Dressing guide: how to frau

This little tutorial I wrote in a collaboration with the very talented historical seamstress Katafalk. It is meant to be a simple How To approach to reproduction and reenactment of the women that accompanied mercenaries, i.e Landsknechts, during the 16th century.

The aim is to get a bigger understanding around what kind of women that accompanied the military trains, as well as fabrics, materials and cuts at the time. Enjoy!

Baggage-Train

“Baggage Train” from the “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I” by Albrecht Altdorfer and workshop, (c. 1512-1515)

How to frau

A guide to easily understanding the 16th century female outfit in Northern Europe, focusing on women from lower social standing.

Before you begin it is vital to think about what kind social class, or type of woman, you want to recreate. This has nothing to do with LARP:ing (live action role playing) or acting. It is simply to do with making a construction that feels historically relevant. Women differs from each other in the 16th century, not only due to social standing. Even women from the same social class dressed differently according to her place in society.

That is why it is a bit unfortunate to put all these amazing women together in the same group as many tend to do today. It is important to know that women of the tross which followed the mercenaries, such as the landsknecht, were not female landsknecht, they were not soldiers. They followed the tross because of what the soldiers may need during military campaigns: help with domestic chores, as companions, whores, and different professional craftswomen. The captain’s wife did not have the same function as for example the wine maker/seller, but instead holds a different status in the group.
That is why it always is good to know who you want to recreate and what her role in the tross might be. First when you know this can you move forward and build your wardrobe. It might seem really boring, but this is only to help you make the right decisions for your outfit and should only be seen as something positive; as a helping hand.

Something that is worth thinking about is that the women in the tross during early modern time chose to follow a dangerous, erratic and by the society excluded group; the landsknecht. During this time in Europe the landschnecht was associated with violence, terror, and bloodshed. The society both hated and feared them. That is why it is most likely that the vast majority of the women, which in spite of this chose to follow them, came from the lower classes of society without any higher social status.

As these women, as we have discussed, are not a unitary group, calling them for “kampfraus” is of course incorrect. Instead we should look at what these women really were. By stepping away from the far too generalized mold “kampfrau” and instead start to think “lower class women” you in a way get a lot more freedom in your creativity, as you now choose to create a person with a profession or role in the camp and not only a platitude. That is why the word “kampfrau” is such a bad and foremost historically incorrect word to use. The word kampfrau have long been in use in different reenactment groups and have because of its popularity spread beyond these reenactment groups, so far that people are not aware that it is a made-up word. To with one word smooth out the diversity of the women of the tross feels incredibly sad and also disparaging to the history of the women.

Underwear

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As you might have noticed, the figure in the picture is only wearing a pair of hose. There is a reason for this, and that is the fact that this is the bottom layer. Corsets, stays, panties and bloomers came much later in history. The earliest extant pair of stays are from late 16th century and panties are a much later invention; they appear a bit into the 20th century, when skirts become shorter they started looking as what we are used to seeing them.

If your aim is to be as correct as possible, this is your bottom layer.

The hose are made out of wool fabric and cut on bias to give them as much stretch as possible. As you can see it has a sewn sole that continues up on the leg in a gusset. It also has a seam in the back to make it possible to shape the hose after the leg. As a woman you wear knee high hose that is fastened with garters which are tied around the leg. The hose can both be of solid colour or vertically striped, but the solid coloured hose seems to be most common on women of lesser means.

Watch out for!

Modern underwear – It is hard to build a historical silhouette when you are shaped by modern underwear.

Corsets and stays – Not everything from the 16th century is Tudor. If you look at are from the period you will see that the silhouette of the dresses from England, Italy and Germany differs from each other quite a bit. In Germany you can see that you have a more rounded bust, not the more cone-like shape an early stay will give you.

 

Shoes

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Shoes during this period vary widely and simpler and heavier shoes is a marker of a person of lesser means. The most visually prominent and fashionable shoe in the 16th century is the cow moth shoe, a flat shoe with a square shape in the front. The shape ranges from slightly rounded to more extravagant versions.

