How to wear a Franco-Flemish outfit

(alternate title: Hey Karinne, don’t you own an iron!?)

A few weeks ago I attended an event north of Sydney and wore an outfit that was the culmination of a decade of thinking and observation and making and testing. This one:

a lady wearing a franco-flemish gown at a medieval event
I’ve written posts in the past on the construction of gowns like this. In fact this is the Gaudete gown constructed in 2007, and its dress diary is on this site. I’ve also written about a recent re-make of this gown, where I took its train off to create a “round” gown instead. I’m pleased to report that the removal of the train has been a marvellous success1. I now love this gown, it is  comfortable, it is well-made and when I wear it I feel like a lady of the courts or cities of Flanders and Brabant in the early 1500s. Success all round!

However, whilst its construction is of interest to some of our readers, perhaps what I wear to create this look is equally of interest. Hence this article: what I wear to pull this look together. Note: I’m not going to be pulling up contemporary pictures to demonstrate my conclusions. You’ll need to look elsewhere to verify my conclusions. You could start with my pinterest board, of course.

Getting the full view

Before we go any further we should talk about what I am trying to achieve when I pull this together. Aesthetics of clothing don’t just relate to fabric and colour choice.

The Franco-Flemish style is a sumptuous style. It is rarely blingy, with even the royal families of France and the Low Countries wearing a minimal amount of jewellery compared to their descendants in the mid-late 16th Century. Its sumptuousness is achieved through the amount of fabric and a strong aesthetic of drape.

This is what I aim for when recreating this style – how to achieve the soft bulk that you can see in many portraits. Here’s this outfit in three views, what do you think, did I get there?

3 views of a Franco-Flemish gown

3 views of a Franco-Flemish gown

The first thing to notice is that taking a dress in a suitcase to two consecutive events without giving it a press in between is perhaps not a good idea. Probably should have taken the time to do this, but it was a busy month! The second is the pleats are rounded and flow nicely – like some of the tapestries from the time. Thirdly, my chest is rounded, not flat like you get with a corset.

The pleats are padded, but there is more going on here. So, let’s unpack it.

The Layers

1. A smock

Like all medieval and renaissance clothing, we start with a shirt or smock. In this case I wear a simple tunic with a wide neck:


a simple smock – in need of an iron

2. An underskirt – NOT the historically accurate option

I live in Australia, where our weather is generally hot. This dress already has a layer of wool, cotton canvas and a heavy cotton lining. So, for this dress, I choose to not wear an underdress. I do wear an underdress for other ensembles (like this one), but for this dress it’s less necessary. Instead, I wear my favourite under-skirt:

smock & skirt

Adding in the skirt, which hasn’t seen an iron since its last wash

I have absolutely no evidence for separate underskirts in this time. There is plenty of evidence for kirtles and other underdresses, so it historical accuracy is important to you (and you don’t like a hot country) then I encourage you to make a complete kirtle to wear under this gown.

This style does need at least one, if not two layers of skirt. It provides the rounded butt look that is a feature of the style. I used to wear a small bum roll, but it gave a sharp shelf rather than the rounded look you see in images. This skirt is a heavy-ish linen. It is a rectangle shape pleated into a waist band with two clip sizes to accommodate different outfits that I wear.

3. A partlet – conjectural

I then add a black velveteen partlet, which fills in the back of the gown (cut in a V) and the decolletage of the gown – modesty is a virtue after all.

Smock & skirt & partlet

Adding the partlet. Which does not need an iron, one from four!

This partlet is conjectural, both its shape and its existence. We see a similar item 3 decades later worn by Flemish women, but I’ve not seen one in the late 1400s or early 1500s. It’s possible that the black in-fill seen on dresses at this time is an under-dress. I do think it’s actually a partlet for a variety of reasons, including that most kirtles of the time have a square neck, as well as a lack of black kirtles in the visual evidence.

The partlet contributes to my smooth rounded chest look, as it provides another set of layers to keep the area in tension from a couple of directions.

