Western European women’s clothing changed dramatically in the first half of the 12th century, during the First Crusade, when noble ladies accompanied their crusading lords to cities such as Constantinople, Palermo, and Venice—all centres of silk manufacture. These fashion-conscious visitors discovered and adopted a local, eastern-inspired garment, the bliaut, and before long the gown made its way by degrees through the south of France and into England, arriving about 1130.
Previously women’s gowns were simple affairs; the bliaut was the first woman’s garment to have a definite shape and elaborate construction. It was made of fine material, crimped or gauffered, joined on the shoulders then stitched and stitched again across the bust and back. The neck was banded, and the garment fell in many tiny folds to the feet. The sleeves were created the same way; the tiny pleats were fixed into the armholes (this is the first appearance of such a feature as an armhole) and stitched a little way down the arm so they fell in many small folds around the arm. The sleeve was cut on the cross, creating a zigzag effect at its edge.
The bliaut could be layered and was usually accessorized. A corsage, a form of sleeveless jacket embellished with embroidery and/or jewelled ornamentation, was often worn over the gown. As well a wide hip-belt could be worn to tightly bind the torso, accentuating the women’s shape.
The bliaut was originally worn only by the social elite (high nobility) but by the end of the 12th century it was being worn by many upper class women (and by men, in a simpler form). The bliaut showed off a woman’s natural form, and the clinging suppleness and filmy nature of the fabric influenced the way she carried herself. She moved with slow, gliding motions and avoided abrupt actions. Bliauts were easily crumpled so the fashionable changed frequently in order to avoid appearing slovenly or unkempt…or stupid.
Research: Angelina Pieros
Sources: Fame Pictures Inc (Lady Gaga photo), Medieval Costume and Fashion by Herbert Norris