Something which is worth mentioning about the shoes in the 16th century is that they are welt sewn unlike the earlier shoes, which were turnshoes.
This means that they are sewn on the last with the right side out and have an insole which the upper is attached to, and then have an outsole which is attached under this. The outsole is attached to a strip of leather called welt. The welt is attached to the shoe in the same seam which binds the insole and upper together.
In turnshoes this piece of leather is called rand. The use of a welt and outsole makes it a lot easier to change the sole of the shoe when it is worn down without actually interfering with the construction of the rest of the shoe.
When the outsole is sewn to the welt you will get a visible seam, much in the same way which you can see in a classical dress shoe.

The cow moth shoes are not the only shoe worn at this period of time, there is a plethora of shoes. That is why it is important to look at the shoes in the area which you have chosen to recreate. Also look at the class from you have chosen to work within. Farmers are often depicted with heavier more rounded shoes and finer folk seem to be using daintier shoes, both more decorated and slashed.

Watch out for!

Wrong shoe on the wrong person – Just because a shoe model has been in use in England in 1520 does not mean that that shoe can be used when you are doing Italian or German 1520s.
This is the same way as the fact that an English farmer did not wear the same shoes as an English king.

Visible seams – There are no seams visible on extant shoes. Neither the heel counter nor side seams are sewn with a seam that is visible from the outside.
The only visible seam on welt shoes is the welt seam that attaches the outsole.

 

Chemise

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There is a large variety in the shape of the chemise, all from very simple with only a little width to garments where it is obvious a lot of fabric was used. The chemises comes with both high and low collars and I have a hard time seeing that either one is more common in any social class. However, taking into account the quality and the quantity of the fabric can say a lot about the social class which you are aiming for.

The collars varies from beautifully embroidered with tiny pleats to simpler pleating where you have sewn a flat linen band of the same fabric as the rest of the chemise to keep the pleats in place. The same goes for the finish of the sleeves even if the most common thing seems to be simple string which you tie with small bows at the wrist.
The closure of the chemises are often not seen. Here it is very likely that they have used hooks and eyes to keep the collar together. A hidden closure seems to be very common but other ways of closing the collar are simple linen ties or decorated braided ribbons which might match the colour of the embroidery you might have.
There are also depictions of decorative clasps, buttons, and pearls as closures, but it is worth noting that these are most often found on the upper classes and might not be fitting for a women of the tross.

Watch out for!

Too short chemise – Make your chemise to your knees or to your calf. Underskirts or petticoats are not in use yet so it is the chemise job to protect your body from the wools and vice versa. But do not make it all the way to the floor, a wet linen hem is cold and not at all pleasant against your legs.

Keep to your class – A poor soldier’s wife does not have a chemise with golden bands, embroideries, and beads. Think about what choices you make and you will get a more convincing outfit.

Raw silk – It might seem luxurious with a raw silk chemise and raw silk “looks like linen”. However, raw silk as a fabric for clothing is not correct for the 16th century and silk is also sensitive to sweat, something which is not optimal for a chemise.

 

Under dress

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As I mentioned, the use of modern bras and corsets came a lot later in history than the 16th century. However, of course they used some kind of supportive underwear. We have the Schloss Lengberg garments as an example of many different ways to support the bust in the shape of linen “bras”. The Lengberg finds are dated to late 15th century and there are a lot of images from the 14th century depicting similar “bra dresses”.
When we come to the 16th century these pictures disappear from the pictorial evidence and instead we start to see sleeveless wool dresses. We can find similar dresses all over Europe on women preforming physical labour. We do not see them on women outside the “home” or the private sphere for the simple reason that you wore a dress over it when you were in more public places.

The under dress sometimes had stripes on the skirt, especially if you were from a higher social status. With this comes all kinds of laws and regulations which tells you who are allowed to wear what kind of materials and how many stripes you were allowed to have on your skirt. The fact that these laws exist is because people broke the rules, but it might be worth thinking about; did the laundry woman have silk brocade stripes on her under dress? Almost certainly not.

There are no evidence that the under dresses were as stiff as corsets, it is common to see in images and woodcuts that the bust have a soft more rounded shape.

Watch out for!

Underskirts and petticoats – There is no evidence for the use of underskirts. Many uses linen underskirts to get more shape over the hips and to protect their legs from the wool. Instead of doing that, make your chemise longer. This is something that we have pictorial evidence for and start using a full under dress to achieve those 16th century hips and to get a correct silhouette.

