A Fifteenth Century Dress

One of the things going on behind the scenes here is the translation of many of my books into other languages. This is a really interesting exercise: I love seeing the covers translated and also the discussions with my translation teams. One team in particular sends me questions to make sure they get the details right. This can require a bit of detective work on my end, since we’re starting translations with the Jewels of Kinfairlie series, which I wrote in 2005. Sometimes I just don’t remember! I thought I would share one of my recent investigations with you, when I went looking for a 15th century dress.

The Rose Red Bride, #2 of the Jewels of Kinfairlie series of medieval Scottish romances by Claire Delacroix

The translators are working on The Rose Red Bride, and wanted more explanation about Vivienne’s dress. Here’s what it says in the book:

“Her finest chemise of sheer linen was an obvious choice, as she wished to impress her fairy lover with her finery. It was cut full and gathered at the neck on a drawstring, as was typical, but was distinguished by sleeves fitted from elbow to wrist and secured with dozens of tiny buttons made of shell.


It was no small feat to don the chemise without the aid of one of her sisters or their maid, but Vivienne managed the deed.


She then donned her favorite kirtle, also a gift from Rosamunde, which was wrought of silk woven in two shades of emerald. The sleeves were slit from the shoulders to reveal the chemise and trailed to the ground, while the hem pooled upon the floor. The hem and neckline and sleeve edges were all graced with intricate golden embroidery. The men in her family had called it a most impractical garment, while her sisters openly coveted it.”

Illustration from The Chronicle of Western Fashion by John Peacock

It sounded to me as if I’d been inspired by a specific dress, so I went looking in my library for the source. I found it in The Chronicle of Western Fashion, by John Peacock, a book of illustrations I’ve had for a long time.

It’s labelled as being the outfit of an Italian lady from 1410. If you look closely, you can see the buttons along the sleeve of the ochre chemise, from elbow to wrist.

I did wonder whether I could find more detail, though, and kept looking.

In Medieval Costume in England and France by Mary G. Houston, I found the image below. It looks like the same dress but the woman is illustrated with three other people.

Illustration from Medieval Costume in England and France by Mary G. Houston

One of the interesting things about medieval costume is that there aren’t that many sources, and the sources are a bit different than you might expect. Queens and kings carved onto cathedrals, for example, or depicted in marginalia of manuscripts or woven into tapestries will usually be dressed in the style of the times of the artist and not of their actual era. An illustration of Noah at the flood could show 13th century court dress very well.

This line drawing was inspired by an image in the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry, a 15th century book of hours filled with miniature paintings. Books of prayer are also a great source of social history details, including clothing styles.

This is the painting for April from the Très Riches Heures, which shows fruit trees in bloom in a walled garden, maidens picking flowers, men fishing and a couple pledging their troth. It’s just what you might expect to happen in April in the northern hemisphere. You’ll recognize the woman in blue as the inspiration for the drawings, and for Vivienne’s dress.

April from the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry

This image is from a website called Digital Medievalist. You can see it in more detail, here.

Here’s the Wiki on the Très Riches Heures, too, which is a comparatively large book of hours. It measures about 8″ by 12″ but many books of hours are tiny, only four inches or so in each dimension. The detail in them is incredible! If you’re ever at the Cloisters in New York, they have a collection of books of hours and there are always a few on display. You can also see selected pages from the books of hours in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum (which owns the Cloisters) on this page of search results.

The Rose Red Bride, book two of the Jewels of Kinfairlie series of medieval romances by Claire Delacroix, German edition

So, I found Vivienne’s 15th century dress, and now the translators know what the sleeves look like.

The German edition of The Rose Red Bride – which will be called die rosenrote Braut – should be available in January.

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