles and customs that were introduced in Italy and Burgundy began to spread and by the end of the century, the emphasis on fashion and the wealth that was required to pursue fashion had stretched throughout Europe.
Costume of the early fifteenth century
The clothing of the early fifteenth century continued the traditions from the late Middle Ages. Both men and women continued to wear the houppelande, a long gown that covered the body from the neck to the floor. Houppelandes were made in a variety of fabrics, from simple wool to rich silk and velvet. Women's houppelandes were increasingly tailored so that the gown fit closely across the upper body, while the skirt billowed outward. Women also wore the bliaut, another long gown. Increasingly men choose to wear hose and breeches on their legs, and a tunic or a pourpoint (a closely fitted, padded overshirt) on their upper body. The pourpoint evolved in the fifteenth century into the doublet, the most common male garment of the century. Both men and women also wore a variety of overgarments, including a light cape called a mantle, and the cote and cotehardie, similar to the ones worn in the Middle Ages.
The costume revolution of the late fifteenth century
Several important trends came together in the late fifteenth century to mark a real change in costume styles across Europe. The first, mentioned earlier, was the general rise in wealth across the continent. Increased political stability and expanding trade meant that more people in the growing European cities could afford the finer things in life, notably clothing. The growing wealth allowed people to wear a variety of different fabrics, including silk, taffeta, and velvet, along with the traditional cotton, wool, and linen. Some of the wealthiest industries in early Europe grew out of the production of textiles, or fabrics.
This general increase in wealth allowed the tastes and preferences of the wealthy in Italy and Burgundy to spread across Europe. Following these trends, men wore more closely fitting hose and doublets. Their doublets, which had once been buttoned to the neck, opened to an ever-deeper V neck, with long laces crossing the V and revealing a shirt beneath, usually made of white linen. Men's hose were sewn together at the genital area, and we see the first use of the codpiece, a padded covering for the genitals. At the end of the century, padding in men's clothes created the appearance of broad shoulders.
Women's clothing also saw changes late in the century. Gone was the bunching of fabric in front of the stomach, which had created a pregnant look, and the billowing sleeves. Women's gowns became much more closely fitted in the torso and arms, while skirts billowed outward. Beginning in 1468 women in Spain began to use round hoops worn inside their skirts to give the skirt shape and make it swish when they walked. These hoops, called farthingales, would be very popular in the sixteenth century.
Increasing wealth and a desire on the part of people to use dress as a marker of status led to the relatively swift changes in clothing styles that we know today as fashion. In fact, one of the first fashion crazes began in 1477 when Swiss soldiers introduced a trend called slashing, in which small cuts were made in an outer garment to reveal the rich fabric beneath. Soon this style was copied throughout Europe and used on all varieties of garments.
The trends that began in the fifteenth century truly became widespread in the sixteenth century, when all of Europe flowered during the period known as the Renaissance.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Annenburg/CPB. What Was It Like to Really Live in the Middle Ages?: Clothing. http://www.learner.org/exhibits/middleages/clothing.html (accessed on August 6, 2003).
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.