Thursday, August 16, 2012

A c. 1400 variety of the Birgitta cap

One of the best things about studying clothing is the feeling you get when you finally understand something that has been a mystery to you for years.

When I was studying the Birgitta cap back in 2006-2007 (Dahl, C.L. & I. Sturtewagen, 2008, The Cap of St. Birgitta, Medieval Clothing and Textiles vol. IV, pp. 99-129.) I came accross several pieces of artwork from the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century that showed something that looked like a cap worn underneath other types of veils or alone that seemed very similar to the Birgitta cap. At the time I couldn't make sense of them though.

Effigy of Lodewijk van Lichtervelde and wife, c. 1380, Koolskamp, Belgium. Photo by the author.
The caps in these works of art were worn on top of buns which were placed high on the head or just above the temples. They were covered by fabric and showed two crossed ribbons seperating the two buns in the middle. I've always wondered how exactly this look was achieved, but never got to actually trying to recreate the style. This fashion is slightly out of my period of reenactment, so there were always things higher up on my to-do list.

Detail of the altarpiece of Hakendover, c. 1400-1410, Belgium. Photo:
In the altarpiece of Hakendover, dated to the first decade of the fifteenth century we can see this type of headwear as well. On some of the figures however, we can just see the crossed ribbons and it seems the fabric of the cap is missing. It appears as if only the curly hair of the figure is shown. However, it is possible that these caps were made of translucent fabric or netting. This would allow the hair underneath to be clearly visible.

Detail of the altarpiece of Hakendover, c. 1400-1410, Belgium. Photo:
Interestingly in the same altarpiece you can also spot one depiction of the 'old fashioned' style of Birgitta cap. The girl to the right is wearing her cap in exactly the same way. The only difference is that she is wearing fashionable buns underneath it.

Detail of the altarpiece of Hakendover, c. 1400-1410, Belgium. Photo:
Last week at a small event in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, my friend and fellow reenactor Margje Wessels, however, was wearing this exact style of headwear. I was so excited to see how she did it, and it's actually so simple and ingenious I had to share.

As you can see, what she is wearing is simply a bigger version of the Birgitta cap, with enough space to accomodate the buns. She made two buns filled with flax and fixed to a headband that is pinned tight at the back of the neck. When you have long thick hair, of course you could make two buns using your natural hair. As with the traditional Birgitta cap, the ribbon of the cap is pulled to the front and crossed on the forehead. With the traditional style the loop/ribbon would just be pulled over the back of the head. With the 'modern style' however, the ribbon is pulled around the buns and back to the front. (You can find a diagram with instructions on how to achieve the traditional style here).

Like I said: ingeniously simple.


Edyth Miller said...

You just made my year.

Sara said...

From a modern practical point of view I'd like to make a Birgitta cap for myself. I have long hair and I work outside in my garden--under shrubs and mucking around in crawl spaces and barns. A scarf tied on doesn't want to stay in place. A hat gets constantly knocked off! My hair gets filled with dirt and sticks and all kinds of awful stuff! But the cap looks made for the kind of life I live right now. I don't think I'd like to do two buns on either side of the head--I usually wear one bun close to the upper part of the back of my head. I think that the lacing strap is an important part of having the cap stay on. I wonder about finding a pattern for this cap and the possibilities of making it into an unhistorically correct--one bun version? Sara

Isis said...

Dear Sara,
You can find a pattern in the publication cited in the beginning of this post. You should be able to get it in the librery, or otherwise in the library of the nearest University. The cap is very practical for exactly the type of work you describe. It shouldn't be difficult to wear it with one bun. You would just cross the ribbon at the back of the head, as usual, then bring it to the front and cross it again on the forehead, and then pull it over the bun to fix it. You would only have to fiddle around a bit to get the right size to accommodate your bun and see how long the loop/tie needs to be.
Good luck, I hope it will work for you!

Sarah W said...

Interesting to see how the same kind of cap is developed to fit the hairstyle!

I nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award (if you care to have it), here:

lynn said...

The ribbon is a continuous peice?
Is it stretchy like a knitted piece?
WOnder if can attach a visor when work in the sun.
Thank you for the photos of the cap.
Lynn D

Isis said...

indeed, the ribbon is a continuous piece. the cap is made from plain linen (so it's not stretchy). you can find some more info here:

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