Modern brassiere – In the end it is simple, modern underwear will give your dress a modern silhouette. Sometimes you have to let go of your modern aesthetics to create a correct shape.

 

Overdress

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The classical 16th century dress in northern Europe had a high waist and low neckline. The shape of the dress varied depending on where in northern Europe you were. However, generally in Germany the square neckline and closure centre front was prominent. The dress had often just as low neckline in back as in front and had very often decorative stripes at the bottom of the skirt. The skirt was pleated and sewn onto the bodice as separate skirt and a bodice was not used.

It is easy to want to emulate the grandeur of the males, but the dresses of the women were generally a lot simpler in cut and details. The slashing that is so common in the outfits of the men is almost nowhere to be seen, you can perhaps slash the stripes of the skirts or in exceptional cases the guards around the neckline and centre front.

The sleeves of the dress are also in contrast to the male puffiness and extravagance. The sleeves are often very simple with a plain sleeve with a cuff that can either be worn folded up or folded down over the hand. You can also see simpler slashing of the sleeve at the shoulders and elbows but they are much less extravagant and as big as on the men.

It is just that, the contrast between the male and female, which is so beautiful when you see the tross together. Let the men have their big upper bodies and skinny legs and let the women be the opposite, wide hips and in contrast to the hips, slim upper bodies.

Watch out for!

Too low waist – Many wear their dresses on their hips and the result of that is that they never get the right silhouette. Let the waist sit where it should, a good bit over your bellybutton, and you will automatic get those nice 16th century hips and a correct silhouette.

Too high neckline – If you look at woodcuts, the neckline is often very low, this does not matter much as there is always a chemise under to cover up and to make sure that the boobs does not pop out. Dare to go lower both in the front and back and you will get a dress with a much more correct look.

Gaping lacing – It is very unusual to see the lacing on the dress, The everyday woman did not show her face in society in a dress with gaping lacing. The dress should be completely shut in front either with hidden lacing or hook and eyes.

 

On the head

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When you look at the paintings and graphical pictures of women from the 16th century a clear picture emerges; grown-up women hid their hair. To wear your hair down is something which might have been done by extremely young unmarried women or, for example, prostitutes. However, the ordinary woman wore her hair up and almost always covered. To wear the hair up with some kind of covering is so common that you can find picture of women in bathhouses with their head covered while otherwise in the nude.

Even amongst prostitutes you see a great majority with their hair up and covered. If you don’t wish to cover your hair it should at least be braided and put up properly on the head. The visible cute braided hanging loops by the ears that peek out under the veil during the late 15th century is hopelessly unfashionable during the 16th century. If you wear a head covering, the whole hair is now covered.

A very common headpiece is the padded linen cap that is so typical for the northern European fashion. It most likely started with the braided hair being put up in the back of the head under the veil, but as all fashion it went to excess. People started to use padding of different kind, for example the wulsthaube, a padded cap, which you then draped you headdress over. The shape varies from small to enormous.

The veils can be found in all sorts of fashion, everything from undecorated linen veils and super thin silk veils to richly decorated and embroidered. As always, the question is who do you want to portray?

Watch out for!

Cover your hair – the easiest way to enhance your outfit historically is to put on a proper headdress. Don’t be afraid of the padded cap, it might look strange when taken out of its context but nothing can beat it when used together with accurate clothing. If you do not want to use a wulsthaube you can choose to use a draped veil. Look at images and your will surely find something you like.

 

Hats

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The 16th century brings a lot of variety in hats. If you generalise a bit you find that two different kinds seem to be the most popular. One is a hat with a split brim where the brim parts overlaps each other a bit with perhaps a few feathers. The other one the one that looks like it has gathered fabric underneath and is filled with feathers.

When it comes to ordinary women, hats are not always worn and when you see a hat on a women it is often of a more simple kind. It is a more safe way to go to not wear a hat; a veil or wulsthaube goes a long way. There are of course images of crazily feathered hats but that does not make it the norm to wear a whole bird stuffed into our hat. Neither is it practical for a hard working woman in the tross. A fully feathered hat is more likely to be in the way for a simple washerwoman. It seems like it is more common with feathers among prostitutes.

