Vesture Vocab II: Lexical Decorations for your Costumes and Conversations

Welcome to round two of Vesture Vocab! As always, I hope to inspire your cosplay and costume imagination through uncommon or unfamiliar terms from a period of fashion’s history. Just like design details enhance an outfit, interesting words strengthen an individual’s lexicon. So feel free to use these apparel expressions in either capacity!

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Last time, I introduced the terms like farthingale, fibula and fichu,  and their possible uses  in your dress-up wardrobe. Keep reading for this month’s ensemble edification on coif, epaulette, fillet, kirtle, and poulaine.

Coif

(alternately coiffe or quoif)

A knitted woolen coif, ca. 1500-1550. V&A.
A knitted woolen coif, ca. 1500-1550. V&A.

Simply put, a coif is a type of cap, not to be confused with the fancy hairstyle of the same name. Additionally, it’s a great Scrabble word! Games aside, a coif can have a varied appearance and meaning, depending upon the time period to which it’s attributed. The coif’s many incarnations include but are not limited to: a soft, fitted piece of fabric with long sides that could either be tied under the chin (or untied to signify an unmarried woman’s status); a skull cap worn by English judges beneath their barristers’ wigs; and a hood-type garment that covered the head, neck and shoulders of the wearer (think nun!)

Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, by Fra Filippo Lippi, ca. 1440. The close-fitting black coif underneath the embroidered veil appears to be lined with pearls.
Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement, by Fra Filippo Lippi, ca. 1440. The close-fitting black coif underneath the embroidered veil appears to be lined with pearls.

While the origin of the coif can’t exactly be pinpointed, examples of the versatile headwear can be found in artwork starting from the Medieval Period (AKA the Middle Ages). A nebulous term in its own right, the period is typically between the 5th century fall of Rome and the Renaissance in the 15th century.  Costumers, historians and costume historians, weigh in on this point down in the comments section!

Underneath her pink wimple, you can see Maid Marian's lavender coif.
Underneath her pink wimple (the cloth draped over her head), you can see Maid Marian’s lavender coif.

If you wanted a costume similar to that of Maid Marian from Robin Hood, you’d likely be wearing a coif. Rich people liked to wear lots of layers of clothing to show their wealth off to each other, so ladies typically wore coifs beneath elaborate Italian Renaissance head-dresses. Men wore them under their flat caps, berets, and bonnets. If you’re looking to do some historical reenactment or maybe an alternate-universe royal historical figure, you could certainly include the coif into your costume!

Edward VI as a Child, by Hans Holbein the Younger. ca. 1538. This coif is quite close-fitting to Edward's hair, and is worn beneath a jeweled and embroidered beret.
Edward VI as a Child, by Hans Holbein the Younger. ca. 1538. This coif is quite close-fitting to Edward’s hair, and is worn beneath a jeweled and embroidered beret.

Epaulette

Have you ever wondered if those little things on the shoulders of your favorite military-style jacket have a name? The flappy things that button down? Well, rest easy. Those are epaulettes. It means little shoulder in French, and they can make an exquisite or over-the-top addition to an outfit.

A simple, everyday epaulette.
A simple, everyday epaulette.

Originally, epaulettes were a type of decoration or insignia, often seen on military garb. But this decorative detail can easily help pump an outfit up if needs something more.  It can be a little or a lot – I’d never want to limit you! Want to be a Princess or Prince Charming? Maybe think about adding some fancy, fringed epaulettes to the shoulders of your outfit will do the trick!

Riza Hawkeye, rocking some epaulettes!
Riza Hawkeye, rocking some epaulettes!

Epaulettes sometimes serve a purpose beyond decoration: they can indicate the wearer’s rank in the military, or hold shoulder belts (a holster for ammunition, weapons, etc) in place.

Morgan Freeman, by Steve Payne.
Morgan Freeman, by Steve Payne. Now, those are some epaulettes!

Epaulettes provide a great opportunity to let your imagination fly (imagine actual feathers on your epaulettes!) with whatever costume or cosplay you’re trying to achieve!

Fillet

(fil-ette)

I’m not talking fish or cuts of meat! In this case, a fillet is just a narrow band of material (it could be ribbon, leather, metal, and so forth) that encircles the wear’s head. It can be simple, decorative and/or functional, as individuals also wore them to bind their hair.

