Children's Gown or Undergown

Since I first started looking at period portraiture for historical information on clothing, one garment has always intrigued me. This one:

The part that intrigues me is that this gown has elements that we can see in real gowns of a few decades later, namely the Shinrone Gown and the Saxon Gowns popularized by the Court Painter Lucas Cranach. Both gowns have lacing across the abdomen (though in both cases it stops under the bust). The Cranach Gowns have the same tight, nearly-falling-off-the-shoulders sleeves as Memling's Girl does.

However, there are many elements of the dress that appear to defy the laws of physics. For one, the lacing stops abruptly under her right arm and there is no pulling in the skirts that one would expect if the lacing stopped at the waist. There is also no front opening on her gown skirts. This would make the gown difficult to get on over the head.

Elements of this gown are possible in the real world, if not all of them. Can this picture help us explore the timeline that led to the development of the Shinrone and Cranach styles? Memling's so-called "Girl with a Pink" is really part of a larger painting called "The Allegory of True Love". So perhaps we shouldn't take it as fact.

However, the young ladies shown below are real people. That's Young Miss Portinari on the left and Young Miss Donne on the near right. On the far right are two young ladies in Memling's "Presentation in the Temple" from 1463. Their identity is unknown, but they are thought to be daughters of the unknown donor of the work. Notice how the younger one wears an open-laced gown.

Could this be what they're wearing? The undergarment worn under the V-necked gown?

If so, why would it be worn alone? The girls in the portaits shown above are not meant to be in a state of distress (or undress). They are all in peaceful, prayerful poses. They are the daughters of the donors of these masterpieces and are presumably dressed in their best clothing to have their portraits painted. It then follows that this was acceptable formal clothing for young girls, pre-teens. The lacing in front would allow daily modification to accommodate their ever-changing body shape. And since children were not subject to the same rules of modesty as adults, there would be no shame of "running about in your underwear". This would not be perceived as "underwear" on a young girl. It would be considered her formal clothing. It is simply missing the uppermost layer of formal adult clothing.

Of course this is all guesswork on my part. I have found no historical references to support such an idea of "young girl's clothing".

So if this is the case, why do we sometimes see grown women wearing these gowns? There is, in fact, a historical precident for this behaviour: in the 18th century, pinner aprons (aprons with a rectangle above the waist that was pinned to the jacket or stays) were widely worn in France, but in England only children wore them. There is one exception to this: residents of an assylum for reformed prostitutes also wore this type of apron. In fact, it was part of their uniform. Clothing historians speculate that the apron was meant to represent their regained innocence, that they were no longer sinful women but "like unto children" again.

Could it be that this open-laced gown was meant to signify a similar thing? The only place I have found this gown in evidence not on children is in pictures of saints. Below we have pictures (left to right) of Saint Mary Magdelene, Saint Lucy, and Saint Margaret all wearing versions of this gown.

That being said, it's possible that, unlike pinner aprons in the 18th century, this open-laced gown was never worn in public by grown women. It is possible -- and even more likely -- that it was painted on saints in paintings to allegorically represent their childlike innocence. In other words, without further research, it would be dangerous to wear this gown as an overgown unless you are a girl under the age of 13.

UPDATE: I've just found one portrait of a grown woman wearing this open-laced gown. A 1468 portrait of Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy and sister of English Kings Edward IV and Richard III shows her wearing such a gown. However, this was painted in the same year that Margaret married the Duke of Burgundy. There was apparently a good deal of scandal associated with the match, with King Louis XI of France going so far as to induce the Pope not to grant these fourth cousins dispensation to marry. Margaret was mainly accused of not being a virgin and having given birth to a bastard son. This portrait of her in "innocent" dress may have been meant to indicate that she was not the person Louis XI would have the world believe.

So although she is an adult in what I have deemed "children's dress", I believe the reasoning behind this depiction is clear and this does not refute my hypothesis.

Paintings Cited in this Article

  • Hans Memling. 1485-90. "Diptych of the Allegory of True Love" (aka "Girl with a Pink")
  • Hugo van der Goes. 1476-79. "The Portinari Triptych"
  • Hans Memling. 1475. "The Donne Triptych"
  • Hans Memling. 1463. "Presentation in the Temple"
  • Scene from King Rene's "Book of Love" (first identified by Robin Netherton)
  • Hans Memling. 1480s. "Triptych of Adriaan Reins"
  • Unkown Master. 1480s. "The Saint Lucy Legend"
  • Unkown Master. 1488. "The Holy Virgin Surrounded by Female Saints"
  • Unknown Master. 1468. "Margaret of York, Duchess of Burgundy"

© 2008 Kass McGann. All Rights Reserved. The Author of this work retains full copyright for this material. Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research or educational purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.