Cross-dressing was quite simply forbidden, we are being told. There were some exceptions – e.g. a woman was allowed to dress in men’s clothes when travelling, if it was safer for her.
And then there are fascinating stories like this, from England 1347-1348:
In those days a rumour arose and great excitement amongst the people because, when tournaments were held, at almost every place a troop of ladies would appear, as thought they were a company of players, dressed in men’s clothes of striking richness and variety, to the number of forty or sometimes fifty such damsels, all very eye-catching and beautiful, though hardly of the kingdom’s better sort. They were dressed in parti-coloured tunics, of one colour on one side and a different one on the other, with short hoods, and liripipes cound about their heads like strings, with belts of gold and silver clasped about them, and even with the kind of knives commonly called daggers slung low across their bellies, in pouches. And thus they paraded themselves at tournaments on fine chargers and other well-arrayed horses, and consumed and spent their substance, and wantonly and with disgraceful lubricity displayed their bodies…
Chronicon Henrici Knighton / Newton: Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince
The tale of women in tournaments is told by canon Henry Knighton in his Chronicon. There is no way of telling how much he exaggerated – surely he, as a virtuous clergyman, wanted to make a clear difference between decent folk and the other kind. It may well be that nothing of what he described actually happened – but what if it did?
What would these women have been wearing?
Yes, a fascinating thought. Obviously the ladies would have been wealthy if they could afford chargers, gold or silver belts, and daggers. If they were dressed in fancy, expensive men’s clothes that allowed them to “with disgraceful lubricity display their bodies“, they would probably have followed the latest fashion of short, fitting cotes instead of long gowns. And if we add in the mi-parti colours and hoods with long liripipes, we are at the height of fashion. The most fashionable liripipes were so long they could be wrapped around the heads or tucked under the belts.
Other elements of the masculine attire would be the aforementioned dagger and leather pouches. And obviously the ladies would have been wearing hoses and shoes – perhaps Knighton was unable to even mention them in detail?
But I have got to have myself a set like this!
I don’t have to start from scratch: I already have unisex shoes. And a gorgeous dagger I traded in for a Viborg shirt with Master Hákon years ago. Back then I thought I could use the dagger with my regular outfit (I had in mind the ancient Finnish women with their knives hanging from their belts, and swords they were sometimes buried with), but I didn’t need to study a lot more to realize that daggers really didn’t belong to women. Despite the fact that Master Hákon kindly sent me a picture from a period manuscript showing a woman with a dagger. Too bad the dagger wasn’t hanging from her belt but was in her hand when she was killing a man…
My dagger is still absolutely fabulous, ornated with silver, together with the leather sheath. It has been a waste to just have it lie in my closet.
Last summer I was testing out some men’s braies. I used the necessity to have something to wear in the Pennsic heat as an excuse. The real reasons were in my desire to find a model for pants that would work A) for my sons (in all these years, I don’t think a single pair of pants has survived them) and B) for me in my masculine attire with hoses and all.
The material is a nice, thin, soft linen, and the braies are of the style ‘tube’. I wanted to make sure there was enough room for movement in the crotch area where most of my sons’ pants fall apart – and I think I exaggerated a bit… But they were really comfy and ventilated in the heat, and covered absolutely everything! The next model I am going to try out is perhaps made out of three rectangles and are open from the inside of the legs. There is a lovely period drawing of them in Florent Véniel’s book Le costume médiéval de 1320 à 1480.
For years I have dreamt of Charles de Blois’ pourpoint I’d pad slightly and stitch neatly. Too bad de Blois dates some 20 years after the tournaments in England and his pourpoint is of the tighter and shorter fashion than the cotes of 1340s.
And of course I need to make a shirt (better than the wrinkled thingy in the picture), hoses and a hood with a long liripipe. One of these days.
Just occured to me…
Even though there doesn’t seem to exist a more compelling evidence of the group of ladies than Knighton’s stories, it is known for a fact that in 1347-1348 England saw an unprecedented amount of tournaments and masquerades. Edward III’s army was victorious over the French e.g. in Crécy and Calais, and wealth flooded to England from France.
An interesting coincidence is that the Black Death reached England in 1349. The wild and free behaviour of these ladies could therefore not result from the chaotic times of the plague. But it would be interesting to know whether Knighton, who wrote his chronicles years afterwards, was keen on putting the blame on the appalling events like this, and saw them as one reason for God’s wrath and the Black Death. If he did, he wouldn’t have been the only one to disapprove of the indecency of the new fashion of the mid-14th century, and blame it for the decline of morality and, naturally, Divine revenge.