Originally published in Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette, edited by Denis Bruna. Published for Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, New York. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015. 39–45.

From the exhibition: Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette.

One often imagines that only women’s bodies, the upper body in particular, used to be constrained by clothing. Seen simply in contrast to those of women, men’s bodies would appear to have escaped all sorts of restrictions. While the one was fettered, however, the other was hardly any freer.

Illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, panel paintings, and sculptures created during the second half of the fourteenth century show a variety of scenes from everyday life, each one more precise than the last, offering us a better understanding of medieval dress and its evolution.

One type of garment worn by knights and men-at-arms is emblematic of men’s fashion at the time of Charles V: the pourpoint, or doublet.1 The word comes from the Old French pour-poindre, a garment meant to be stitched. In fact, this garment, which covered the torso to just below the waist, was made out of several layers of cloth, between which padding made out of cotton or silk cocoon scraps was added and held in place by means of stitching. The doublet is a lined or “double” garment, as it was made of several layers of fabric and padding, giving us the origin of the English word “doublet,” still used to designate both medieval and modern garments.

Between 1360 and 1380, illuminated manuscripts depict a great number of these garments. In the Grandes Chroniques de France de Charles V, a manuscript copied and illuminated in Paris between 1375 and 1379, men-at-arms, servants, loyal followers of the king, craftsmen, and even hangmen are dressed in doublets, which would appear to have been considered highly fashionable, given the sheer number of these images.

Let us look specifically at the example of the scene of the banquet held by Charles V for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV and his son Wenceslas in 1378. In the foreground, in front of a table set for princes and church dignitaries, three men are dressed in this emblematic garment, short and closely fitted at the hips. The waist is clearly delineated by an addition to the doublet: a belt, low-slung and just barely held up by the curve of the hips. It is the outsized padding of the torso that constitutes the essential originality of this garment, however, during the last decades of the fourteenth century. This protuberance could only be achieved through hidden artifice or, in other words, padding. Cotton or wadding could be used to augment the volume of any given part of the garment, in this case the torso.

Narrow at the bottom, broader above, the doublet hugs the body as well as modifying it. This playful contrast creates a silhouette we find, for example, in the image of Jean de Vaudetar, adviser to Charles V, as he is depicted in the frontispiece of the Bible he gave to the king in 1372.2 On the left, Charles V wears the long and outmoded surcoat (we know that the king, afflicted with rheumatism, preferred voluminous clothing) while to the right, Jean de Vaudetar is dressed in a short and padded doublet. The lines of the garment are not unlike the doublet of Charles de Blois, made in the late fourteenth century3. Here it was not the cotton padding held in place by stitching that created the visible cambering.4 It was more likely the doublet worn underneath, or even a convex metal breastplate, that created the desired distension.5 On the front, the prominent line created by the numerous buttons accentuated this ostentatious protuberance.

Before it was recreated as an overgarment, the civilian doublet originated in military dress, where it was an undergarment covered with armor. Well before the fourteenth century, knights already wore various padded garments beneath their breastplates; aside from the doublet, often padded with silk or cotton, there was also the aketon, filled with cotton, or the gambison, filled with hemp.6 These articles of padded clothing, covering the torso and thighs, were worn as protection in sword-fighting.

During the last third of the fourteenth century, the doublet was increasingly worn as a civilian garment, over hose but no longer beneath armor. The French-English conflict, urban uprisings, and the ravages of widespread military actions led to hordes of armed men and mercenaries flooding the towns and countryside. It is probable that this keen interest in the padded doublet originated in the daily cohabitation with soldiers, whose breastplates already boasted such aggressive protuberances.7 This silhouette, with a pronounced chest and constricted waist, was all the rage.

Moralists and chroniclers have left a record of their sharp opinions of this disturbing novelty. In Prague in the year 1367, the canon Benesch of Weitmühl mentioned the new garb, which he considered so strange that he assumed it must have been foreign. The torso, swollen with thick cotton padding, looked, according to the ecclesiastical dignitary, like a woman’s bust (mamillas mulierum). Later on, Benesch of Weitmühl compared men with such tight waists (constricti) to greyhounds.8

Around 1400, the doublet lost its convexity. The houppelande, a long and voluminous overgarment, continued a moderate exaggeration of the chest area, notably with wide sleeves and an emphasis placed on the layering of garments. The overly long sleeves and tapered trains also lengthened the figure.

In the middle of the fifteenth century, the male silhouette was again broadened, not with chest padding this time, but by expanding the chest with maheutres, a kind of cylindrical roll placed around the armholes. Furthermore, the lightening of the lower body, often covered with fitted hose, and tapered poulaines (a type of shoe), also contributed, by visual contrast, to broadening the upper body. A comparison of the portrait of Charles VII by Jean Fouquet, from around 1450, with that of François I by Jean Clouet, from around 1530, shows little formal evolution of the male form over the course of those decades. Nonetheless, the broadening of the shoulders of François I is due to a chamarre, a new outer garment with puffed sleeves. The great originality of the sixteenth century, in the formal evolution of men’s bodies through dress, lay in the return of the padded doublet. During the reign of Henri III, the attention was no longer on the shoulders, but rather the abdomen, with the appearance of the peascod, an ingenious padding distended with supports sculpting the front of the garment in a hanging paunch. The peascod was quite visible at the time, as men wore small capes on their shoulders, more like collars than coats, leaving their chests and paunches in full view.

