Mid 15th Century French Dress; And Its Accessories

By Eleanor le Brun: August 2004


The gown we in the SCA call the “Burgundian” was a popular formal gown worn from the middle to the late 15th century by many different countries in northern Europe, including France and England.  This style of gown is identified by its low V-neck with a wide collar and tight belt worn just under the bust.  This gown evolved from the popular fashion in the early 15th century, the V-necked houppelande.  The houppelande style was typically worn with a double horn headdress.  The “Burgundian” has a fitted bodice compared to the houppelande and a slimmer sleeve.  It is worn with a single cone headdress the SCA calls the henin or atours.  The lower classes wore a simpler dress called a kirtle, this kirtle may also have been the under dress for the formal V-necked gown.  As in most styles of the times, a smock or chemise made from linen was worn next to the skin.


Why do we call this style “Burgundian”?  Burgundy is an area in Europe that is now part of France, but in the 1400s it was its own independent state with a strong Duke.  It was the wealthiest country in Europe during this period, with a strong wool and linen trade.  This made the small Duchy politically important and a fashion trend setter.  The last Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold, was defeated by the Swiss in 1476 (he died in 1477), resulting in France and Germany splitting up the land from the once powerful Duchy.  This defeat lead to the decline of the popularity of Burgundian fashion.


The 1420s to 1450s Houppelande beginning to transition to “Burgundian”



Petrus Christus

St Eligius in His Workshop, 1449


Rogier van der Weyden
Seven Sacraments (left wing) (detail)


The “Burgundian” style popular beginning in the 1450s declining in the 1480s


Petrus Christus
Portrait of a Young Girl
after 1460
Wood, 29 x 22,5 cm
Staatliche Museen,

Mary of
Burgundy's Book of Hours

Illumination on parchment, 22 x 16 cm
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,


Presentation of Tournament Prizes(detail) 15th Century;

Rene d’ Anjou Traite de la Forme et des Devis Comme on Fait le Tournois



This is the most difficult part of this style of dress to pin down.  It does not show at the edges of the kirtle and rarely depicted being worn alone.  This leaves some detective work to be done.  It seems to have a square or deep rounded neckline with a narrow band at the edge that the body and sleeves are pleated into.  The chemise is likely made from white linen.  The sleeves are full, but not “Italian” full, the chemise sleeves must fit under a slim fitted sleeve.  A good economical size is to use half the width of the fabric being used for each sleeve.  The sleeves are long, to just beyond the wrist.  There are images from the period that show the chemise sleeve tapering to about the width of the wrist.  It could not be determined from the images if there was a cuff or not.  This tapered look can also be achieved by folding up the fullness at the wrist then rolling the sleeve up a few turns.  This folding keeps the chemise sleeve tucked up and out of your way when you are not wearing the over sleeves.


How To Resources:





Rogier van der Weyden

Abegg Triptych
c. 1445
Oil on oak panel, 102 x 70,5 cm (central), 103 x 31 cm (each wing)
Abegg-Stiftung, Riggisberg near Berne






Rogier van der Weyden
Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (detail)
Oil on oak panel
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp


Hugo van der Goes,

c. 1470
Detail the Massacre of the Innocents.
Right panel of triptych on early life of Christ.

The kirtle was worn by the middle and lower classes and was  probably the supporting under dress for the “Burgundian” gown.  The material used to construct this dress would most likely have been wool, lined with linen.  The dress is bust supporting which holds the breasts in their natural position, not raised high on the chest as earlier in the 15th century.  At this point of the century, it does not flatten the chest.  At the end of the 15th century and into the next fashion style of the early 16th century the kirtle became tighter, flattening the bust.  The bodice eventually became stiffened with cording or glued strips of linen, transforming into the corset worn in the 16th century.


The dress used a 4 panel bodice construction method with many variations in neckline and waist seams.  The neckline could be round, slightly V-ed or square.  In addition, in the 1450s Rogier van der Weyden painted a few kirtles that had a raglan sleeve as well.  The dress can have a waist seam in the front and back, only in the back or none at all.  Length of this dress seemed to be the top of the shoe.  Lower classes could have a “ruffled” bottom edge.  On some kirtles, a gray material is visible that could be fur used as a guarding on the hem.