Marble head of a deity wearing a Dionysiac fillet, ca. A.D.14–68 Roman. Possibly Dionysus or Ariadne.
Marble head of a deity wearing a Dionysiac fillet, ca. A.D.14–68
Roman. Possibly Dionysus or Ariadne.

Wondering how to incorporate this accessory into a costume? Fillet examples can be found in Egyptian, Greek and Roman art. Right there provides a pantheon of gods and goddesses to choose from, whether you’re trick-or-treating or cosplaying.

Relief of Amenhotep III Wearing Fillet Crown, c. 1360 BC.
Relief of Amenhotep III wearing a fillet, c. 1360 BC.

The fillet is an incredibly versatile addition to one’s costume, and spans the centuries in historical relevance. Even within the last decade, those delicate floral headbands that have gone in-and-out of vogue are just modern-day fillets!

An example of a fillet from the Renaissance on Beatrice d'Este, c. 1480s-1490s and attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis.
An example of a decorated ribbon fillet from the Renaissance on Beatrice d’Este, c. 1480-1490, and attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio de Predis.

If you’re looking for just a little something else to complete an outfit, then perhaps consider incorporating a fillet, fancy or plain, into your costume!

Kirtle

(also cyrtel)

A kirtle is another versatile term and garment. It’s another word for a loosely-fitted tunic or gown-type article of clothing that originated during the early Middle Ages, and was worn throughout the Renaissance.

Kirtles (on the men ad women), hose, coifs and veils-- a little something for everyone!
Kirtles (on the men and women), hose, coifs and veils– a little something for everyone!

It was could be worn as a primary garment, or as one of perhaps a couple of layers. Depending on the era, it was worn with another tunic, gown, houppelande, cote-hardie and/or a girdle. Kirtles could have long sleeves, no sleeves at all, or short sleeves, and were more fitted or less fitted, either by the cut of the tunic itself, or by means of lacing. In fact, it’s quite possible that Maid Marian could wear a kirtle in addition to her coif. Since many paintings of the Virgin Mary  are depicted in medieval garb, you might spy her in a kirtle if you’re viewing some triptychs or icons of the time.

A beautiful Netherlandish-inspired kirtle by Daisy Viktoria. Check-out her website!
A beautiful Netherland-inspired kirtle by Daisy Viktoria. Check-out her website!

Please keep in mind that due to a general lack of extant garments, the main research I have to go off of is the pictorial stylings of the painters and other artists of the era, so it’s hard to say exactly how these garments were constructed. Also, kirtle is a kind of generic term for a variety of tunic-type garments of varying lengths, so one person’s kirtle might in fact be another person’s gown or cote-hardie, depending upon how an image is being interpreted. Suffice it to say, the kirtle is something that is easily incorporated into a medieval or Renaissance-inspired costume or cosplay!

Poulaine

(alternately crakow, crakowes)

Prior to the stereotypical portrayal of a jester, poulaine were all-the-rage as footwear among the wealthy members of society.  Below, you can see an artist’s rendition of many gentlemen wearing the long, pointy shoes, which only got longer and pointier. Caricatures of the frankly ridiculous shoe can be found in some manuscripts.

Poulaines are the footwear de riguer, before they were ironically relegated to the realm of the jester. Lady awarding a prize to the winner. René d'Anjou's Livre des Tournois, c. 1488.
Poulaines are the footwear de riguer, before they were ironically relegated to the realm of the jester. Lady awarding a prize to the winner. René d’Anjou’s Livre des Tournois, c. 1488.

Nowadays, you might see some poulaine at a Renaissance Faire, LARP or other Medieval reenactment, and there are even places that will make your own custom pair! Even if poulaine as they were known way back when aren’t being worn in today’s fashion world, vestiges of the shoe can be seen in the ultra-pointed toes of some modern day shoes.

Extant poulaine, c. 1300-1450.
Extant poulaine, c. 1300-1450.

So, if you’re maybe looking to be a character in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it would behoove you to check-out some silly footwear!


Print resources:

Brooks Picken, Mary. A Dictionary of Costume and Fashion. Dover Publications, Inc. 1957, 1987. Print.

Laver, James. Costumes and Fashion. Thames and Hudson. 1995. Print.

Ambrose, Gavin and Harris, Paul. The Visual Dictionary of Fashion Design. AVA Publishing SA. 2007. Print.

Payne, Winakor, Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. HarperCollins Publishers. 1992. Print.


Do you have any terms that tickle your fancy? Or are you looking for a little help regarding an existing costume? Go ahead and fire away with questions in the comment section below!

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