attack_laurel (attack_laurel) wrote,

Coifs, coifs, coifs - how good ideas go bad.

(Note: The standard disclaimer stands for the scanned images I am posting today; I have only used them because I could not find an image on-line. Please don't take them, save them, or use them on the web. If you want to get the book they came from, it is The Embroiderer's Story, by Thomasina Beck, aaaaaand - crap.  I forgot the other book name.  I'll post it tomorrow.)

So - a question came up on the Yahoo! Blackwork list about embroidered coifs in period. This is actually a bit of a sticky issue - though we have a number of extant embroidered coifs, it is actually quite difficult to find paintings of women wearing them. 

You know, I could develop a theory about why they're so hard to find... 

"Coifs evolved as a way to keep one's hair clean and out of the way as one was working, so coifs have always had an association with labour and domesticity - think of the number of pictures you have seen of serving people throughout history, and consider that they all wear a headcovering of some sort, frequently a coif. Now - consider the portraits of the Elizabethan and Stuart upper class women you have seen - how many of them had bare heads, or even loose flowing hair? These women did not want to be seen as domestic or needing to work, so they didn't wear coifs, which is why you don't see embroidered coifs in paintings.  The number of extant coifs found in museums were worn by middle-class women for special occasions, but no-one painted middle-class women, so you won't see embroidered coifs in paintings.  Rich women wore something else, like lace veils or attifets, but they clearly never wore embroidered coifs, because I can't find any pictures of them."

I'm kidding, of course, but you can see how strange theories get started, can't you?   

(And just wait for that one to start making the rounds, even though I've clearly said it's a fake theory.)

 A cursory examination of a couple of pictures, an idea or two based on some half-remembered information about symbolism and the meaning of fashion in the 16th century, and you can go horribly horribly wrong.  If you get an idea, you must back it up with hard evidence

 The basic premise of the above theory is sound - coifs are useful for working women, and the plain ones became heavily associated with domestic life (as shown in Dutch paintings from the 1600s showing the difference between the rich and the working class).  But, in an era when every woman kept her head covered, the portraits of women without coifs are either heavily symbolic, or they're wearing some other kind of headdress (they didn't just wear coifs).  In addition, women at home could get away without wearing a coif (especially the more well-off), but if they went out, they would absolutely cover their hair.  A deeper examination of 16th and 17th century portraits shows that most of the women have their hair up (with a couple of exceptions which have deeper meaning than just representation - we can cover that in a later post if you guys want).  In fact, not only do most women have their hair up, they're wearing some sort of headdress.  The heavily decorated women wearing nothing but jeweled crowns are either in masque, or the very top of aristocratic society - queens and royal relatives can get away with anything.

In fact, there are plenty of portraits of rich women with some kind of headcovering - but it's frequently difficult to tell what that covering is.  There are many variations of coif, hat, hood, caul, scarf, head rail, and veil, and portraits were frequently done with the person facing the viewer (especially in England).  Often all you see of the head covering is a lace border. A beautiful lace border, to be sure, but not very helpful for identification.   The lack of visible coifs makes our search for evidence harder.  Not impossible, though, as you'll see below.

We'll start with our best image - tthis woman, who was painted in 1624, had the good sense to tilt her head slightly so we could see what the heck she was wearing on her head.  Isn't she the picture of well-to-do domestic bliss?  Don't we just love her?  Isn't her visible blackworked coif just freaking awesome?!

(Unknown Woman, British School, 1624
(Sorry about the quality of the scan; I did my best, but the original picture isn't fantastic either.)

Yes, yes it is awesome.  It is one of the best pictures of a woman wearing an embroidered coif that I have ever seen; you can clearly see it is wired in front, that it is embroidered, it is possibly lined (the underside of the coif shows no embroidery, and she is not wearing a second coif) and even that it is tied across the top of her head in the manner described in my article on wearing coifs. I find it very interesting to see the tie over the embroidery; like many people (and one in particular on the Yahoo! list), I would be hesitant to tie it in such a manner for fear of destroying the embroidery, but, as we can clearly see, she did not have any such qualms. Perhaps the lesson from this is that we should enjoy our things and wear them. I know that I didn't put all that work into my jacket just to put it in a box and stare at it occasionally. :).  

You know, I've not seen any wear that would indicate tying on the extant coifs I've studied, but then, I haven't been looking for it. 

(Look! Another research project! Whee!)

(This is how new theories start:  I have an idea - is it sound?  I look for evidence - is there any?  I interpret evidence - am I really seeing what I think I'm seeing?  I filter for wishful thinking - am I manipulating the evidence to fit my theory? I draw a conclusion - which can be changed if new evidence appears.)

(By the way, I'm planning another jacket. I'm going to put all the spangles I bought from Kass on that one.)

(Enough asides - back to the subject!)

In many ways, the picture above resembles the portrait of Margaret Laton. Both portraits seem to be symbolic of Woman as gentle, domestic, and modest, in contrast to many portraits from the same era of women in masque costumes symbolic of power and (perhaps) sexuality (it's all that free-flowing hair; very sexy).  Margaret Laton is also wearing some kind of embroidered headdress, but it is not entirely clear if it is a coif, or something else, like a forehead cloth, or even a pinned hood.  My jury is still out on that one, since I haven't experimented to see how that shape can be achieved.  I've seen it on other portraits, too.

To further illustrate our embroidered coif research, there are other examples of embroidered head covers, some coifs, some unidentified. There's a lovely reclining portrait of Elizabeth Drury in 1610 (I apologize; I could not get the original picture to scan well, and the only on-line image I found was a bad 18th century copy that showed nothing) that shows her in an incredibly delicate lawn or holland linen wired coif with polychrome embroidery that matches the jacket she is wearing under her loose gown.

(I'm going to blow up that image and re-scan after Pennsic; it's worth seeing.)

And this is a gorgeous example of a white-worked coif; in addition, you can see that she's wearing another smaller coif underneath (this is also a nice painting for the "unlined embroidered coif/second under coif" researchers looking for solid evidence - one line of research frequently informs another, and two theories can be right at the same time). The center top seam is worked in a lovely detached buttonhole stitch, I think (similar to the seams on the Wadham shift).

And, courtesy of the Elizabethan Practical Companion, here is a portrait of Frances Howard, c.1595, wearing a polychrome embroidery coif underneath a fine silk or linen veil.  The pointed front is the clue; any time you see that point, it is almost certainly a coif of some sort.  The pattern layout and construction of the coif produces that very distinctive point.

And there you have some of my research.  Fun stuff, eh?  Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

On to other things:

I could not find an on-line picture of Lady Powis and her jacket, so, florentinescot , just for you, a close up of the edges of the jacket lapels:


If you enlarge the scan, you can see at the shoulders where the jacket ends under the lace collar. This is a high necked jacket, in the manner of the one worn by Dorothy St. John (large image). When the top is turned back, you get that distinctive V-neck look, and the top edges sit back in that manner. The lower necked jackets have a much rounder neckline. 

Tomorrow will be the last post I'll be making until after Pennsic, which means it will probably be remarkably content-free as my brain melts in anticipation of a week off and parties.  Just so you know.
Tags: coifs, embroidery, how bad theories get started, jackets, research
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