The kirtle sleeves are commonly short (a long sleeve is less common) with the seam on the back of the arm as in the previous century.  Modern sleeves have the seam under the arm so the seam runs along under the arm ending up at base of the palm, Sleeves in the period were commonly cut with the seam at the back of the arm with the seam ending on the outside of the wrist, near the little finger.  A note of advice: when you use the back of the arm seam there is a right and a left sleeve, they are not identical as in modern sleeves. Many times, the kirtle was worn with long decorative over-sleeves that were pinned to the dress’s attached short sleeve.  The pinned on sleeves could be a fancy brocade fabric or a contrasting solid color.  These sleeves can be removed when you are doing work, or if you are just too hot.

The most common closure is front lacing, there are also several depictions of left side lacing as well.  There is little visual evidence of back lacing the kirtle.  The lace passes though eyelets or lacing rings, rather than metal grommets.  The lace is done in the spiral fashion, rather than in the X fashion popular in the SCA.  It laces best from top to bottom; lacing this way is more supportive for the bust than from bottom to top...  When doing spiral lacing, the eyelets on each side do not line up directly across from each other; instead they are offset so the eyelet on one side is offset by half of the eyelet spacing, making a zigzag pattern from one side to the other. 

X laced with holes placed directly across from each other. 

Spiral lacing with holes placed offset.


Using in the spiral lacing method will tremendously improve the fit of the dress.  It will lace closed much tighter and not bunch up as is common with X laced grommets.  Also hand bound eyelets are very simple and work really well.  If you choose to use lacing rings you can use small drapery rings or small jewelry rings (use the solid jump rings or split rings rather than unsoldered jump rings). 


How to do spiral lacing:


How to do hand bound eyelets http://home.att.net/~mmcnealy/Articles/Beautiful_eyelets.htm

V-Necked Gown


Hans Memling
The Presentation in the
Temple (detail)
Oil on wood

National Gallery of Art, Washington


The V-necked gown was worn over the kirtle by the upper classes.  It had a wide deep V neck with a collar and was worn with a wide tight belt worn high under the bust.  This gown could be made from wool, silk velvet or brocaded silk, it was almost always lined in fur.  Typically the collar, cuffs, and hem guarding are all made from the same color material.  The most popular colors for these accessories are white, gray and black, most likely in period they were made from fur.  Since fur is not the most accessible material a good substitute is cotton velveteen.


The sleeves are long and fitted with a belled cuff.  The gown sleeve is cut in the same manner as the kirtle sleeve; with the seam at the back of the arm.  The cuff can be long enough to come down low over the hand, about to the beginning of the fingers.  Sometimes you see this gown with a wrist length sleeve and small cuff; this style could be the belled cuff turned back for easy movement of the hands. 


The neckline is a deep V in the front and a shallow V in the back.  There are depictions of gold cording lacing across the front of the deep V neckline, probably to hold the gown up onto the shoulders.  In the back the collar narrows similar to the front and tucks under the belt, similar to the front...  The deep V in the front is filled in with a simple rectangle of fabric, called a pièce (Scott, 142).  This piece of fabric is simply pinned to the kirtle to cover the lacings.  The pièce was typically made from velvet or satin, satin at the time being a smooth silk fabric. 


A note about wearing a kirtle underneath, please do.  You will achieve a much more flattering look if you do.  The belt is not a bust supporting device and will not produce good silhouette without the kirtle. 


The hem of the gown is typically overly long, about 6 inches past the floor, usually guarded with the same material as the collar.  The guarding could be just about 6 inches to about 2 ½ feet, showing real opulence.  The extra length of hem can be tucked up under the arm for easy walking.  This method works well, as long has you have nothing to carry, or anything that requires two hands.  Using this method is not recommended for walking up stairs holding a basket.  The best way to tuck up the hem for more vigorous movement is to wear a belt over the gown and pull the extra length over the belt.  This holds up the hem for hands free movement.  When ladies were depicted traveling or dancing this belt treatment is often seen.


Waist seam or not?