When it comes to the choice of feathers we can see that natural ostrich feathers are the most common during the 16th century. We can of course play with the thought that other types of feathers were used but if you look at the pictures from the period we can see that the ostrich is in extreme majority. Everyone wore them; we can see them among landsknechts, wealthy merchants and even the noblemen, such as the very fashion interested Henrik VIII.

Coloured feathers are not at all common during the 16th century. If coloured feathers was used they were of course dyed with natural dyes. The process is technically hard to achieve and that is probably why it is not common to see the coloured feathers. Instead what we see is more than anything else white or naturally grey ostrich feathers, or alternatively, naturally black ostrich feathers. Think about who you are recreating and look at images from your time and you will soon see that the coloured feathers are absent.

Watch out for!

Don’t slash your hat – The popular slashed hat crown cannot be found in the pictorial sources; you can slash the underside of the brim but it is much more common to not slash at all. Decorate instead with a few feathers and don’t slash at all.

Stay away from coloured feathers – They existed but were very uncommon. If can feel nice to be able to match your dress with synthetically coloured feathers, but it is not particularly historically accurate. Why not dive into the wonderful world of natural shades of ostrich. Beautiful in the 16th century, beautiful today!

 

Gollar

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The most common garment for keeping warm which you see in the pictures is the short cape called gollar. It can either have a high collar or no collar at all, and it can be either short or it can be more of a cloak and go down to the hips. It looks like a liripipe without the head part and can be lined in fur for extra warmth.

There are a number of images of women who wear their capes over what they carry on their backs, it is a good way to keep rain out of your packing. The gollar is as much a trending garment as it is practical and it is often decorated with contrasting borders.

On images and paintings of women from the higher social classes you often see them in silk brocade with fancy clasps, but on simpler women you almost always see no closure at all. We can presume that they were closed with hook and eyes, or that they simply lay on the shoulders. Alternatively they might have used hidden lacing which they tied together as a bow.

There are also examples of this kind of garment which looks more like short vests and are squarer in shape. Look at what is most common for the type of person you want to recreate, perhaps you have no need for a gollar.

Watch out for!

Dress according to your class – It is easy to fall in love with a garment from the upper class, but as always; chose a garment that represent what you recreate. If you need to dig deep after evidence for a garment you want to make or a detail you want to recreate, you might need to stop and think for a bit. Perhaps what you are looking for was not something that was commonly done. A better starting point is to look at what the common thing to do was. Find what most people actually did. It will be a lot easier to make a believable outfit when you have cracked the code of what is probable and what was done. Just because something is from the lower classes does not automatic makes it boring and plain. Find that thing that makes your garment special.

 

Accessories

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At the first glance the 16th century can feel very “bling” with large golden chains, rings on all fingers and on multiple knuckle joints, many necklaces at the same time. However, all these things are most common among the nobles. As soon as you step down a step on the social ladder all this disappear, especially among women of less means. You might have one ring, but necklaces of precious metals are nowhere to be seen.
On pictures of prostitutes from this time we do find these kind of accessories. However, bear in mind that these were most likely copies in less precious metals, they wanted to mimic the nobility and be showy.

What ordinary women wore was much plainer, most of what you see are accessories hanging from the belt. Small leather bags of different kinds, sewing tools, and often a simple knife; sometimes you also see keys. It seems like it was the practice to wear two belts, one that you kept your things on and one that you used for draping the dress up when marching. However, you never see two belts worn at the same time. We can presume that they had a belt specially for the draping that they took off when they wore the dress down. As this belt never was visible it would probably not been decorated with more than a simple belt buckle.

Many speaks about booty from the battlefields but think about the fact that if there was any booty this was first and foremost for the men. Wives, hang-arounds or women without any social status in the tross were probably not allowed to enjoy expensive fabrics, gold or jewellery. In other words; it is not likely that the cook and laundry woman in the tross had gold rings on all fingers.

Watch out for!

Less is more – Looking like a living Christmas tree with a million things hanging off your belt or on your outfit is never a positive thing. Do not carry more things in your belt than is logical. If you need to carry a lot of stuff, than take a basket to carry in your hand, a sack, or the things wrapped up in fabric which you carry on your back. Willow baskets on your back does not seem to be common at all in the tross.

