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Medieval Veils, Wimples and Gorgets

The well-bred lady wore a veil in public for the most of the medieval period. It was shocking a grown woman to display the hair- which was seen as a lure to good men. The wimple and gorget were also widely worn by women of good breeding and it was only later in time that it was dropped for daily wear by the general populace and retained by nuns and older women. Women in Italy abandoned the veil considerably earlier than other parts of Europe and England in favour of elaborate braids and beading which might also utilise a small strip of gauzy veil around the ears. At right is a detail from Lochner's Presentation of Christ in the Temple, 1447, showing women with a variety of veiling and wimpling.

A law passed between 1162 and 1202, in the municipal statues of Arles, which forbade prostitutes to cover their hair with a veil lest they should be mistaken for a woman of good virtue and encouraged good women to snatch the veils from the heads of women of suspected ill-repute.

Many Middle Eastern countries of the world today require that a woman's hair remain covered in public. Discussions with many liberated women in these Muslim countries show that they actively choose to continue to wear a veil as a show of modesty and decency and not as a symbol of oppression by the men of their society. It was only the Western society which discontinued the wearing of the veil and wimple. In this respect, wearing a veil was seen as a sign of good breeding and is no different to the generation of our grandmothers who were firmly hatted, stockinged and gloved whenever they left the house.

Veil shapes and sizes
It appears there is no one standard size or shape to the veil with many variations depicted in art and in memorial brasses. It appears that veils could be long or short, rectangular or oval in shape with no particular regulations or guidelines in regard to social status. It also appears than more than one veil could be worn at a time.

At some times during the Middle Ages, veils worn by the wealthier and more fashionable were pinned in many overlapping layers, as shown in the detail at right in the 1435 painting of A Man and a Woman by Robert Campin. It is unclear why such a fashion developed.

Veil fabrics and colours
It seems that veils could be made from a variety of fabrics in the middle ages- ranging from fine opaque linens to gauzy barely-there silks. For the poorer woman, thick wool was both a practical and warm option to provide protection from the elements. Fine Flemish linens could have thread counts of between 60 and 200 per inch and could cost thirty times as much as finely woven wools indicating the good quality and desirability of the fabric.. Existing fragments appear to be bleached and pressed. In 1410, Christine de Pisan wrote of fine linens woven more more delicate than silk was made in one piece without seam and in an entirely new way that was very expensive.

Contemporary images and artifacts from the 14th century show that white was the most overwhelmingly popular colour. It was harder to keep white clean and therefore a status symbol to have fabric kept very white. A poorer woman or country woman would often have to be content with natural, unbleached colours as she possessed neither the time for excessive laundering nor a second one to wear while the bleaching process was being undertaken on the first.

At certain periods of the Middle Ages a veil with two bands of blue around the border was required by law to be worn by Jewish women as an identifying marker of their faith.

Coloured veils were not entirely unknown, but it is certain that they were not the most popular. In the 13th century, we see more striped veils in statues of the virgin than at any other time.

Decorative features on veils
Although many veils were unadorned, it seems that embroidery and ruffles as features were not unknown. The detail on the image at right shows the Virgin from the painting Virgin and Child wearing a veil not only with an edging completely worked with pearls but also a gold band around the entire edge. It is dated at 1345-1350 from Prague.

A great deal of the artwork and statues in Prague during the middle ages were shown to have quite a large degree of decorative features- notably ruffles, beaded or pearl edging and in some cases, gold embroidery around the edges.

Complaints came from many of the clergy, including this from a 13th century preacher in Germany, Berthold of Regensburg:

You busy yourselves with your veils, you twitch them hither, you twitch them thither; you gild them here and there with gold thread, and spend thereon all your time and trouble. You will spend a good six-months work on a single veil which is sinful great trevail- and all that men may praise thy dress.

A French song of the 13th century tells of a traveling merchant who sold kerchiefs with flowers and birds embroidered on them, although most contemporary illustrations of that time period show plain white of varying degrees of fineness and fabric.

The Goffered Veil or Nebule
This veil was mostly popular during the period of 1350 to 1380, although there are examples of this style of veil both earlier and later. It consisted of an intricate lattice or honeycomb effect made from ruffles which formed a frame around the face. It was usually held in place by a fillet. The goffered veil was still worn by all levels of society. It was also known as the nebule.

Many illuminations, manuscripts, brasses and effigies show this style of headdress. The detail shown here at left is a statue dated at around 1370 to 1430 of the Madonna and Child showing a veil which is ruffled on the top and at the ends. Many English churches also show this type of veiling. Lady Despencer wears the goffered veil in her effigy at Tewkesbury Abbey, as does a brass of Margaret Torrington in Great Berkhampstead Church, Hertfordshire.

Pleated or frilled veils
The painting at right by Van Eyck Portrait of Margareta Van Eyck, dated 1433, shows a wonderful example of a ruffled veil worn in many layers.

The detail, at right, shows a close up of the pleated ruffles which appear to have been pleated separately and then sewn on to the main veil. This kind of pleating could be either a single layer or many layers.

Wimples & Gorgets
Do you want to keep your skin white? Might you have concerns about freckles and damage from the sun and the elements? The medieval woman had the answer.

The wimple or gorget was widely worn by all medieval women of good breeding and it was only later in time that it was dropped for daily wear by the general populace and retained by nuns and holy women. It was not uncommon, although, for a married woman to wear one if she so chose. Effigies and paintings from the 13th century right through to the 15th century show women wearing wimples.

The difference between a wimple and a gorget.
The difference between a wimple and a gorget, is that the wimple encircles the entire head under the veil, whereas a gorget covers the neck alone and was usually draped upwards and tucked into either a headdress or styled hair.

The most modest way to wear a wimple was over the chin, not under it, as is generally supposed. The image detail at left, Madonna, painted in 1345 by Vitale Da Bologna, shows the correct positioning of the wimple. Wimples were also usually worn by widows regardless of their age.

Wimple shapes and sizes.
It appears there is no one standard size or shape to the wimple other than it passes under the chin and over the neck. It can be a rectangular piece which wraps around the head and neck or a circular piece with a hole cut for the face. There seems to be no one correct way. Some appear to be scanty and other quite voluminous depending on the time period.

This detail at right is taken from a brass memorial of Elizabeth de Northwood from 1335. She is modestly wearing a gorget, as is expected of a married woman, but still shows a deal of her carefully arranged hairstyle.

It is important to note that although we can see some of her hair, it is dressed and not out or flowing in any way.

Wimple fabrics and colours
As with veils, wimples and gorgets could be made from a variety of fabrics in the middle ages- ranging from fine opaque linens to very fine silks. For the poorer woman, thick wool or linen was both a practical and warm option to provide protection from the elements- warmth in winter and protection from the sun in summer.

The detail at right is from the Maciejowski Bible, Manoah and his Wife Give Sacrifice. It shows an everyday woman wearing an opaque wimple and veil. Contemporary images and artifacts from the 14th century and earlier show that as with veils, white was the most overwhelmingly popular colour.

One contemporary writer, Robert Mannyng complained about saffron coloured kerchiefs and wimples, as they made it difficult for a man to tell if he was looking at a yellow wimple or yellowed skin, so it must be concluded that coloured veils and wimples were not entirely unknown.

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