This style is usually worn with a wide tight fitting belt, leaving the question of a waist seam unanswered.  The correct silhouette can be achieved using either cutting method.  The gowns that are depicted without the belt do not show a waist seam, but these depictions did not show any seam lines in the gown at all.  The gown of the following fashion did have a waist seam, the kirtle could have a waist seam.  There are examples of Italian gowns from the same time period that were similar to the “Burgundian” gown that were constructed with a waist seam.  None of these observations give any definitive proof to the waist seam theory.  Since none of these gowns survived to today we will never know.


Tips For The Waist Seam Method:


If you would like to use the waist seam method you will need to draft a short waisted V-necked bodice pattern that ends about the bottom of the rib cage.  For the skirt cut 4 skirt panels so that the width of the top of each of the panels is equal to ¼ of the bottom edge of the bodice.  You do not want to use pleating to fit the skirt to the bodice it should fit neatly.  To make the skirt nice and full you will also need to cut 4 gores, cut more if you like and have the fabric.  Put one or two gores in between each skirt panel, the point of the gore should be inserted about 1 inch below the top of the skirt panels.  If there has been an error made in cutting and the skirt panels are too short and there is not enough skirt to fit around the bodice, put the gores in higher so they will add to the waist length. 


Tips For The No Waist Seam Method:


Start with a 4 panel gown construction method you like.  Mistress Marcel’s website listed below is wonderful site to learn how to fit and cut a 4 panel gown.  The fitting is slightly different, but not a lot.  Do not fit the gown through the stomach as was done in the 14th century.  The gown should be fitted though to about the bottom of the rib cage. When placing the gores put the top of the gore just at the bottom of the ribcage where the bodice fitting has ended.


How to fit a 4 panel gown





























Entombment;Rogier van der Weyden
Oil on oak panel, 110 x 96 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Rogier van der Weyden

Deposition (detail)
c. 1435
Oil on oak panel
Museo del Prado, Madrid


While wearing the kirtle alone many times women were depicted wearing a veil wrapped around their head.  This veil can have plain edges or one edge can be ruffled or goffered.  This “ruffle” is produced by changing the tension between the warp and weft threads of the fabric as it is being woven; it is not attached as a separate piece as we do in the SCA.  This veil is very long; in the painting “Entombment” by Rogier van der Weyden (c. 1464) a woman is depicted with her veil wrapped loose around her shoulders.  The veil is long enough to wrap from her right shoulder, across the front of her body around her back over her right arm and drapes down at least one more foot; about 75 inches.  From several different depictions it seems that the veil was commonly wrapped around the head from back to front.  Working women are sometimes depicted with a turban style headdress.  The turban look can be achieved by tying up the loose ends of this draped veil. 






Passion (Greverade) Altarpiece (detail)
Oil on wood
Museum für Kunst- und Kulturgedichte, Lübeck

Country dance scene from the "Hours" of Charles d'Angouleme, before 1496, Late Middle Ages. Evans, Joan. Dress in Mediaeval France. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952. pl. 66.



Another head covering for the lower classes worn along with the kirtle is the open hood.  This hood similar the 14th century versions, but is less fitted at the neck and is worn open rather than buttoned closed.  These hoods were probably made from wool lined with linen.  In addition to black, these hoods could be made in bright colors such as red or blue.


How To Make A Hoods And Other Hood Images







WEYDEN, Rogier van der
Portrait of a Woman
c. 1464
Oil on oak panel, 36,5 x 27 cm
National Gallery,

Fulk of Anjou Marries Queen Melissane(detail of ladies in waiting)

Guillaume de Tyr. Historie de la Conquete de Jeusalem.  MS. Fr. 2629, fol. 167, French c. 1460 Bibloteque Nationale, Paris

Medieval Women’s Calendar 6/1999


English woman, drawing of brass rubbing of Anne Playters, 1479 (Payne, 254)


The Henin

The most popular hat of the time is called in the SCA a henin, this is a 19th century term, the term used in the period was atours, atours in modern French means finery.  There are other types of hats worn as well; a very large stuffed turban hat was also popular.  To limit the scope of this discussion the henin and its variable forms will be discussed here


The henin style of hat had a cone shape that could be truncated or come almost to a point, but never perfectly pointed.  It was worn at the front edge of the hair line with the back of the hat coming to a bit over the ears.  The hat could be anywhere from a short 6 inches tall just covering the back of the head with a flat top, to the full very long 30 inch steeple style.  Often sheer white silk veils were draped over the henin.  The length of the veils varied from shoulder to floor length.  Sometimes the veil was worn under the hat and puffed out through the opening at the point.  Other times the veils were draped in layers over the hat in stunning fashion as in the butterfly henin.  To achieve this style two wires are attached like antennae to the front of the hat.  The wires suspend the veil in a high floating position. 


