I have something good to say about Braveheart (1995), and no, I’m not running a fever, nor have I been kidnapped by aliens and replaced with a cybernetic version of me that is programmed to say nice things about Mel Gibson movies. I’ve thought a lot about this movie over the last 20-whatever years, and while the vast majority of it has been wondering who’s idea it was to match Mel Gibson’s woad face paint to his eye color and pondering the finer points of crushed panne velvet (is it ok because it’s pretty? Or is it still a crime against nature?), but recently something has occurred to me that I feel needs to be pointed out:
Panne velvet aside, Braveheart actually gets a couple things right about medieval women’s clothing that the vast majority of films and television shows set in the same era constantly fuck up. So, I’m here to talk about it.
Ask yourself, when was the last time you saw a film or TV show set in the 14th century that depicted any young, beautiful woman wearing a wimple? I’ve seen at most a handful of modern films set in the 14th century depicting women in wimples, but they’re usually left off in favor of hair flowing free in beachy waves. Heck, even finding veils in films is hard.
I have waxed poetic on the subject of wimples in the past, but one thing usually stands out about them as a costuming choice for film, and that’s that they’re almost always worn by older women. There is a point after the 14th century where wimples get rolled into widow’s weeds and nuns’ habits, but during the period that Braveheart is set in, they were high fashion for young women, to the point where laws were imposed on prostitutes to prevent them from wearing wimples and being confused for ladies of good breeding — and you know that if the whores were wearing it, it had to be fashionable.
No Princess Seams
Most of you won’t need a description of what princess seams are, but just in case there’s a few of our readers who aren’t up to speed on sewing terminology, princess seams are seams that start either at the shoulder or the front of the armpit and run over the bust. It’s a patterning technique that allows for a tight fit over the curves of the body without resorting to using darts or folds.
Allegedly, the term “princess seam” dates to the late-19th-century, ostensibly named after Princess Alexandra of Denmark, daughter-in-law to Queen Victoria, who had a lithe figure and preferred to wear gowns that fit snugly to show it off to best effect. There’s some quibbling about whether or not that’s really where the term came from, but at any rate, princess seams are not medieval (except for one possible depiction in that one portrait of Agnes Sorel where she has her boob out. And no, princess seams are not the same thing as the seaming treatment found in some bog clothing finds dating to the 14th-century).
The bottom line is that princess seams are not historically accurate for the 14th century. The reality is that they are a modern conceit that you see often in films set in the medieval period because, hey, they’re easy and result in something that looks to the modern eye like the right look. In reality, the prevailing belief is that medieval gowns were fitted by techniques such as pulling the fabric to mold to the body, without the wastefulness of fabric that inserting curved seams requires.
Almost all of Sophie Marceau’s gowns in Braveheart show a higher neckline than what is considered “sexy” for modern eyes. Take these examples from Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth (2012):
You have a deep “U” shaped neckline on Jessica Brown Findlay and a completely off-the-shoulders look for Katie McGrath, who plays her evil sister (and which is actually period for a very specific area of the 14th century, but that’s a post for another day). Early 14th-century necklines tended to be higher and less rounded, coming almost to the collar bone. I know we’re talking about the difference of a few inches, but believe me, it matters.
So, there you have it. Three instances of Braveheart getting something right for a change. The rest of the film is a hot mess of historical fanfic, and the panne velvet is a crime against nature (as anyone who has ever had to sew with it will tell you), but at least the film didn’t totally eff it up.
Share your feelings about panne velvet in the comments!