06 July 2012

Fashionable Women of the Anglo-Norman Period

By Lisa J. Yarde

When the Normans crossed the Channel and invaded England in 1066, they brought a new culture, language, architectural style and legal codes to the conquered country. They also replaced at least ninety percent of the landed aristocracy with members of their own class. The new Norman nobility could afford to be fashionable with their increased lands and wealth. At first, they wore costumes that would have been familiar to their English counterparts, having encountered the Norman retinue of King Edward the Confessor prior to the Conquest. The types or colors of dyes used for fabric, the quality of the fabric, and embellishments including embroidery or colored, ornamented braid known as passements, indicated class distinctions. For instance, the nobility had access to fine linen, woolen cloth and later, silk, but the average person would have worn a homespun cloth of russet or coarse wool. Clothing styles for women often changed; the tight-fitting sleeves for women’s dresses in the late eleventh century became elongated during the reign of King Stephen, only to revert to the former fashion in the late twelfth century. The Crusades also influenced fashion, with the introduction of silk and the surcote, modeled on twelfth-century Persian garments. 

From 1066 through the 1130’s, the dress of a Norman noblewoman followed the example at the left, a representation of Queen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror. In this representation of William’s diminutive queen, she wears a white robe as her outermost garment. Embroidery decorates the wrists and neckline of the robe. The bodice is form-fitting, while the skirt widens at the hips and falls in folds. Although not visible, it's likely she wears a camise / chemise next to the skin as an undergarment. The material for the undergarment would be chainsilmade from flax into a fine cloth. The girdle, which the Normans also introduced, drapes her hips with tasseled ends trailing almost to the floor. The blue mantle covering the robe also bears the same rich embroidery on its border. Mantles were a distinct mark of the nobility. Cords fastened them across the shoulders. A thin veil, the Norman couvrechef, covers her head. The Normans typically used white cambric or chainsil for the veils. A Norman noblewoman might have worn a circlet of silver or  gold to hold the veil in place. 

The costume of Queen Matilda's granddaughter and namesake from the late twelfth century is shown on the right. She was the daughter of Henry I and fought her cousin Stephen for the English crown during a period known as the Anarchy. Her outermost garment is the bliaut, fashioned from silk and dyed in varying colors. The most noticeable difference is the addition of voluminous sleeves, fitting closer at the shoulder before widening to the wrists. The bliaut also has a wider skirt with many folds. This one is also lined inside with a green material. A billowing red mantle falls around the shoulders and back. A sleeveless corsage over the bliaut seems to have gold or jewels on its surface.  Another change is the visible hair in an elaborate style of nearly floor-length braids bound in gold ribbon. The girdle of previous decades remains, but the veil is no longer strictly white. Fashionable Anglo-Norman women also enhanced their costumes with brooches, fastenings for their mantles and girdles ornamented with pearls,  gold and silver, precious gemstones and enamels. One standard remained the same no matter the decade. Women always wore long garments covering them from neck to ankles.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by real-life events. She is the author of historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle,based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon's Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written Sultana and Sultana’s Legacy, novels set during a turbulent period of thirteenth century Spain,where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family.