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Belts, Girdles & Belt Fittings

A medieval woman's belt was usually known as a girdle. A woman's wealth and status was, as usual, displayed in the costliness of dress and accompanying accessories. Belts, whether made from leather, metal or embroidered fabric were often as lavish as possible.

As with most forms of dress accessory, belts also came under fire for ostentatious decoration. Preachers and clergymen found yet another source of criticism for the vanity of woman. A 13th century preacher from Paris, Gilles d'Orlean, rebuked women for their affluence of dress and accessories chiding:

that Jesus Christ and his blessd mother, of royal blood though they were, never thought of wearing the belts of silk, gold and silver fashionable among wealthy women.

Some women were employed in the production of decorative girdles, but not many. In 1344, the Guild of London Girdlers regulated the employment of women in their ranks to:

their wives and daughters only and no independent women.

Styles of belts & girdles
The shape of the belt most commonly worn in the middle ages was long and thin. The girdle was worn low on the hips with a knot at the buckle and the remaining tongue hung down the front.

The pendant tag at the belt end is known as a belt-chape. It is shown as the round knob at the bottom tip of the belt seen here above at right. This existent belt chape from London in the 14th century.

Many had decorative buckles and additional metal mountings which were often sewn on, and most had a metal chape at the end. The higher up in society a woman was, the more likely it was that her girdle would be ornate with much in the way of ornamentation.

Belt materials
Belts were made of one of four materials- leather, woven braid, embroidered fabric or solid metalwork. Peasant women wore sturdier and more practical belts of leather or belts made from woven wool. Almost all of these would have been unadorned except for the buckle. Women of better financial standing or breeding wore thinner girdles of better processed leather or embroidered girdles or woven belts of silk with more elaborate metal clasps or buckles. Where leather girdles were concerned, designs were also painted or stamped onto the belt leather directly.

The belt at left is an example of beautiful needlework and is known as the Branco Belt. It is believed to be from the 14th century. It features a design similar to that of illuminated manuscripts with flowers bordering windows with birds and mystical animals.

Shown at right is a 15th century belt made from cloth of gold with an ornate buckle set with enamel and jewels. It is Italian made and dates to 1450. The two-pronged tongue was popular on buckles towards the later end of the medieval period

Margherita Datini, an Italian medieval woman of means, listed two leather belts in her personal inventory of 1397, a blue one and a black one, both with silver-gilt buckles. She preferred the heavier belts to the lighter ones currently in fashion and gained a terse reply from her husband to her wishes to return one such belt:

if Margherita wanted to wear what the peasant women wore, then all right.

Aristocrats and women of the high medieval court also wore heavy, jeweled, metal belts and silk girdles with gold embroidery, enamels, precious stones and metals set into them.

When Johnna, the daughter of King Edward I, married Gilbert de Clare, it was recorded that she wore a magnificent girdle of gold with rubies and emeralds which was bought in Paris for the huge amount of 37 pounds and 12 shillings. At Queen Jeanne of Burgundy's coronation in 1317, she was given four belts embroidered with pearls.

In 1319, Mahaut is recorded as giving a gift to his niece of a silk belt trimmed with gilded silver.

A 1305 record from a mercery in Paris records a green silk belt with rosettes of pearls and gold.

Buckles & buckle plates
Medieval belt buckles ranged from the simply functional to the beautiful and elaborate. Belt buckles of this time period featured the chape, an oblong case of metal to which the girdle was affixed. Many were of solid construction, although some finds have shown buckles with a roller. Pewter, lead and tin buckles were not common before the 14th century.

The London Girdlers Guild Charter of 1321 sanctioned only latten, copper, iron and steel as suitable buckle-making materials. Cheaper white-metal alloys proved to be popular regardless.

Up until the 13th century, complete buckles are scarce in archaeological finds. Buckles with a single loop were the most common type worn during the 13th and 14th centuries, although the 15th century saw double loop buckles become the most common. Single buckles continued to persist though to the renaissance, on shoes and belts and dress accessories.

By the 15th century, even the very poor were able to afford the cheaper, mass-produced metal buckles which were readily available.

To the left above, is a 13th century French buckle with rare enamel detail which was found at the London waterfront. The most famous factory of that period to produce high-quality, enameled buckles was in Limoges.

At right is a buckle from the Gilbert Collection which was also found in the London waterfront area. It is of English manufacture and dates to the 14th century. The buckle has a plate with wriggle work decoration and the rivets remain. The buckle and pin anre unbroken and are still working.

The buckle mould at left comes from excavations in York, England, and shows a single loop buckle with plate- a very popular medieval style, and the most common in the 14th century. Many buckle plates were gilded, stamped with decorative features or showed animals and saints.

Belt Mounts
Leather, woven and fabric belts were often decorated with metal decorative pieces called mounts. These could be of any design, although popular motifs included flowers and roses, heraldic devices and fleur-de-lys.

Shown below is a segment of a beautiful 14th century belt made from velvet fabric with extensive metal mounts and decorative metal chape. It is interesting to note that while some of the mounts appear to be part of a set design, many of the other mounts do not appear to match anything at all.

The belt shown below is made from woven silk and has decorative metal mountings shaped like a rose and a woman's head alternatively mounted onto it. The belt is believed to be from the 14th century.

Many belt mounts on women's belts were made from silver, although very often pewter was used to make imitation silver belt mounts. During the 15th century, pewter belt mounts were widely produced, especially after the restrictions were lifted.

Belt hangers- pendant mounts
Belts were not only a fashion accessory, they were also of a far more practical nature.

Pockets had yet to a clothing design element, and the belt was the usual place for a woman to secure her purse, hang her chest or warderobe keys, her paternoster or her eating knife. For this she might have used a metal purse hanger.

The pendant mount, or purse hanger at right comes from the Gilbert Collection and is dated to the 14th century.

A purse hanger is shown above on the belt at the top of the page, source unknown, A woman's purse was usually an ornately embroidered and tasseled affair and it was as much a fashion accessory as a practical place to keep money.

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