The Evolution of the French Hood

The French hood of the sixteenth century is an interesting garment. Costume designers have been making theatrical version for years that miss the mark, turning them into structured headbands that arc up over the back of the head. So what exactly is a French hood?

Not quite a French hood, almost a kokoshnik, from The Tudors
I'm not sure what the earliest use of the term is, but Caroline Johnson notes in The Queen's Servants that the Princesses Margaret and Mary were issued red and black velvet for French hoods in 1501, on the marriage of Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon, and that Margaret brought "three yards of black velvet for hoods, oreillettes and frontlets of the French style" with her to Scotland in 1503. The version of the French hood worn at the time was far from anything that could translate into a headband - a two-layered headdress, with a (typically) black silk piece overlaid on either a band or cap of (typically) red, white, and/or gold.

Detail of presentation page from "Le Voyage de Gênes", 1500-1515; BNF Français 5091 f. 1r
Margaret Schuessler's article, "French Hoods: Development of a 16th Century Court Fashion" in Medieval Clothing and Textiles 5 (2009) was extremely helpful to me for conceptualizing what's going on with the construction. You see, rather than being an invention, this was an innovation on the existing medieval hood. This is quite clear when you look at profile or side-back views of each:

Scene from the Comedies of Terence, 1400-1407; BNF Département des Manuscrits, Latin 7907 A f.44v"February", from the "Golf Book", ca. 1540; BL Additional MS 24098, f.19v
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the important aspects of the hood were the folded back and flaring "ears" and the long, thin liripipe hanging down from the crown of the head. By the early sixteenth century, the turnbacks were either gone or heavily decorated, and the liripipe was much reduced - because that's what looks like a veil falling behind the French hood. It's what the liripipe turned into.

The version of the French hood worn at the very beginning of the sixteenth century may very well have been made in two pieces: the black silk (velvet, according to The Queen's Servants) hood itself, and a separate cap underneath. Many early portraits do give the impression of distinct layers, such as Sittow's portrait of Katherine of Aragon.

Portrait of Katherine of Aragon, Michael Sittow, ca. 1503; Kunsthistorisches GG_5612
There is also some evidence of colored caps in a very similar style being worn over the hair, framing the face.

Scene from "Les Triumphes de messire Françoiz Petrarque", 1500-1510; BNF Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal, Ms-5065 réserve f.71v
A number of images from around the time of the Sittow portrait seem to work on the same pattern, with the front of the black velvet hood turned back and the interior-turned-exterior sometimes decorated with goldwork. In some cases, the lower edge of this brim flares out; in others, it just hangs.

Bearing the derivation of the French hood from the earlier hood in mind, I want to take another look at the construction that might have been used in the period of Henry VIII. As far as I can tell, most sources treat the back of the hood at this point as a curtain or veil (like the Cunningtons' Handbook of English Costume), or recommend making a close-fitting circular crown with a narrow flap attached at the top (as in The Queen's Servants and Schuessler's paper) - but what if there is more continuity with previous methods of construction?

Engraving of Elizabeth, Queen of the Danes, by Jacob Binck, ca. 1525; British Museum 1846,0509.42
To be continued!

Don't forget to check out my Patreon page, if you haven't seen it! The next podcast episode: the ever-popular topic of mourning.


  1. Great research! I thoroughly enjoy the new direction your research and writing is taking.

  2. Wait, you mean the French hood WASN'T a bejeweled sun visor stuck on someone's head?! 3:) 16thc English costume was my first love, once upon a time, so I look forward to the next installment!


Post a Comment