In Search of the Perfect Silhouette

Dada a extensão deste artigo, achei por bem publicar as versões inglesa e portuguesa em separado. Para a versão portuguesa, cliquem aqui.

One of the most vexing topics for 15th century historical reenactors is that of silhouette. To what extent, after all, is it right to model ourselves according to 15th century patterns? Should artistic depictions, in all their roundness and tightness, be followed and imitated as closely as possible, or would doing that be a reenactorism? To what extent are some depictions of the tight male profile of the era exaggerated? What implications does this have for reenactors? This short post is, I must say, both informative and a space for personal reflection on the subject.

A Fashion Revolution

13th century and early 14th century silhouette: the long, wide tunic. Detail showing Cain killing Abel, cut from a French Bible historiale (first quarter of the 14th century).

The view that fashion – in our modern sense of the term, i.e. a social dictum of trends and aute-couture – was born in the XIV is already a few decades old. According to fashion historian James Lavel, this is when sartorial standards definitely broke with the loose clothing of late Roman inspiration, the long tunic for man and woman; when clothing became shorter and tighter against the body, showing, and later shaping, the contours of one’s physique. A lot can be added to this statement, of course, but it is essentially correct: ‘in a way’, claimed the eminent French medievalist Fernand Braudel, ‘one could say that fashion began here [in the 14th century]. For after this, ways of dressing became subject to change in Europe. At the same time, whereas the traditional costume had been much the same all over the continent, the spread of the shorter costume was irregular, subject to resistance and variation, so that eventually national styles of dressing were evolved, all influencing each other to a greater or lesser extent – the French, Burgundian, Italian or English costume, etc. (…)’ [2]

Detail from the so-called Smithfield Decretals (ca. 1300-1340). Note the evolution towards tight-fitting clothing, without any modifications to the natural human silhouette.

Though early 14th century clothing was already a bit tighter than previous styles had been, it did little to shape the male body. With regard to changes in the male silhouette, the first major revolution in the male silhouette would be the hourglass waist, widespread between the middle of the century and the first quarter of the 15th century. Compared to the tight, elegant clothes of the early 14th century, later clothing seemed hellbent on reducing the natural waist’s diametre to as little as it could get, thus dividing the body in two halves which were approximate in width (at the level of the chest and at the level of the hips) ). The objective was to emphasise the broad chest and the strong thighs of a well-trained warrior (never forget that fashion in this period always emerged from within the nobility), without forsaking a certain visual balance. Or, in the words of the famous French knight Geoffroi de Charny, in his ca. 1350 Livre de Chevalerie: It is not enough for them [young French knights] to be as God made them; they are not content with themselves as they are, but they gird themselves up and so rein themselves in round the middle of their bodies that they seek to deny the existence of the stomachs which God has given them: they want to pretend that they have not and never have had one, and everyone knows that the opposite is true’ [3]. Not the most charitable of observations, but then, Geoffroi was round about 50 when he wrote these words. He might no longer have been able to keep up with the trends of the younger French nobles, which leads us to another one of fashion’s unmistakable truthes: style waits for no man.

The X-Line

Detail from the manuscript Queste del Saint Graal (ca. 1380-1385). A tight cotehardie with a narrow waist and a wide chest.

From this idea of narrowing the waist came the doublet (which I have previously talked about here), a fop’s best friend, a proper 2-in-1, versatile garment: the doublet’s skirt actually acts as a kind of corset, compressing and tapering he body at the natural waist, leaving the upper portion of the doublet to fall freely over a rounded chest (creating the famous ‘pigeon breast’ shape). At the beginning of the 15th century, fashion evolved to emphasise the upper part of the body above all. Doublets were often lightly padded in the chest and shoulders to enhance the torso’s dimensions, to broaden the shoulders and the back. The tight waist rendered the hips wider, more exaggerated, especially when compared with slender legs in skintight hose. The overall look ‘accentuates, indeed exaggerates, all the horizontal and verticla lines of the body, with the exception of the waistline’ [4], according to the Portuguese historian Oliveira Marques, Or, to put it more succinctly: ‘The result is the famous X-line’ [5].

