Belle Femme: Beauty, Transition, and the Dawn of the 16th Century

lady in burgundian gown

What makes a woman beautiful?  The answer to this can certainly be quite different across cultures and eras.  Here I’ll explore the changing standards of female beauty and dress during that interesting cusp between the late medieval period and the Renaissance.

Fashions certainly had their roller coaster ride across the medieval period.  Waists were loose, then fitted, here low, there high.  Sleeves were tight with a myriad of buttons in a row, then sleeves were great draping bells cut in leafy hem shapes.  Headdresses of a variety of styles came an went, including towering hennin veils supported by wires that required castle doorways to be modified to allow the fashionable ladies to pass from room to room.

A medieval lady’s silhouette, however, was allowed to remain fairly flexible.  Most gowns could accommodation pregnancies without too much modification.  Comfortable tunic styles gave way to the copiously roomy houppelande, the paneled kirtle, and eventually the high-waisted Burgundian style of gown.  Many of these styles showed off the desirably graceful neck.  In fact, swan-like movements were favored for ladies throughout the medieval period.15th century lady

Another aspect of interest is the treatment of hair.  During the late medieval period, women’s hair all but disappears (expect in Italy, but they certainly had their own sense of fashionable taste during the 15th Century).  A high forehead was deemed especially beautiful, and women and girls not naturally endowed with this characteristic plucked their foreheads (sometimes burning the follicles with hot pins to keep them from regrowing) to achieve the almost baby-like bald forehead.

The remaining hair was kept carefully coiled up in the hennin.  Eyebrows were also preferred as thin and arched, and moles or discolorations of any kinds were abhorred as “devil’s marks” and were either treated by the lady on her own skin or at least edited out of any portraits made of her.  Woe to the freckle-faced redhead!  While makeup was socially discouraged, it was used by upper-class women.  However, one of the base ingredients was lead, which created many adverse health effects.

marie of burgundyAs styles changed near the turn of the century, several notable transitions occurred.  First, women’s hair began to reappear, both around the face and, sometimes, out the back as in this portrait.  Hair framing the face and even wrapping around the head in braids or coils is strongly featured in the “Lady and the Unicorn” tapestries.  Whether this is influenced by an “Oriental” style as sometimes mentioned (Turkish?) or the Italian love of showing off the lady’s hair during this time is not perfectly traceable.

The second major aspect of change in fashion for the beautiful lady is the transition away from a high waist and accentuated bosom to a natural or even low waist and flat front.  The scoop or plunging V neckline gives was almost exclusively to the square or W shape.  The languid, swan-like stance is supplanted by a definitely straight torso and spine.  This would continue on through the Tudor reign (and beyond), going to major extremes including deeply V-ed waistlines and boned corseting during Elizabeth I’s reign.

mary tudor black dressThe stiffened bodice first appears during this historic transition, with a round, natural waistline.  The corset had not yet made its appearance, but according to The Tudor Taylor (see Bibliography), both gown and the under-dress (called a kirtle) were stiffened with an interlining of “canvass.”  Laced or hooked snugly, this style not only offered the lady support in a pre-brassier era but also created the flattened, squarish silhouette that is so classic of the Tudor appearance.

As the period progressed, the shoulder line grows wider and wider, to the point where it seems a wonder that a lady’s sleeves might stay on at all.  Sleeves also change in shape from straight and narrow in the previous style to wide bells and eventually decorative false sleeves beneath that puffed out the broad sleeve of the gown.  A hooped underskirt known as a “Farthingale” makes its appearance along with these fancy sleeves, creating a defined, stiffened, conical look to a lady’s figure.  The emphasis became an upright posture, though the accentuation of a long and graceful neck was still maintained until the arrival of the stiffened ruff, when the lady’s neck could disappear entirely.

lady and unicornIn the Unicorn Tapestries, we find these styles and elements of a lady’s beauty frozen somewhere between one era and the next.  Likely woven right at the transition of the century, they too are a statement of fashion in flux.  It’s no longer a Burgundian style, nor is it a full-blown Henry VIII appearance.  Like so many other aspects of these unique tapestries, they lie somewhere in between–a point so fleeting it’s a wonder that it was even captured at all.

Some statements about the cultural views on feminine beauty at the time are clearly showcased in the tapestries.  Here are some highlights:

(1) Preference for a slender, mostly straight figure, with tight bodice accentuating the waist whilst de-emphasizing the bosom.  This includes very slender arms accentuated by tight sleeves, at least from shoulder to elbow.

(2) Preference for fair hair.  While portraits include ladies with dark hair, all of the women in the Unicorn Tapestries with showing hair are blond.  A few have their hair obscured by their bonnets (hoods), belying their matronly status.  I have yet to find reference that unicorn prefer blonds, so this is likely a cultural instead of myth-oriented statement.lady betrays unicorn

(3) Despite all of the talk of “rosy cheeks and ruby lips” in contemporary literature and ballad culture, all of these ladies are quite pale.  Lips are only lightly distinguishable from the face, with very little coloring in the cheeks (if any).  This is paralleled in contemporary portraiture and information about whitening cosmetic use.  The cultural desire for light hair but also pale skin proved a conundrum for some Italian ladies, who are documented to have worn a broad straw brim–pulling their hair out the top to be bleached by the sun while protecting their face and neck below.  Ah yes, the demands of fashion!

(4) Face, neck, upper chest, and hands are the only skin appropriate to be shown in public.  No arms, no legs, period.  While working class women (who are often shown as short, pudgy, buxom, and stout-armed) were depicted as having their sleeves rolled up and their skirts hitched out of the way of their task, this was not a habit afforded to ladies of high degree.  Decorum put show of fabrics over show of skin.

(5) Eye color is not restricted to light colors.  Ladies are shown with blue and brown eyes, so the “blond-haired, blue-eyed” fetish does not appear to be fully planted at this time.  More light eyes appear in “The Lady and the Unicorn” than “The Hunt of the Unicorn” tapestries, but then there are more ladies shown in the first set than the remaining pieces of the second.

(6) Eyelids are an important part of decorum.  Today, we live in a world where eyelids and eyelashes are darkened, to make the eyes look larger.  In late medieval art, having a downcast gaze was considered demure and desirable for ladies.

(7) Gold and jewels are a must.  A beautiful lady does not appear without them (unless she is Venus represented in the nude…and even then she might be afforded a necklace).  A lady’s gold and jewels are essential accessories to her beauty and wealth, adorning her neck, gown, hem, headdress, cuffs, seams, belt, hair, and often fingers.  It is interesting, however, that rings play no role in the Unicorn Tapestries.  No one is wearing them!

lady and unicorn sound(8) The “C” posture has not entirely given way to the straight stature.  Curving the lower back so that the hips are forward is still indicated, offering a somewhat reclining look.  This was considered to be part of a noble lady’s indication of a demure and refined etiquette.  A reclined stance is somewhat off-balanced and therefore non-threatening.  When in the “C” posture, the head is most often tipped forward as well.  Servants (who are more active) do not always affect this same stance.

These are just a few of the interesting bits that can be learned when studying the representation of feminine beauty in art at the crossover from 15th to 16th Century.  More on how the continuation of this trend affected women and fashion will be offered in a later post.