Don’t put on all your fancy jewellery – We all want the fancy stuff, but as always, reflect over who you are recreating and what is practical. It is not likely that a women that followed the tross had gold chains and lots of rings, unless she was a particularly popular prostitute.

 

Conclusion

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And there we have it, the complete kit! With the help of another belt you can drape the gown up in this way, this makes it a lot easier to march and is a very common thing to see in pictures of women in the tross.

So a short recap:
Do not imitate the men, just because they look a certain way does not mean that you can copy it and put it in your women’s outfit. Also think about colours and colour combinations. Lighter colours were a lot easier to create. Perhaps it is not fitting for a poor soldier’s wife to wear a tricoloured bright purple dress with four contrast colours in the same bright colour scheme. Poorer women wore less contrast colour and lighter coloured fabrics.
It is good to think about fabrics in the same way. Silk, velvet and brocades belongs on the Saxon noblewomen in Cranach paintigns, not on the general women of the tross. To base you outfit on them is as far off as basing them on Elizabeth I most macabre feastgown.
During the medieval era and early modern time wool is the absolutely most common of fabrics both for high and low born along with linen.

It is a lot about dressing within your social class and not pick and choose details from other classes. Just because a noblewomen have pretty sleeves does not mean that your simple soldier’s wife had the same kind of sleeves; even if they both are from 1523. I instead dare you to make a simple woman, because these were the women who followed the landsknecht.

Let go of your modern ideals. The concepts of what is pretty and beautiful nowadays are not applicable in the 16th century. If you are recreating a period you are also going to have to recreate their ideal of beauty. It is also very important to keep track on what part of the 16th century you are making and were you are geographically. The fashion changes around every ten years and there are big regional differences in northern Europe, even among the simpler people and underclass.

Always check the title of your sources or image that you are using. Even if Pinterest tells you one thing does not mean that the title is correct. The original title may also reveal that what we see on the picture is actually a biblical motive or allegory. If that is the case then the picture is not suitable to base a simple German women clothing on. If something look extra strange or macabre on a picture, ask yourself the question; what type pf image is this? You cannot base your clothes on a caricature, not either a saint, queen or noble woman’s dress – at least not if you want to portray a women of the tross.

 

July 13, 2015

How to Frau – svenska

Posted by Cathrin under Uncategorized
[6] Comments

 

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16th century filth: Bathing hats and scented soaps

There seem to be a widespread opinion that hygiene by bathing had its highlights during roman and medieval period, only to decline drastically during the 16th  century. The Dutch philosopher Erasmus in 1526 noted the fall of common hygiene: “Twenty-five years ago, nothing was more fashionable in Brabant than the public baths. Today there are none, the new plague has taught us to avoid them”.

Yet bathing, both alone and in group, seems to persist during the 16th century. At least depictions of bathing people remain popular during the period. Browsing through these early modern nudies I spot a remarkable hat that seems only to show up in bathing situations. It is round, slightly squarish and sometimes with a little tuft on the top:

('Monks in the bath'). Jena Code Antithesis Christi et Antichrist, 1490-1510

“Monks in the bath” from the Jena Code Antithesis Christi et Antichrist (1490-1510).

Depiction of a Nuremberg bathmaid, from 1585.

The text of the Nuremberg bathmaid above translates:

The speech of the bathmaid: I the bathmaid stand alone, with naked arms and white legs. I tend to the bathing men, also the young boys. With my water I am skilled, young and old, the little child, I wash, and I scrub them, so they go home clean.

Labors of the month may by Jörg Breu the Elder

Labors of the month May, by Jörg Breu the Elder (1475–1537).

A somewhat basic everyday cleanliness seems to be expected of the 16th century person: Washing the hands before eating is emphasized in manners manuals of the 15th and 16th century, as well as washing hands and face in the morning and rinse the mouth with cold water. Babies were bathed in tubs, and rather ingeniously binded in the tub to ensure its safety and let the parents have some cupping therapy and wash the older sibling, in the already mentioned bathing hat:

Bathers from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568

Bathers from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568

The theory that people ceased bathing altogether during the 16th century isn’t at all reflected in pictures from the period, as we can see. In fact, even though mixed bathing was discouraged by the Church, records exist that “baths were used as social affairs, with banquets and wedding feasts being joined with the baths”. But Durer’s 1497 woodcut of men at a public bathhouse, contrasted with ‘Women’s Bath’ of the same year shows sex-segregated bathing as well as the little rounded bath hat we’ve already peeked at:

“The Men’s Bath” Albrecht Dürer (1497 Nuremberg)

As we can see in the pictures above and below the habit of head gears follow the early modern people even into the bathroom – we have trendy hairnets on men, braided hairdo’s or headscarfs on the women or bathing hats on both genders. If not naked, men seemed to wear the male tanga we’ve already talked about, and women in a simple linnen underdress.