Here’s the parlet by itself:

possible franco-flemish partlet

The gown then goes on at this stage. Generally I need a friend to get the gown over my shoulders and ensure the parlet doesn’t ride up. If I had a kirtlIe could pin the partlet to the kirtle, but even then I’d need a friend to pin the back. Then it is a juggle between keeping the front of partlet in the right place whilst also doing up the dress. The hook and bar setup I have helps as I’m smoothing over a shape rather than pulling a shape in tight which is what happens with lacing.

The final items are a sash (missing from this picture as I left it at home), which sets off the waist and hides the waist seam, a hat/hood and any jewellery as appropriate.

Next week: Making that black hood

  1. This phrase brought to you by the David Attenborough documentary which is on TV right now

Recreating “Flemish” Caps and Veils: Part Two- Hairdressing

Paintings by Pieter Aertsen, left and right, and Margaret.

Paintings by Pieter Aertsen, left and right, and Margaret.

Recreating a “Flemish” headdress starts with the hair. There seem to be very few formal portraits of upper class woman painted with their hair down, and even fewer in the act of hairdressing. Luckily, the Dutch have a rich tradition of market genre paintings, and a number of market girls are depicted bareheaded. The hair is put up into coils and then wrapped around the head with ribbons which are usually white, though occasionally red. This creates a style that is attractive on its own, but it also helps create the right shape for the under cap. So it is reasonable to assume that the this, or something very like it, is the way the hair is dressed under the caps and veils that I’m interested in recreating.

A rare picture of Maragret with her hair down.

A rare picture of Margaret with her hair down.

First, for full disclosure, I should show you what I’m working with. I have waist-length, fairly thick and curly hair. So this is what my methods have been field tested on. However, any hair long enough to braid is long enough to add to. There are a number of excellent tutorials for using Indian braid extensions, called paranda, on line, and they can be quickly made up from yarn.

Hilleke de Roy and Four of Her Orphans and Margaret attempting hair ropes.

Hilleke de Roy and Four of Her Orphans and Margaret attempting hair ropes.

Second, a note on braids: In the Aertsen pictures at the top of the article, the hair appears to be wrapped in rope-like coils with the ribbon rather than braided. This painting of Hilleke de Roy provides a rare glimpse of hairdressing in progress, and again the hair does not seem to be braided. However, it also shows that it takes at least two people to create this style. In the painting, one girl is maintaining the tension and twist on the section of hair already done on the right. The girl getting her hair done is keeping the opposite end of the ribbon taut as her mother combs out the remaining hair. My own attempts to recreate this look have been a bit comical. I can hold the ribbon in my mouth to maintain the tension while I wrap up one side, but I have yet to find a way to keep the first coil intact while I do up the second one. So, if you have help, this method does look the most like the paintings.  Unfortunately, as a modern person, I am usually doing my hair on my own, so I prefer to use braids. There are Italian paintings which clearly show braids, so they weren’t completely unheard of.

When I first tried to recreate this style, I used hair pins. U-shaped hair pins date back to at least the 14th Century. My hair even behaved fairly well with pins, but it always seemed to end the same way. There was always that one rebel pin that would work its way out slightly. I would shove it back in, where it would poke my head for the rest of the day. Particularly annoying under a hat. So I was very excited to learn the method of hair taping taught by the Tudor Tailor ladies in their first book.

Wrapping and tying braids around the head.

Wrapping and tying braids around the head.

In this style, a long ribbon is braided into plaits on either side of the head. Then the braids are crossed in back and wrapped around the head. The remaining ribbon is wrapped several times around the head and then tied in a bow either at the nape or at the top of the head. The best thing about this method was that it eliminated the pins. (Up until this point I had assumed that the ribbon was decorative, rather than functional.). It was also fast, reasonably secure and pretty cute on its own. However, when I tried to wear hats over it, I ran into some difficulty.

Comparing wrapped braids (top) and braids sewn into place (bottom).

Comparing wrapped braids (top) and braids sewn into place (bottom).

It’s possible that I just have a really pointy skull, but when I wrap my braids around my head, they end up pretty far forward. (top) That does actually match some of the market girl paintings. But this isn’t just about putting your hair up in an attractive manner, it’s about giving the hat shape. The coif is made from a flat rectangle and tied on with strings which sit in front of the braids. So the coif’s profile is entirely dependent on where the braids are located. To get the look I prefer (bottom) I have to sew my braids into position on the back of my head.

