Wednesday, 3 July 2013


In the early middle ages pretty much everyone wore long flowing outer garments which fell from the shoulder and were belted or girdled in at waist level. Then in the c14th plate armour started to be worn, and under plate armour long flowing garments are uncomfortable and an encumbrance. Knights started to wear arming doublets - which are basically close-fitting quilted and padded linen or canvas jackets, sometimes with chain mail patches where the joins in plate armour would be and bunches of points (laces with copper-alloy tips called aglets or ailettes sewn on) attached at strategic spots for lacing items of plate armour on.
Illustration from "How a man schall be armyd at his ese when he schal fighte on foote" (c1450); has a very rare depiction of an arming doublet with mail gussets.

This started a fashion for close-fitting clothes which revolutionized fashion, both male and female. So doublets, originally a military garment, became generally fashionable. Among their particular military features were the use of laces for fastening (have you tried wearing buttons under armour?), the padding of upper body and, especially, 'puff' shoulders (which help to spread the weight of body and shoulder armour and still allow free movement), short standing collars (because who wants armour digging into the neck?) and eyelets around the bottom for lacing joined hose to (I'll come onto hose in more detail in the next posting). Doublets have to be tailor-made (anything advertised as a ready-to-wear doublet is guaranteed to be an ill-fitting 'Hollywood horror'). There are almost no straight lines in a doublet pattern, btw - *every* piece has to curve to allow for a proper fit. Compared to modern clothes, they are cut incredibly high under the arms (again, because a plate-armour cuirass is useless unless it protects the armpit, a favourite 'soft target' area, especially for poll weapons (which confusingly are mounted on poles; 'poll' refers to the head of such a weapon, but I digress...).

Detail from a Hans Memling altarpiece showing St John; the foreground figure shows the tight fit of the doublet; note points holding hose up, the back one of which is unlaced to allow bending over with greater freedom.
Also, a doublet is not a quick and simple thing to put on, especially if already laced to the hose, but they feel surprisingly comfortable to wear and do, let's face it, look good. Wool was the usual material, pad- or herringbone- stitched to an interlining of canvas or a padding of soft blanket-type wool; although silk, linen and canvas are historically defensible. Leather doublets are favoured by some modern film and theatre costume designers (the RSC seems to have an inexhaustible supply) but personally I wouldn't like to try fighting in one of those under armour for several hours on a hot day. Pictorial evidence for doublets is relatively scarce because most men chose to be painted wearing either a richer gown or armour over the top. As a general rule, the later in the c15th you get, the shorter the doublet and the more visible the hose.
Man being stripped of his gown by robbers, showing the doublet beneath. An Italian illustration of the 1430s, compare the length of the doublet with the later Memling painting above.

No comments:

Post a Comment