The gentlemen prefering a slightly more discrete but fast hair wash could also get that done at the barbers, as shown in this late 16th century woodcut (please also note the casual way the barber keeps his comb behind the ear):

barber-shop_14277_lg

Woodcut by J. Amman

Washing, alone or in group, certainly persisted. We see combinations of bathing or washing in bathhouses (in- aswell as outdoors) or bathtubs. In 1511 Lucas Rem, a famous 16th century merchant and diary writer, according to his diary allegedly bathed 127 times (!) from the 20th of may to the 9th of june. Sources does seem to indicate though, that bathing was for the spring and summer, while washing, atleast in public places or outdoors, probably declined somewhat during the winter months…

“A fool with two bathing women”, Hans Sebald Beham (1541)

Also, scented soaps for face and hand-washing (made by the ‘rebatching’ process where cut-up soap is mixed with scenting agents) starts to appear in 16th and early 17th century housewifery texts. The 16th century Spanish Manual de Mugeres suggests some scented soap recipes and Francis Bacon (1521-1626) recommends a saucy bath in oil and herbs for the best result:

First, before bathing, rub and anoint the Body with Oyle, and Salves, that the Bath’s moistening heate and virtue may penetrate into the Body, and not the liquor’s watery part: then sit 2 houres in the Bath; after Bathing wrap the Body in a seare-cloth made of Masticke, Myrrh, Pomander and Saffron, for staying the perspiration or breathing of the pores, until the softening of the Body, having layne thus in seare-cloth 24 hours, bee growne solid and hard. Lastly, with an oynment of Oyle, Salt and Saffron, the seare-cloth being taken off, anoint the Body.

Woodcut from Brunschwig,

Woodcut from “Buch zu Distillieren” (1500)

The love of bringing nice scents into the cleaning ritual we also witness through Adamus Olearius in his Persian Travel Tales of the early 1600s: “The Germans who dwell in Muscovy and Livonia are very nice in their Stoves; they strew Pine Leaves powder’d, and all sorts of Herbs and Flowers upon the Floor; which, together with the Lye make a very agreeable Scent.”

There is a scented lye-based soap recipe in The treasurie of commodious conceits, & hidden secrets by John Partridge (1573) if anyone wishes to try the 16th century BO for a spin:

 

To Make Muske Soape Take stronge lye made of chalk, and six pounde of stone chalk: iiii, pounde of Deere Suet, and put them in the lye; in an earthen potte, and mingle it well, and kepe it the space of forty daies, and mingle and [styre?] it, iii, or, iiii times a daye, tyll it be consumed, and that, that remayneth, vii, or, viii, dayes after, then you muste put a quarter of an ounce of Muske, and when you have done so, you must [styre?] it, and it wyll smell of Musk.

22.23.1

“Seated Woman Bathing Her Feet”, by Albrecht Altdorfer (ca. 1480–1538)

Suggested further reading, for the curious:

→ Did people in the middleages take baths?

→ Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England

The Culture of Cleanliness in Renaissance Italy

A glance at female headwear

db2cf606206ef3024261c5359396fd38

“Januar” by Jörg Breu the Elder. (1510-15)

I’ve lately realized that when it comes to female head gears during the 16th century a lot of people today feel unsure of what women actually wore on their heads.

As a quick experiment I decided to go through my Pinterest-collection of depictions from the 16th century. This collection have a mix of women and men, high aswell as lowborn. I want to point out that the collection does have a majority of northern European depictions, and also higher percentage of depictions from the first part of the 16th century. Full picture, title and dates are found in my Pinterest-collection.

