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Assignment: A Medieval "Freak of Fashion": The Bliaut

(Cite as: Cooper, Jean L., "A Medieval Freak of Fashion: The Bliaut." rev. 6/23/2005.)

To set the stage:

Things were kind of hectic in the last half of the eleventh century A.D. In 1066, there had been a great upheaval in the British Isles. Ethelred, the Anglo-Saxon king, died without naming an heir in 1066. The Thing elected Harold of Wessex king. Harold Hardrada, the King of Norway, thought he should have the throne, but Harold of Wessex killed Hardrada (along with his own rebellious brother Tostig) in a battle at Stamford Bridge (in the north of England). Two weeks later, after marching his men three hundred miles from Stamford Bridge to Hastings, he fought William, the Duke of Normandy. Harold was killed in this battle, and William I became king. (French fashion enters the British Isles!)

For 20 years, King William I protected his possessions in England and Normandy. His son William II succeeded him in 1086. Pope Urban II pronounced the First Crusade in 1095, urging all good Christians to take the Cross and march to the succor of Constantinople. The Crusaders were gone from their homes and families until about 1100, having spent 1096 and 1097 near Constantinople and in Asia Minor, and 1098 and 1099 in the Holy Land.

In 1100, William II died in a hunting accident in England, and his brother Henry I (no slouch at recognizing a good opportunity) rushed back to Westminster to declare himself the king. Henry had only two surviving legitimate children, William and Maud. William died in the wreck of the ship the White Rose, leaving Maud the sole heiress. Henry, knowing it would be difficult for a woman to be accepted as sole ruler, required his vassals to swear their loyalty to her while he was living. Unfortunately, as soon as Henry died in 1135, the vassals wavered and split their loyalties between Maud and her cousin Stephen of Blois, the son of Henry I's sister Adele and the grandson of William I. The entire period of Stephen's reign, 1135 through 1154, was a period of constant warfare between Stephen and Maud, which makes it even more amazing that fashion history was made in his court.

The Bliaut:

The bliaut qualifies as a fashion "freak" because it is so different from what came before or after. It was most popular between 1140 and 1160. Prior to 1140, most clothing was based on the loose T- or cross-tunic, worn in one or two layers. The bliaut was unusual in that 1) it was form-fitting, 2) it included a tightly fitted corset-like girdle, and 3) it included an open "surcoat". After 1160, the bliaut morphed into a closed dress without an open front and with tight sleeves.

In England, this was the reign of King Stephen. You can also see that the bliaut was popular in France during that time, because the Kings and Queens of Chartres Cathedral (begun 1145, completed 1195; the Kings and Queens were finished about 1160) are wearing bliauts. Here are close-ups of the statues - you can clearly see the girdle and pleated skirt detail in these images.

What is a bliaut, you ask? Rather than one article of clothing, the bliaut was a "fashion look." For women, it consisted of an underdress, a surcoat, and a "girdle" or waistband that went over both, and which was fitted from beneath the breasts to the top of the hips. Sometimes, it looks as if the woman is wearing a close-fitting sleeveless, hip-length vest instead of a girdle. The surcoat looks as if it was made of fine linen, with broomstick pleats throughout the entire garment. The word bliaut (or bliaus) technically refers to a loose, flowing overgarment, such as a robe or surcoat, so the entire fashion took its name from the surcoat piece of the ensemble. In addition, an open coat such as this is unique in Western European apparel up to this time.

The man's bliaut also consisted of the underdress, the surcoat, and a belt. There's a very nice illustration about halfway down on this page from the theater department of the University of British Columbia. This outfit doesn't really sound unusual until you get to the details. The most unique feature of the men's bliaut was the very wide skirt either sewn to the waist of the tunic or cut as one piece with the tunic. This skirt was cut in a triangle, and gathered into the waistseam. The tunic was held in place by a belt; it was worn bloused over the belt, with the side skirts tucked up into the belt.

There is a theory that the bliaut was brought back from the East by the returning Crusaders (1100 A.D.). From its cut, it certainly could be a version of the Byzantine women's stola or tunica or men's dalmatica. (For an interesting discussion of Byzantine garb, try this link.) These two garments were very similar in cut and style, being long, flowing robes, with sleeves that had two variations - either they were narrowed to a wristband or the sleeve widened out to a "butterfly" style sleeve. In the East, the dalmatica and stola later developed into robes that were made of heavy fabric and heavily decorated. The simpler version of this coat is still being worn in the Middle East to this day. In the West, it appears that the bliaut was made of lighter fabric so that it could be gathered and pleated, to be held in place by the girdle. Although there is no evidence that the girdle of the bliaut was boned or corsetted, it was cut much larger than previously known, and was drawn tightly closed by lacing tied on the sides, holding the pleated surcoat in place.

Although 1140-1160 was the height of the bliaut's fashionable period, it was worn for some years afterward. Spanish costume, greatly influenced as it was by Moslem society, retained this open surcoat in both sleeved and sleeveless styles well into the Renaissance period. In addition, the surcoat - after having its open front seam sewn - developed into a form-fitting dress called the cotehardie. The cotehardie was worn either with a shorter underdress, or, in later years, as the form-fitting underdress with a sleeveless surcoat of its own.

 

Nota bene: If you are interested in making a bliaut, this page -- A 12th Century Bliaut -- is one of the best I've seen for that purpose.

 

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Updated on June 23, 2005
by Jean L. Cooper
Copyright 2001 Jean L. Cooper