During the course of its brief history (between 1570 and 1590), the size of the peascod tended to vary. In extreme cases, it assumed the curved and pointed shape of a falling horn, happily dipping below the waist. The engraving of the standard-bearer, executed by Hendrick Goltzius in 1587, illustrates this extravagance, which was not spared by the pamphleteers. One of them, Philip Stubbs, in The Anatomie of Abuses, published in 1583, “finds no beauty in the men who wear them.” Further on, his virulence toward this fashion, colored by exaggeration, prompts him to say that men outfitted with such artifices are “so stuffed, wadded, and sewn that they can’t even bend down to the ground.”9 That same year, Blaise de Vigenère, in his French translation of Titus Livy, rails against the new men’s fashions to underscore, in his opinion, the sobriety of the Romans in their “manner of dress.” He delivers the following assessment of the new doublet: “the poulaine peascod: wadded, stuffed, stopped-up, embossed, rounded, and padded like the pack-saddle of a mule.”10 The poulaine peascod described by Blaise de Vigenère supposedly displays the presumed Polish origin of the garment, believed to have been brought back from Poland by Henri III.11

All sorts of dense materials, easily packed together, were used to create the doublet’s bulk: horsehair, wool, cotton, tow, rags, and even bran.12 Nonetheless, the hieratic portraits of aristocratic men between around 1570 and 1590 show the appendage protruding so much that even the cleverest padding would not have been enough to support it. In order to create the center ridge, which divided the lower part of the wearer’s abdomen with a symmetrical axis, a pronounced busk, made out of wood or metal, or even a triangular armature, was necessary. Maurice Leloir, in his Dictionnaire du costume, mentions the use, in addition to the central busk, of strips of shaped cardboard or beaten leather.13 Such a mechanism created the doublet’s bulk, without folds or wrinkles, maintained the rigidity expected in the aristocratic figure, and consecrated the “triumph of the upper body.”14

The military origin of the bombé doublet of the fourteenth century engendered a rigid garment, inaugurating the history of the restrictive men’s garment, which the sixteenth-century peascod and other padded frock coats of the following centuries perpetuated. Although the garment could be fitted, by the end of the Middle Ages it no longer reflected anatomical lines and volumes faithfully. Padding, metal pieces borrowed from military dress, busks, and other hidden armatures contradicted basic human anatomy, creating another.15 Fabric and its embellishments imposed a distorting effect. In the same way that a woman’s form could be changed through the use of farthingales and other artifices, a man’s body presented itself as a volume refashioned by its garments.

© Bard Graduate Center, Denis Bruna.

1.On the subject of the doublet, see Odile Blanc, “Pourpoints, gilets et corsets: invention d’une plastique du Moyen Âge au XIXe siècle,” in Danielle Allérès, Mode, des parures aux marques de luxe (Paris: Economica, 2003), 106–10.

2.The Hague, Museum Meermanno-Westreenianum, MS 10 B 23, fol. 2.

3.Lyon, Musée des Tissus, MT 30307. See the essay in this volume by Maximilien Durand, as well as the bibliographical material in note 1 of the essay.

4.Concerning the padding and quilting of medieval and modern garments, see Alexandre Fiette, ed., L’Étoffe du relief: Quilts, boutis et autres textiles matelassés, exh. cat. (Paris: Somogy, and Geneva: Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, 2006), 92–93.

5.Traces of rust on the lining lead one to think that the doublet was worn over a metal armor plate. I thank Maximilien Durand, director of the Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs of Lyon, for providing this information.

6.Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997), 63–64.

7.Blanc, “Pourpoints, gilets et corsets,” 72.

8.“Circum parecordia de bombace magnam spissitudinem, ut mamillas mulierum habere viderentur. Circa ventre mita constricti erant, ut canes venatici, qui veltres dicuntur, esse viderentur,” Scriptores rerum Bohemicarum … (Prague, 1784), 2: 367.

9.Philip Stubbs, The Anatomie of Abuses (London, 1583); sig. E2r, E2v, quoted in Susan J. Vincent, The Anatomy of Fashion. Dressing the Body from the Renaissance to Today (New York and Oxford: Berg, 2009), 49.

10.Blaise de Vigenère, Les Décades qui se trouvent de Tite-Live … (Paris: Jacques du Puys, 1583), 917.

11.This origin is evoked specifically in the glossary in Paraître et se vêtir au XV Ie siècle (Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’université de Saint-Étienne, 2006), 285.

12.See also on this subject Fiette, L’Étoffe du relief, 93.

13.Maurice Leloir, Dictionnaire du costume et de ses accessoires, des armes et des étoffes, des origines à nos jours (Paris: Gründ, 1951), see “panseron.”

14.Georges Vigarello, Histoire de la beauté: le corps et l’art d’embellir de la Renaissance à nos jours (Paris: Le Seuil, 2004), 20.

15.Concerning these ideas, see Odile Blanc, Parades et parures: L’invention du corps de mode à la fin du Moyen Âge (Paris: Gallimard, 1997), 79.