Women and hats

Lets start with the hats, shall we? Of the almost 440 depictions that include women, I found 83 depictions of women wearing hats:

hattar 1

Hattar 2

When looking at these pictures we see that the majority of the hats worn by women are fairly simple in style and does not have feathers attached or are slit:

  • 39% of the hats are adorned with feathers – majority of the women with feathers in their hats seem to either be of a noble birth or are women from the train of mercenaries. As far as I can see all feathers depicted are natural white ostrich feathers.
  • 19% of the hats are in someway slit – these hats also seem to attribute either highborn or women accompanying mercenaries. We do not see any clear depictions of hats that are slit on the crown of the hat, only on the brims.

I humbly conclude that slit and feathered hats are mainly a noble habit of adorning oneself, and that it was copied by a few more extravagant women in lower classes. It might also be that feathers are more common among prostitutes than common women in for example military trains, but this theory is simply a guess at this point.

Women and head scarfs

One thing is immediately clear when browsing through the pictures – hats are actually not the most popular look. Most women in most classes wore different variations of head scarfs or veils. Of the almost 440 depictions of women I have collected, more than 220 have only head scarf or veil, no hats. (I have not included only hairnets in this calculation).

I wont include all these 220 examples of women – they can be found in the collection. But I picked out a few examples of all these beautiful head scarfs/veils, for the joy of it:

huvuddukar

Conclusion? The 16th century woman sure loved covering her hair. The majority used head scarfs/veils to do this – sometimes using the wulsthaube to exaggerate the profile. A smaller percentage used hats – sometimes in combination with head veil or hairnets. The hair seems to be completely or almost completely covered, as a contrast to earlier fashion. i.e braids sticking out under the head scarf during the 15th century. Different colors and materials could be used depending on social status, but a vast majority seems to be white linen.

The covered mouth of women

When dealing with depictions of 16th century women and fashion for more than ten years, its only a matter of time before one encounters a strange detail in some of the female clothing: depictions of women with their mouths covered by a piece of linen attached to their headgear. A reoccurring example of this is two women seen in the train of a military unit, from 1530, and they have caused both discussions and theories:

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To the far left we see a woman with her mouth covered, friendly held by another woman in a big hat and a little dog under her arm:

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To the far right we find an almost identical headgear with the mouth covered, this time worn by a woman with a walking stick and yet again a little dog as company:

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As far as I can remember, at least in Sweden, these strange face coverings have been explained as simply covers for dust and dirt. This can definitely seem logic at first glance. But if this would be the case – how come we don’t see these “dust covers” a lot more often worn in trains for the army during this period? And never on men or children?

The “dust cover” theory does seem more improbable when you encounter quite different depictions of 16th century women with covered mouths. Firstly they depict women in entirely different situations where dust and dirt can hardly be the reason for covering their mouth. Secondly they depict higher class city women who are the very opposite from the socially low ranked women in the army trains. These women, often on their way to or in church, do they really need to protect their mouths from dust & dirt? Let me give you a couple of examples:

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“Swiss Women on the way to church”, Hans Weigel. 1577

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“Kneeling woman”, Hans Baldung gen. Grien. 1520.

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“A woman from Leipzig dressed to go to church”, Hans Weigel. 1577.

In the Wavel Castle, in Krakow Poland, there is a 16th century head bust in the ceiling that depicts a woman with the very same covered mouth. It was here I first heard the explanation that this woman was having her mouth covered as a sign of grief – shes was a widow, they claimed. Here is a small replica of the Wavel head:

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I found this explanation slightly macabre, until I recently stumbled over this depiction of Katharina von Bora – the wife of Reformation founder Martin Luther. The woodcut is from 1546, the same year Luther died:

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This is where the theory of the “dust cover” is starting to crumble – why would the noblewoman and wife of the famous Martin Luther run around with a dust cover, in the middle of a German city? I decided to look further into this.

In the book “Women in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700” we find this comment on the woodcut of Katharina von Bora:

We do not know whether she and other widows literally bandages their mouth as the portrait show, but the image suggests the power of these ideals. Because chastity, silence and obedience were even harder to achieve for widows, lacking male moral guidance, than for other women, widow were advised to lead quite lives, withdrawn for the world and its temptations, and to devote themselves to prayer.