A few useful tools for hairdressing.

A few useful tools for hairdressing.

Sewing your braids into place is still fairly fast, and something you can do on your own. You will need just a couple of tools: comb, hair elastics, hair clips, your choice of ribbon, and blunt yarn needles. A hand mirror to see the back of your head is helpful, but optional.

Parting and sectioning the hair.

Parting and sectioning the hair.

First, comb out your hair to make braiding easier. If your hair is anything like mine, this can be a bit of a process. So if I’m likely to be under any time pressure in the morning, I usually comb it out the night before and then braid it into a comfortable sleeping braid to keep it under control, overnight. Then part your hair down the middle, and section one half out of the way with a large hair clip.

Hair braided in two plaits, braid clipped into place, and starting to sew.

Hair braided in two plaits, braid clipped into place, and starting to sew.

Again, braid your hair into two plaits and secure with elastics. I like to add some extra oomph by using “Dutch” braids. I find it easiest to sew the braids on one at a time, so just bring one braid up over your head and use a small hair clip to secure it in the desired location. Then get a ribbon at least twice as long as you are tall. This might be overkill, but you definitely don’t want to run out. I have used everything from 1/8″ super cheap satin spool-o-ribbon to 1/2″ grosgrain with success. Thread the ribbon onto your yarn needle and find the center. Put the center of the ribbon at the back of your neck. Because the stitching takes both hands, I like to secure the free end between my teeth. Yes, it is very silly, but you only need to hold it until after the first few stitches are in.

Sewing the first braid, halfway done, and the second braid pinned in place.

Sewing the first braid, halfway done, and the second braid pinned in place.

I like to sew from the inside of the circle toward the outside. Use one hand to push the needle under the braid and as close along the scalp as possible. Catch the needle as it passes to the front with your other hand. It’s quite easy to lose the needle as you will be making long stitches. Using your other hand to catch the needle saves a lot of frustration. Once the needle is transferred, use your first hand to control the ribbon as you tighten the stitch up. That is what I am doing on the far left. That helps keep the ribbon from getting knotted. Continue sewing along until you reach the hair clip. Remove it, and continue around the circle. If you plan to go without a hat, it’s nice to take the time to keep your stitches evenly spaced. But even fairly sloppy sewing will still be secure. Do, however, be really careful not to put two stitches so close together that one goes behind the other. That makes a knot that is a real pain to get out.

If you do Dutch braids, you can just tuck the end of the braid in under the braids attached to your scalp. Continue sewing until you get back around to your nape, which should look something like the middle picture. Then rethread the needle onto the other end of the ribbon and clip the second braid into place. Change directions and sew the second braid down. When both braids are sewn on and both ends of the ribbon are dangling down your back, remove the needle. Then cross the ribbons and wrap the remaining length around your head in front of the braids. Tie in a bow either at your nape or at the top of your head.



When it’s time to take your hair down, it will be much easier to do it in front of a mirror. It’s very helpful to see which ribbon you are tugging on. (This may seem really obvious, but in the SCA you may be ending your evening in low light, camping conditions. So it’s a good idea to plan ahead for this.). The stitches should come out easily, but as you un-sew your braids they might want to fall down on their own. If that happens while you still have a number of stitches in, it can become a big snarl. Use your trusty hair clip to avoid that.

Finally, here are some super theoretical ideas about dealing with shorter hair. The main goal of this hair style is to create a stable circle of hair on the back of the head. The top half of the circle is crucial for providing shape to the hat. The bottom half is helpful for filling out the coif, and for keeping the ear iron (a wire frame that is worn tied around the braids) in place. As I said before, the easiest way to get that circle may be to simply add length to your braids. If that is not desired, then the braids could start at ear level, with one braid directed over the head and the other along the nape to create a full circle. Hair shorter than that could perhaps be French/Dutch braided into a circle against the scalp. People with very short hair may not be able to wear some styles and might find it easiest to keep their caps on with a chin strap. If you have shorter hair and try any of these ideas out, I hope you’ll let us know how well they work for you.

Looking for the rest of the series? You can find the articles here: