What Braveheart Got Right About Women’s Medieval Clothing (That Every Other Movie Gets Wrong)

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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.

 

Wimples

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.

Not period: If memory serves, this modern “medieval” gown by Butterick calls for something like 10 yards of fabric, which is INSANE overkill when it comes to fabric consumption.

 

High Necklines

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!

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About the author

Sarah Lorraine

Website

Sarah discovered her dual passion for history and costume right around the age of twelve. Dragged kicking and screaming to her first Renaissance Faire at Black Point, she was convinced she was going to hate it, but to her surprise, she fell head over heels in love with the world of reenactment and dress up immediately. Her undergraduate degree is in Clothing & Textile Design, and she has a Master's in Art History and Visual Culture. When she’s not hauling crap to SCA events and ren faires, Sarah enjoys reading true crime books, writing fiction, and sewing historical clothing from the Middle Ages through the 20th-century. One of these days, she might even start updating her old costuming blog again.

28 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    We have to take the wins where we find them. There are other groups out there that snark about other aspects of film/TV costumery, such as armour. One particular beef is about studded leather, which wouldn’t be especially effective — but which led me to wonder whether this was a misinterpretation of brigandine, which was small plates riveted to cloth or leather, underneath the garment, which left only the rivets showing on the top.

    Reply
    • Miriam

      Studded leather armour is 100% a misinterpretation of brigandines/coat-of-plates and similarly constructed armour. Not sure if we get to blame Victorians or D&D, though. ^_^

      Reply
  2. Nzie

    I never would’ve expected to see this title on a piece, but hey, you’re right! I was just sewing some stuff from the 15th century for my folks and I was just trying to explain to my mom, no, this is how this looked—it’s really different from what movies have led us to believe about it. It took some getting used to, but once she saw how it all fit together it made more sense to her. My dad came out looking professorial, lol—you can really tell where those academic gowns came from!

    Reply
  3. Jillian

    Not gonna lie, I was a bit worried when I saw your headline about Braveheart being right about something historical.

    Reply
  4. Susan Pola Staples

    The only thing I actually liked about this film was Sophie’s costume shapes and of the wimples were awesome. Also her hair was mostly worn up and ‘hidden’.

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      And are those cauls she’s wearing over her raisin-roll braids in the first few photos. They look cool, and might even be accurate. (In which case, another point for “Braveheart,” a movie I kind of like, especially the scenes that don’t feature Gibson.)

      Reply
  5. Shashwat

    The movie makes the 14th century silhouettes look gorgeous!
    To someone not nitpicky about historical accuracy,braveheart’s costumes might be the golden standard for medieval women fashion.

    Reply
    • Miriam

      Sheer net, no. But it’s nigh-impossible to purchase what they did use — linen fabric with the threads spun so fine it was sheer. So, it’s actually not as horrendously wrong as you might first expect.

      The weird decoration down the centre-front of the one wimple, though … no idea where that’s come from.

      Reply
    • Rowen G.

      Net, no – but I have some vintage linen fabric that is almost that sheer. (No idea how old – I acquired it at an estate sale.)

      Reply
  6. Miriam

    I get where you are coming from, but at best this is a Victorian interpretation of third-quarter-of-the-14th Century. Complete with the weird huge Princess Leia-esque buns on the side of the head, coated in criss-cross gold net. Huge give-away. It may not be ahistoric in a modern way, but it is ahistoric in a Victorian way and I’m not entirely sure that’s hugely better.

    Also, Braveheart is supposed to be set c. 1280-1314. See Eleanor of Castile’s effigy (c. 1290) for a better idea of what fashion actually should look like at this period: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/royals/edward-i-and-eleanor-of-castile

    Reply
      • JennyOH

        I think Miriam is referring to the round buns over Sophie’s ears, not the face-framing braids. In the first link you shared you can only see face-framing braids on Philippa, and in the second one the ladies with face-framing braids appear to have braids that wrap around the head (like the hairstyle they reproduce – which is super cool btw, thank you for sharing that!).

        Reply
      • Miriam

        Philippa of Hainault does not have “side buns”, nor does your other link show them. Both links show plaits, sometimes referred to as “templars”, which frame the face. They are not buns, they are not circular, they are not covering the ears, they are not the size of the things stuck on Isabella in Braveheart and they are very rarely depicted as decorated.

        Whilst I agree that the hairstyle you linked is perfectly accurate (for c. 1330-80), that has exactly zero relevance to the hairstyle on Isabella in Braveheart.

        Reply
  7. Melinda

    Noooo! Princess seam first appeared in 1848! It was introduced as a novelty and QA has nothing to do with it! During the late victorian era it got very fashionable, to the point when every dress was called princess gown (polonaise, tunique, over dress or whatsoever) which had long seamlines!

    Reply
  8. Alexander Sanderson

    I always find it difficult, when considering Isabella of France in Braveheart, to bypass the fact that she would have been around 12/13 years old at the time of the films plotline and that Edward I was dead before she married Edward II; but saying that I have to agree that her headwear in the film is fantastic. My only nit-pick is that I think that too much sheer fabric was used, the very few contemporary depictions of Isabella that I have found/seen show her with far more solid drapery over her coif. She certainly did like her headwear though, she bought 72 headdresses with her when she travelled to England from France after her marriage!

    Reply
  9. Charity

    Not just any wimples, mind — BEAUTIFUL ONES.

    Truth be told, I never made it all the way through Braveheart, coz I found out what happens to him at the end. Plus, lots of horses died in the battle scenes. I can sit there and watch men chopped into mincemeat and not care but HOW DARE YOU SKEWER THAT HORSE. HE DID NOT ASK TO BE THERE FIGHTING YOUR BATTLES, YOU TWATS.

    Ahem.

    On occasion, wimples showed up on more than just old ladies in the medieval murder mystery series Cadfael, along with tons of high necklines and limited fabric choices, but I’m not sure whether they included princess seams or not… Hmm.

    Reply
    • Boxermom

      I thought I was the only one who had that reaction to animals being hurt in movies. I was watching a movie the other night where the villain and his German Shepherd were locked in separate rooms. I kept yelling at the TV ” Don’t hurt the dog, you assholes!” At the end, the dog ate his owner (he was really hungry). :)

      Reply
  10. Roxana

    I also love the fact that Isabella’s surcoat is heraldically correct for the period: arms of England, files three lions lions passant gardant or differenced with a label azure, for the heir, dimmidated with the azure, Fleur de lys or for France.

    Reply
  11. Stella

    No historical costumer probably wants to look to Braveheart for inspiration, but it wouldn’t hurt if more of them saw how good the ‘unsexy’ wimples, unfitted dresses and high necklines can look! Granted, making Sophie Marceau look bad would be a challenge but the same goes for any Hollywood leading lady, so give them a wimple next time- they even sort of accentuate the face, really!

    Reply
    • Alexander Sanderson

      I agree totally: a wimple or a gorget worn over a well crafted crespine or caul can be highly elegant and frame the face beautifully. It is also often forgotten, but was shown in Braveheart, that under the wimple the hair was often revealed in elaborate display; often in plaits or braids, coiled around or inside the caul either side of the wearers face. This would have soften the effect greatly.

      Reply

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