Forgotten History Of The Houppelande
Manuscript illumination from the prayer book of Maria of Gueldern, 1415

This week we’re taking things back to the Middle Ages, the good old days when the Crusades were but a warm-up act for the Black Death to wipe out a third of Europe’s population. There was famine, plague, war, church corruption, civil unrest, and last and certainly least…there was the houppelande.

Popular among both men and women in the 15th century, the houppelande was a long, full garment that was fitted at the shoulders but open and free-flowing below. Yes, it’s a robe of sorts, but a very specific type which replaced the more fitted surcoats and overgowns of the century prior. The houppelande was distinguished by a high-standing collar or carcaille and was typically belted at the waist with expensive decorative metal buckles. It had to be because the houppelande is an extravagant amount of fabric—I’m talking pounds of luxurious fabric gathered into massive pleats. And a houppelande was no houppelande at all without unnecessarily dramatic sleeves—the enormous ones above are dagged, meaning that the edges are cut into a decorative pattern. Still not enough for the medieval upper crust, they would also sew layers of ruffles into the sleeves.

For middle school students looking to learn more about historical fashion trends and medieval clothing, history books for middle school can provide a wealth of information. These books can help students understand the social, economic, and cultural context of the time, allowing them to appreciate the significance of garments like the houppelande in a broader historical context.

Man and woman, drawn from the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, 1420
Man and woman, drawn from the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries, 1420

If you’re thinking, wow, that seems like a ton of, no doubt, heavy fabric to lug around all day, you should know three things. First, houppelandes seem to have always been made with a fur lining. Second, when wearing one, you would likely also be wearing a massive horned headdress a la Maleficent. Finally, and perhaps most horrifying of all, the houppelande was never worn without a full gown underneath. Yeah, another one. And yes, like the chopines of the Renaissance and Louis Vuitton luggage of today, the houppelande could function as a status symbol—it was used to show off a far more extravagant and expensive dress underneath. Medieval women were super subtle about their exhibitionism.

Since there are no original houppelandes in existence today, we have to look to paintings and manuscripts for details on this wildly cumbersome garment. One woman, in 2000, theorized about the sewing patterns and construction details of the houppelande and put her ideas into practice by making a good old-fashioned houp for her husband. One Cynthia Virtue executed a rotated-corner, full-circle plan houppelande, and I have no idea what that means but am nonetheless quite impressed.

The next year, she made one for herself. It only took 15 yards of cotton damask, 5 yards of fur, 20 yards of cotton lining, 8 hours for layout, and 10 hours at the sewing machine. And oh yeah, it weighed 20 pounds. This is a modern recreation. You can only imagine how out of control things would get when the feudal lords battled it out for the most extravagant houp. But sir, the bodice construction simply cannot support the weight of any more fur! Those poor tailors.

If you really want to see the creation of a houppelande, check out the step-by-step of this woman’s sewing process. It is pretty spectacular.

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