As we have noticed there are many more depictions of women with covered mouths, in the same fashion as Katharina von Bora. But this idea that a widow should signal chastity, silence and obedience is something that is well spread during this period, and can be recognized in for example the humanist Juan Luis Vives (1492-1540) who proclaimed that:

A good widow ought to suppose that her husband is not utterly dead, but liveth both with life of his soul and beside her with remembrance. Therefore let her live and do so, as she shall think to please her husband—- let her take him for her keeper and spy, not only of her deeds but also of her conscience.

In practice this meant that the general opinion was that women should indeed continue practice chastity, silence and obedience even after her husband had passed, an attitude that is clearly demonstrated in the picture of grief of Katarina von Bora.

The historian Susan Kurant-Nunn noted in the book “Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England” that:

[…] several sisteenth-century German funerary monuments of widows depict them with their clothing pulled up to cover their mouth. Karant-Nunn has interpreted the motif as a symbolic representation of Mundtod(“deadmouth”), the legal principle by which medieval German widows were denied a legal voice or identity but were instead covered by the legal personalitites of one of their male relatives.

Kurant-Nunn have also written the book “The reformation of Ritual, and interpretations of Early Modern Germany” where depictions of widows in attending burial ceremonies have the exact same covered mouths are also mentioned.

According to the book “Representing Judith in Early Modern French Literature the common view during the early modern period was that “silence, the closed mouth, made a sign of chastity. And silence and chastity are, in turn, homologous to woman’s enclosure within the house”. Especially silence, and the closed mouth, is during this period accordingly viewed as a social sign of chastity and possibly also religious devotion.

In the book “Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe” there is yet another passage on the woodcut of Katharina von Bora and her covered mouth:

A powerful image of the mourning widow has survived in the unique portrait of Katharina von Bora entitled “D Martini Lithers nachge-lassene Witfrawn/in ihrer Traurung” (the widow of Martin Luther in mourning). The colored woodcut is dominated by the figure of Katharina wrapped in a black fur coat with a prayer book in her hands. The command for silence is symbolized by a long ribbon, which falls from the hat and ties her mouth.

We now have in print that the woodcut of Katharina states that she is 1) a widow 2) in mourning. In the book “Widowhood in Medieval and Early Modern Europe” the author explains that within both catholic and protestant faith widows were expected to withdraw and lead a pious life after their husband had passed away. Widows were allowed to remarry, but only after one year of grieving had passed. During the 16th century this expectation of a one year abstinence slowly changed from being lawfully binding, into something that was more socially expected from society – especially in protestant countries where nunneries did not exist and was there for not an option for the widows. Instead widows were expected to remarry, but AFTER their period of grief.

Knowing this it seems quite logical that the women with covered mouths are signalling that they are going through a period of grief – symbolizing silence, chastity and inaccessibility to men or to marriage.9

But as we apparently find the same practice among simple low class women in the train of mercenaries (women of low social status hardly famous for their piety or religious devotion), there is reason to believe that the practice occurred among high born as well as low. Possibly during the one year of grief when women were expected to withdraw? And as we all know, deaths among males are quite frequent among military escapades.

Dare we conclude that the two women in the first 1530 depiction probably are soldier widows? I believe we can.

After publishing this entry for the first time in Swedish, I was contacted by some people with even more depictions of women covering their mouths. For example this painting that can be found in the city church of Wittenberg, painted by Cranach d.y, 1569:

wittenberg

What is this picture called? Well: “Resurrection of the Widows son from Nain“.

Also, a very nice English woman sent me these beautiful 16th century memorial pieces from the Stephansdom in Vienna, commemorating different important men and many of their wives are depicted with their mouths covered just the same way as above:

Stephansdom Vienna

Widow after a husband that died 1574

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From the same church, where the husband died 1567.

After receiving this last depictions, I’m starting to wonder if the practice of covering the mouths of widows perhaps is a northern European one, as most of the sources I have are from Austria, Germany & English. At this point I’m still waiting to find evidence of this practice from other parts of Europe during the period – this would not be unlikely as the idea of silence as a female pious virtue is spread all over Europe during the 16th century.

Suggested further reading, for the curious:

Maids, Wives, Widows: Exploring Early Modern Woman’s Lives 1540-1714

Widows and Suitors in Early Modern English Comedy

From Wives to Widows in Early Modern Paris