06 March 2012

Men's Petticoats (Probably not what you think)

In my last few posts I mentioned that I was working out a pattern for "a man's petticoat."

This arose from my constant consternation with the insistence by reenactors and faire costumers alike that a man of the 16th century would not go about in his shirtsleeves. I cannot count the number of people who have insisted that no one would be caught dead in a sleeveless jerkin or similar garment with only the linen of his shirt covering his arms.

Image from Breviary of Eleanor 

of Portugal  via hayinart.com
This belief persists despite the visual record of laborers about their tasks in what appears to be a jerkin and no doublet.  Even with the 'mini ice age' the temperatures were only a few degrees colder than now on average. The winters were quite severe throughout the period, but that doesn't mean that summer never came. The Elizabethans were not idiots, I would argue; if it was hot, they would take their coats off.

Sometimes they would take off a good deal more than that.

Note how in the Breviary of Eleanor of Portugal, as the seasons progress, the workers begin to dress appropriate to the weather. It's not much of a logical leap as there's no reason to think that they wouldn't.

Yet the belief persists that they were swaddled in cloth toes-to-nose from birth until death.

I've occasionally been able to bury my opponents in historical images of the bare-armed to the point where they'll admit that men stripped down in the throes of labor but immediately covered up to the eyeballs once more once the task was done. Weather or no weather.

Whether or not this is true is difficult to prove, but recent developments argue strongly that for certain professions and classes (notably laborers and sailors) the petitcoat was the dominant item of dress for all of their daily activities.

All of this came to light last month, a Kentwell reenactor and costumer Julia Barrett took up the flag when she approached a bunch of historical costumers via the Elizabethan Costuming Facebook group for feedback on a scholarly article about men's petticoats she was writing. Her article launched a very interesting avalanche of feedback and discussions about a little-discussed article of men clothing of the 16th century.

Turns out I had been misinterpreting those pictures I've been pointing to: Those men weren't going about in their jerkins, they were wearing petticoats.  These are enumerated in their wills as well as in the visual records I mentioned.

Now, before your 21st century mind wanders down its pre-programmed path toward images of manly knights in the frilly undergarments of women in later periods, we need to nail down exactly what we mean by "petticoat."

In this case, the petticoat means exactly what its French root would imply: Petite coat a small coat. In later centuries we would come to know these as "waistcoats" and to save modern listeners from confusion, some of us have vacillated back and forth between referring to them as petticoats and waist coats.

The purpose of the petticoat is twofold: as warmth and as a garment for a man to tie his hosen to. The could be made of any material and in fact some of the extent petticoats are knitted such as the DeMedici garment in the Stibbert Museum . This probably sprang from garments like the 'pourpoint' worn under armor (partly as an attachment point for plates) by medieval knights and in fact many reenactors think that the wearing of them fell out of fashion long before Elizabeth took the throne.

In Tudor Tailor, these are discussed in a sidelong fashion, and the 'Side-Fastening Doublet' pattern in that book is essentially a man's petticoat (Indeeds, one of the people who gave feedback and suggested additional resources to Julia for her article was Ninya Mikhaila.)

Ms Barrett begs to differ, and presents a compelling case from both the visual record and the written wills of the period.  I can only hope it pushes back the idea that the Elizabethans were not smart enough to take off their coats when the weather got hot.

Here is the Article's home site http://clothingtherose.co.uk/research-articles/
The page hosts several articles (opens/downloads as a .PDF file) listed in the righthand column.

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