The truncated versions commonly had a line of decoration along the bottom edge, probably embroidery.  There is one instance of a decorated steeple style henin; it was Maria Portinari’s hat in the painting “The Portinari Triptych” by Hugo van der Goes c. 1476-79.

http://gallery.euroweb.hu/art/g/goes/portinar/right.jpg  This hat was decorated in pearls with T’s and M’s; her and her husband’s initials.  Other times beautiful jeweled pendants were pinned to the hat.  This addition of jewels can typically be seen on the lappet style henin and the truncated style as well. 


Another variation for the henin was the addition of a lappet of black velvet at the front of the hat.  This extra band of fabric could be short, to the bottom of the ears, or long enough to come down over the shoulders.  It typically has a slight flip at the bottom edge.  This possibly marks the transition to the “Anne of Brittany hood”, the popular headdress of the next fashion in the late 15th century and early 16th century. 


The little black loop; How to get it to stay on your head.




Triptych of the Family Moreel (right wing)
Oil on wood, 141 x 87 cm
Groeninge Museum, Bruges


Looking at many images of these tall hats worn in the period you see that strange little black loop on the forehead. There are also depictions of women wearing bands with the forehead loops without wearing a hat.  The theory is this loop kept the hat from sliding back on the head by providing a counter balance point.  The loop also may have been attached to the hat itself rather than to a separate band.


The trick to the loop and band is that the wire is not just placed along the bottom edge of the band the wire is placed at the top edge of the band with a longer loop than you see inside the band for extra stability.  When the wire is simply sewn to the bottom edge of the band the loop simply flips up when pressure is applied to it.  A suggested type of wire to use is small gauge piano wire, not coat hanger wire.  Coat hanger wire is much too hard and it is painful to wear, the piano wire is more flexible and very comfortable.  For extra stability the very tall steeple henins might have also been pinned in the back to the a bun worn high under the hat.


Henin Construction theory


The popular theory is that these hats were woven from reeds like baskets.  This method henin weaving works very well with ¼ inch wide flat reed.  It is much easier to get an even cone shape weaving the hat from the point to the head opening.  It is still difficult to free form weave the hat to be the desired length with the correct size opening for the head.  To simplify this problem, the hat could be woven over a form of some kind, a rolled up piece of poster board would be a practical solution.  This formed weaving method would make woven construction of the hat very simple. 


Hans Memling,
Passion (Greverade) Altarpiece (detail)

Belts for the kirtle:


The kirtle is sometimes shown with a thin leather belt with two round metal tips connected by a chain.  There are instances that you can see Latin phrases mounted to the belt.  The belt is Worn low over the hips.


Belts for the gown


The V necked gown was worn with a wide belt, it can match the collar and cuffs or it can be a different contrasting pattern or color.  There are several depictions of women wearing red belts, possibly could be made from soft leather.  Mary of Burgundy is wearing a brocade belt that matches her hat.  The belt is commonly closed with a large decorative D shaped buckle at the side front, not quite under the ladies arm.  Some of the middle class illuminations show the belts buckled in the back.  These belts seem to be slightly wider in the front tapering to accommodate a smaller buckle, possibly 1 ½ inch buckle, in the back.  There is one illumination showing a belt that seems to be hooked or laced in the front with a decorative gold closure. 


The belt could be decorated with metal belt mounts.  The depictions of decorative mounts have been of gold colored circle and diamond shapes.  The belt can be made from two layers of fabric, without a layer of stiffener.  Since they are so wide and snug around the stomach the soft flexible belts are very comfortable.


Marriage of Renaud de Monauban (detail) Philippe le Bon. Renaud de Montauban.  Ms. Arsenal 5073, fol. 117v, French 15th Century Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.  Medieval Women’s Calendar 6/1999.


