Parisian Insights: La Mode au Moyen Age

It must have been a very long time since I visited an interpretation museum, mostly keeping those pedagogic explorations for my childhood holidays. Yet I challenged my habits by discovering Paris’ Tour Jean Sans Peur’s display dedicated to Fashion in the Medieval Times. A 15th century tower, the Tour Jean Sans Peur now serves as an interpretative center in order to comprehend and reflect upon medieval customs. This year, the tower’s team decided to focus on fashion.

13th century unisexe feminine and masculine costumes

13th century unisexe feminine and masculine costumes. Personal Photo.

With the help of illuminations that graphic designers blew up for the display, as well as several replica costumes, visitors are invited to understand how fashion was used by noble individuals to enhance their social, cultural and sexual identity. Not only is it wonderful to be able to observe aesthetic and stylistic details on illuminations that are originally invisible because of their miniature format, it is also very informative to appreciate how significant fashion was during the Medieval Times. To be honest, I’d never been much interested in this period and thus didn’t know much about costume in this era while I mostly associated the times to confortable dress rather than to creative garments. How wrong was I!

Hood that men arranged in various creative way.

Hood that men arranged in various creative way. Tour Jean Sans Peur Photo.

Thanks to thorough research, the exhibition’s curators managed to build a didactic and meticulous display. As I said the illumination blow-ups are treasured sources that much helped the curators but also enable visitors to gain more insight into the dressing customs of the era. Alongside the visual documentations, replica costumes are an additional support that enable to revive in three dimensions what only exists, today, in flat illustrations. Assisted by several costume designers supervised by Sally Ruddock I was lucky to exchange a few words with, the curators thus propose reliable objects to make the exhibition’s discourse more tangible. Sally Ruddock and Agnès Lavoye who is in charge of the museum’s exhibitions, explained how accurate the replicas were as they were made according to medieval techniques and only with the specific textiles used during the medieval period: a precise reconstruction that kept at large any regrets of not being able to observe original artefacts. The exhibition is organized in a very small space but it remains sufficient to assimilate the subject and this, thanks to the very instructive panels and labels accompanying the costumes. 

Typical 14th century aristocratic feminine and masculine garments

Typical 14th century aristocratic feminine and masculine garments. personal Photo.

What first surprised me was the use of the term fashion in the exhibition’s title as I had always been told and often read how the term fashion should mostly be used from the 18th century, a century during which the fashion system as we now know it, was established with its trends and specialized publications. Yet, medieval aristocrats were just as much concerned by their appearance as their descendants. Women as much as men conformed to prescribed triangular (reversed for men) and elongated body shapes: flat chests, high waists under the breast and round fertile stomachs for women alongside large heroic shoulders and slim waists for men. Luxurious materials and embroideries also helped unveil high social statuses while a touch of extravaganza expressed a certain aim in dramatizing the self.

Tight buttoned padded doublet with unrestrained arms.

Tight buttoned padded doublet with unrestrained arms. Tour Jean Sans Peur Photo.

Medieval tailors (mostly women) also had a strong sense of practicality, tightening the body but searching for solutions to free the arms and legs’ movements, adding lacing and buttons to ease the opening of clothing while underwear adapted itself to outerwear silhouettes. Accessories enhanced the wearers’ fanciness but also assisted the lengthening of the silhouette with peculiar pointy footwear and elevated head gear (especially for women). What amazed me is also how aristocrats were enthusiastic about highlighting most of their senses with their garments: the touch and sight, of course, but also the hearing, by appreciating the exquisite sound of textiles caressing each other as well as the clear chiming of bells attached to belts.

A good example of how the visual sources inspired the replicas and how visitors can enjoy the comparison.

A good example of how the visual sources inspired the replicas and how visitors can enjoy the comparison. Tour Jean Sans Peur Photo.

Within a small space, the exhibition, perfectly adapted to children (but also to adults, of course), unites everything that makes a display greatly pedagogic with clear texts, engaging visual sources and compelling artifacts. Although replicas can be at the centre of scholar debates, they are more than useful within the display, enabling a valuable insight into the theme’s context. By combining the primary source that inspired the recreated costumes to the reinterpreted objects, the museum’s team implicitly invites visitors in the making of the exhibition and, far from disturbing them, this union proposes a didactic dialogue and a rich narrative.

What do you think of replicas in museums? Useful or artificial?

Further Resources:

The Tour Jean sans Peur edited a very complete short catalogue and the exhibition will very soon be translated in English. More information on their website.

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