Lucas van Leyden’s The Chessplayers – hats and trade

Alexandra asked in the comments to the Gaudete Frock post:

I am working on the picture of the chessplayers by Lucas van Leyden.
As you have a great overview over his work as well as the dutch clothing tradition I wanted to ask you this: I have not found any hat or anything alike for what the woman on the right who is playing is wearing. I did find this on another picture of Lucas but not on any comparable graphic of other dutch artist during that time, not in books and not on your side. Is there a special meaning or tradition that comes within? Is this typical dutch also or may it refer to Italian clothing as well? Also, the men dressed in green/gold in the middle is characterized as a venetian merchant. Do you have information if this was a common sight/something people would see in Leiden around 1510 and would not find it strange? And what as well puzzles me is the woman in the background. She is dressed like a widow or an nun, yet with a far to big cleavage to be considered that. Is there any other meaning coming with these clothes? Do you have any suggestion to these questions? I would be more than grateful even for tiny hints and I hope the answering is not causing any trouble to you.

Great questions! Here’s my thoughts on that painting, the two women in the painting and the prevalence of Venetian merchants in the Netherlands.

painting by Lucas van Leyden of a group of people wantching a man and a woman play courier chess

The Chessplayers, Lucas van Leyden 1508

The painting

Jan Peeters quite aptly describes it as “a group of laconic, distracted members of the middle class, engaged in a trivial game of chess”. To me it has always seemed a somewhat bawdy image, although not as bawdy as the Fortuneteller. It’s a pleasant relief to see an image of people enjoying themselves after all the religious iconography of preceding centuries, and the contemporaneous Books of Hours.

The woman who is playing cards

This woman is one of my favourite of all those that Lucas van Leyden depicted. Back when I built this site in basis, table-layout HTML and hosted it on my university’s servers this image was on the homepage, because of that woman. I love the detail of her outfit, the two layers and how it demonstrates that turned-back bell sleeves are not your only option for the tabbaert layer. Her dress was part of the inspiration for my Red Kirtle, and helped inform the sleeve decoration on my coat.

However Alexandra asked about her hat. It’s actually a very common hat of the era, and is seen in a variety of styles in a variety of countries in Western Europe (but not Italy) especially by women at court. It seems that no self-respecting woman of the time would be without one. One day, soon, I’ll present my grand unifying theory of Spain + Burgundy + France + Brittany and this hat, but not today. Today instead we will settle for the following:

painting of a woman and a group of men in Dutch clothing form early 1550s and I refer to this hat as a beguin hood, others may call it a French hood, after the more commonly recognised Tudor term.

I forget where I first came across the term “beguin hood” but I remember it seemed more appropriate for a non-Tudor-centric clothing discussion. Van Leyden painted a variety of women in this hood, one of the most clear is his painting “Potiphar’s wife accusing Joseph” (at right).

You could have a look at the Headwear page for a general explanation of how I think they were constructed. I’ve made three attempts at this style in the past. Two of which are explained on this site, the third explanation is in the process of being written – as I finally have a photo!

The woman in the background

The woman in the background is wearing a hovetcleet (literally, headcloth), which is, for me, the defining element of Dutch and Flemish clothing of this period. That heart-shaped white veil isn’t seen anywhere else that I am aware of, and if I see it I tend to assume that it’s depicting a woman of the Low Countries in the late 15th and early 16th century.

It is worn by women of all social classes, for instance Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands (image below) who was twice widowed is depicted in this headwear. Gerard David is a good source as he shows the hovetcleet in many of his paintings of saints, and some of his female donors wear them in his triptychs (such as the image to the left). Lucas van Leyden shows women wearing this style in his paintings, and a couple of prints.

From what I’ve seen in images the hovetcleet is probably worn by married women and widows. My guess is that over time this style came to be worn by more conservative elements (widows and nuns as in the question above).

I’ve included a discussion on the layers necessary to wear a hovetcleet on my Headwear page. There’s even an image of a woman being beaten, which shows the layers of her hovetcleet strewn across the floor. It’s a fantastic image for historical reconstruction, and a horrible image for the subject matter.