Rogier van der Weyden

Abegg Triptych (detail)
c. 1445

The shoe worn with the “Burgundian” style gown was called a poulaine, it was a pointed shoe sometimes worn with pattens.  In the picture of Marriage of Renaud de Monauban on the previous page you can see the lady is wearing a much more pointed shoe with the gown.  The shoe shown to the right on this page is being worn with a kirtle.


Pattens were a type of wooden clog worn under the shoe to protect it.  Typically in the paintings and illuminations seen to create this document the shoes are shown as black and the leather bands on the pattens red.









In some paintings women are shown wearing a small decorated drawstring pouch suspended from a long cord.  The pouch hung to about the knee or mid calf on most of the wearers.  This pouch is worn underneath the over gown.  These pouches seem to have been decorated with embroidery or beading.  A circular cut drawstring pouch would work well. When making these pouches use a separate cord to hang the pouch from the cord used to cinch the pouch shut.  This will make it much easier to access the contents of the pouch.

King Renè’s Book of Love, fol. 55 c. 1460.

(Unterkircher, 55)




A contrasting piece of material was pinned to the kirtle over the lacings and worn tucked into the over gown to fill in the V-neck of the gown.  In the period it was made from silk satin or velvet.  This accessory is simply made from a square of material that is wide as your shoulders and long enough that it will tuck under the belt.






Black or gold beaded necklaces are the most common style of necklaces worn with the V necked gown.  The black necklaces were probably made jet or onyx beads.   Jet is a hard coal like substance that is still used today for jewelry.  The necklace was worn high around the neck, around the level of the collar bones.  Typically they had a row of beads and then variations of loops beads hanging from the supporting row.  These necklaces seem to be very similar to modern net beaded necklaces.  One difference is the size beads used in the period could have been larger than seed beads used in the modern patterns.  The necklaces in the period are painted as dots many times.  If seed beads were used they are so small from a distance the painter would likely paint the necklace as a thin line rather than individual dots.


There are beautiful examples of more elaborate necklaces as well.  There is the many rowed necklace by Petrus Christus and the beautiful enameled flower necklace by Memling.  .

Hans Memling

Tommaso Portinari and his Wife Maria (detail)
c. 1470
Oil on wood, 44.1 x 33,7 and 44,1 x 34 cm, respectively
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Possible variations for the “Burgundian” style necklace








Earrings are not typically depicted in the paintings of the time, so there is very little evidence of the ladies wearing them during this time period.  .  There is a drawing of Agnes Sorrel done by a French painter named Jean Fouquet.  In this drawing she is wearing small pearl earrings suspended from what looks like a piece of wire.  These earrings are very simple to make with a single pearl suspended from a French hook or kidney wire.  If you do not like to go without earrings this style may suit well


This drawing of Agnes Sorrel was drawn by Jean Fouquet (b. 1420, d. ca. 1480).






WEYDEN, Rogier van der
Portrait of a Woman (detail of her hands) c. 1464



Rings were a status symbol and a visible way to show your wealth.  Many rings could be worn on the same finger, wearing them at both the lower and upper knuckles.  Rings could be simple bands or rings that had un-faceted set stones, ruby, sapphire and emerald being popular.  Love rings or “poesy” rings were also popular.  These rings had love inscriptions worked onto them.


Extant Rings





Images from Art:




English Monumental Brasses
















Gown Construction ideas:









Boucer, Francois, 20,000 Years of Fashion

Evans, Joan; Medieval French Dress

Davenport, Milla; The Book of Costume

Huston, Mary; Costume in Medieval France 14th and 15th Centuries

Medieval Women’s Calendars (1992 - 2002)

McConnell,Sophie; Metropolitn Jewelry

Newman, Harold; An Illustrated Dictionary of Jewelry.

Payne, Blanche; History of Costume; Second Edition

Rempel, Karen; Complete Beading for Beginners

Scott, Margaret; A Visual History of Costume; The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries

Thames and Hudson; The Age of Van Eyck; The Mediterranean World and Netherlandish Painting 1430 -1530

Unterkrcher F; King Renè’s Book of Love ; Le Cueur d’Amous Espris