Portrait of a Woman, van der Weyden 1464
There it is
That mysterious V of fabric, in the neckline of Burgundian-era gowns, so long the source of fierce debate.
This type of gown was usually the outermost of three layers of clothing. A chemise would have been worn next to the skin, then an under-gown (the “kirtle”) often short-sleeved, topped by the V-necked gown itself.
In the deep V of the neck one of the under-layers, or something attached to the under-layer, shows: the much-conjectured “Placket”.
The most popular theories about the placket are:
It’s a rectangle of fabric pinned onto the kirtle.
I don’t like this theory, never have. It seems to me it would be fussy and might not stay taught. Lucky for me this theory has been tested and written about by the lovely and talented Maistresse Mathilde Bourette (see her excellent article at: http://www.mathildegirlgenius.com/Documentation/VNeckGown2009.pdf)
She says it “wrinkles easily and if pinned tightly, pulls in shoulders of under dress visibly”. Good enough for me! I hereby cheerfully drop-kick this idea right into the poubelle . I’m so thrilled not to have to even try this; I will buy her the beverage of her choice at the Inner Vagabond next Pennsic (really, I will).
It’s a square necked, side-laced kirtle.
I like this idea much better, but many pictures show hems that aren’t the same colour as the placket. Also, many of the plackets appear to me to look like velvet. It seems unlikely many ladies would really have been wearing two layers of velvet gown. I’ll call it plausible though.
To these two I add:
It’s an attached placket
A permanent part of the outer gown sewn onto one side of the neck and fastened up the other. Why doesn’t this idea come up more often? I think it’s a sensible solution. None-the-less there is some good pictorial evidence against it.
In the picture on the left, the placket looks as though it’s under the gown, not attached.
On the right, you can see that the sheer tucker is layered OVER the placket and pinned; not possible if the placket is attached.
This brings us to my current personal favorite theory….
It’s a vesty-partlety-thingy!
Sure it is!
Just look at these pictures, would I just make something like this up?
Well, yes I might*, and I am. There’s no extant evidence for this. But my theory is that the placket could be a type of partlet or short vest-like garment worn over or under the kirtle (depending) and under the gown.
This idea is inspired not only by depictions in art from the period but also by the extant stays of Eleanora of Toledo. Yes, I know she lived from 1522 to 1562, some 50-100 years too late and in another part of Europe, none the less I believe her “stays” may provide a tantalizing glimpse into what “might have been”.
The stays are puzzling in of themselves. From what I understand, they have no stiffening as you would expect from a payre of bodies. They are made of velvet, an expensive fabric for a garment that didn’t show under the gown (I assume it didn’t). Their purpose is sometimes given as having been worn for “warmth” in which case, wouldn’t wool have been just as good or better?
I wonder about the “stays”. Were they really worn with the gown in life? Were they contemporary to the gown or could they have been older?
Elenora is purported to have been ill and to have lost quite a bit of weight in the time before her death. Could the ‘stays’ have been older, pulled from some trunk to help pad the gown over her thin frame either in life or in the rush to dress her for burial?
Whatever the case, her “stays”, worn under a Burgundian Gown would certainly give the desired look (except that they have a front opening).
This, to me, is a good answer to the question of the placket, and comes closer than some of the other solutions to giving the right results:
- The vest-placket can be made of a small amount of expensive velvet. The garment is small overall and the parts that don’t show could be made of other less costly fabrics if necessary.
- It is separate from the kirtle, explaining kirtle hems that don’t match the placket in colour.
- It would stay smooth without tugging at the kirtle or gown.
- If made side-laced, would look like the illustrations in contemporary art.
So with all of that said. Step two – make one!