The simple, ‘popular’ version of early doublets. Detail from a Horae ad usum romanum (ca. 1420-1430).

As with every trend, the lower classes soon took to imitating their lords and masters. Hence the widespread adoption of the doublet during the 15th century, and a general effort made towards achieving the X-line. These ambitions weren’t for everyone, of course. Not only were fashionable garments expensive, they were often forbidden for the lower classes through sumptuary laws. Nor were they practical for a hard day’s work in the field – which is one of the reasons why depictions of 15th century peasants aren’t all that different from their 13th century counterparts. [6]. These exceptions notwithstanding, and in one way or another, the X-line was the underlying lynchpin to 15th century male fashion. The fact that not everyone had access to the best tailors (and, consequently, the best X-line) is another one of fashion’s universal constants: it becomes more dilluted and simplified as it is disseminated. This doesn’t mean that the X-line, the right profile and shape, weren’t sought after by everyone, nor does it mean that we reenactors shouldn’t strive towards it.

Bodies of the Past, Bodies of the Future

The X-line didn’t just apply to clothing. The very notion of male beauty evolved to regard as ideal a narrow-waisted, slim physique, as seen in contemporary art [7]. Wearing doublets every single day of one’s life contributed immensely towards this state of affairs, since a tight doublet would’ve ended up sculpting the male torso (much as 19th century corset would shape Victorian women’s bodies). Fashion’s social pressure was exerted over all ranks of society, in one way or another, in two fronts: ideal clothes, on the one hand, and the ideal body, on the other – the latter influenced by the former.

The 15th century body. Detail from a copy of the Livre de proprietes de choses (ca. 1450-1475).

This very effect has been part and parcel of (European, and later on, World) History since then, up to the present day. Anyone who thinks that prescribing the X-line wholesale in reenactment is a bit of a reenactorism and excessive zeal must surely be forgetting the ubiquity of the high-waisted trousers of the 1950s, bell-bottoms in the 1970s, or the broad shoulders on jackets in the 1980s – to name but a few more recent examples.

But the biggest difficulty facing reenactors today isn’t the clothes (there are plenty of good tailors about); it’s the body. Unlike the svelte physique of the 15th century, modern male bodies are, well, bulkier, much harder to deal with. A well-cut doublet is indispensable to good reenactment, and produces immediate effect on even the portliest of reenactors. However, though clothes maketh the man, they’re not miracle workers. Reenactment, then, can’t simply start with one’s clothes. It start with one’s own body. Though that is a whole other, much trickier story…

[1] Laver, J. (1979). The Concise History of Costume and Fashion. New York: Abrams, p. 62.

[2] Braudel, F. (1981). Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries, I. London: William Collins & Sons, p. 317.

[3] Kaeuper, R., and Elspeth, K. (eds.) (2005). A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 102.

[4] Oliveira Marques, A. (2010). A Sociedade Medieval Portuguesa – Aspectos do Quotidiano. Lisboa: Esfera dos Livros, p. 73.

[5] Idem, ibidem.

[6] Idem, ibidem.

[7] Unlike the previous standard of male physique, slender – almost reedy – but without a clear separation between the chest and the belly.


Braudel, F. (1981). Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Centuries, I. London: William Collins & Sons

Kaeuper, R., and Elspeth, K. (eds.) (2005). A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

Laver, J. (1979). The Concise History of Costume and Fashion. New York: Abrams

Oliveira Marques, A. (2010). A Sociedade Medieval Portuguesa – Aspectos do Quotidiano. Lisboa: Esfera dos Livros


 Livre de proprietes de choses (ca. 1450-1475). Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, BNF FR 135

Horae ad usum romanum (ca. 1420-1430). Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 1156B

Queste del Saint Graal (ca. 1380-1385). Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, BNF Français 343

Smithfield Decretals (ca. 1300-1340). London: British Library, Royal MS 10 E IV


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