Trade with Venice

Alexandra’s final question related to whether Venetian merchants would have been a common sight in Leiden in 1510. I’ve been reading about Juana of Castile recently, aka Juana la Loca, who was the wife of Phillip the Handsome, and the amount of travel that was occurring at the time as well as the expectation of how long it would take a letter to reach Spain from Bruges, suggests that merchants were a common enough sight in any coastal city with good to trade.

The Low Countries were renowned for the cloth production, as was Florence. Given Venice was the biggest trading port at the time and had a firm foot in the cloth trade with the Middle East, then they would be likely to show up in the Low Countries.

For more information on Low Countries trade in this period I encourage you to look into John Munro’s work.

Of sideways interest

This question sent me off on a hunt for a copy of the painting that I’d seen previously. Along the way I discovered other people’s, less costume focused, angles on this painting. For instance, it’s one of the best representations of the Courier Chess variant.

The Gaudete Frock – a French Gown with a Dutch twist

Back in 2007 I decided to make a gown that would have been worn by a well-to-do woman in the Low Countries, a prosperous merchant’s wife or woman of the gentry. I perused the images of women depicted in triptychs of the time to see what would be expected.

Not surprisingly these gowns emulated the French gowns that were popular at courts across Western Europe at the time. However, there were subtle differences. Wealth and taste was shown through the cut and use of heavy, sumptuous cloth lined with fur.

There was minimal decoration, perhaps a string of beads, or simple gold chain, but women did not display the showiness of the French and Tudor courts of the same time.

The paintings of Gerard David depict women in this style as well, so in some ways this became a chance to try some ideas to improve my ‘Curtain Frock’.

I also decided to have a go at making an early style Beguin hood (or French hood, depending on what tradition you use to describe this style). As the images I looked through showed women in both styles.

I has a good length of Italian wool and some lovely patterned cream upholstery weight cotton in my stash, and so the dress came together.

The gown

This is what I came up with:

me in the Green French Gown with a Dutch twist

It’s cut with 4 panels through the bodice. The front panels then drop through to the hem (i.e. no waist seam), with a triangle gore in the front. The back skirt is cut in a long train which is shaped with an ovoid curve, cut long enough for me to tuck it back into the belt, as is seen in images of French women at the time.

The sleeves are a simple bell sleeve.

It is made of a lovely Italian wool fabric, which gave the frock its name. The words Pura Lana Virgine were woven into the selvedge. You can just see them in this picture. This phrase reminded us of a line from a latin song of the period “Gaudete”, which was hummed when I was constructing it, and so the name stuck.

It is closed with a hook and tape method. I stitched a thin woven tape down on the right hand side, with gaps so the hooks on the left hand side could hook the dress closed. This gives a very flat line through the front of the dress.

Overall I am very happy with the gown’s cut and construction – it gives the image of wealth and refinement that I think the paintings of women at this time were projecting.

The hood

The hood turned out reasonably well for a first go at a construction theory. It’s comprised of two layers:

1. A woolen cap, which emulates a very, very short truncated hennin, in order to give some shape to the back of the hood. This cap is lined in metallic gauze that was pleated to replicate the pleats seen in almost every instance of this hood. I cheated by sewing some hair slides into the cap so it would stay on my head – I have quite fine hair and most headgear eventually slips off if I don’t secure it this way. It’s better if my hair hasn’t been washed, but I’m often not willing to take that to the lengths necessary to keep heavy hoods on my head.

I’ve sketched a rough pattern for the undercap. This is a completely conjectural pattern, and if I was to make it today, then I would make a cap similar to the one on this page.

2. A semi-circle of velvet lined with silk as the ‘hood’. This is secured to the cap by three pins and given some shape with a further pin to tuck the drape of the semi-circle into a tube.

The first photo gives the look I was after, the second less so – the hood is too open, it should be much closer to my face, although I suspect this is because I didn’t look at a mirror before the photo was taken, not because the cut was wrong.