Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The chaperon

There are a couple of notable paintings from the 15th century that usually spur a slightly quizzical or bemused response when they're first encountered. One of these would be Jan Van Eyke's Man in Red, considered to be a self portrait, the other, contemporary with that example, is attributed to Robert Campin. The cause of this puzzlement, usually expressed as: is he wearing a turban or why has he got a towel on his head?, is a quite extraordinary garment, the chaperon. The chaperon is of interest for a number of reasons, firstly it's an early example of a garment where we can examine it's appearance, construction and evolution, in reasonable detail and with some degree of assurance. The evolution of the garment is also of interest and throws valuable insight into the historical period in which it occurred. Then there's the period itself, the 15th century is, of course, a pivotal period in European history, marked both by, turmoil and strife but also by advancement, discovery and enlightenment in diverse fields of human endeavour. It's a period that is often thought of as the terminator between the medieval and modern eras, which is probably fair but occasionally slanders the earlier era. For instance there's a broad assumption about the prevalence of superstition that is consigned to the medieval period that doesn't really belong. The catastrophic abhorrence and follies of superstition, the witch burning, moral panic and strife actual belong more to this period, the 15th century, than the earlier period.

One of the major social changes that occurred in the 15th century is the emergence or advancement of a certain social class. There's a tendency today to assign social divisions solely by income and while it can useful to consider income, it's important not to ignore class culture and role within a social structure. You see, before this period, there's only one kind of person who enjoys the full privileges afforded by their social context, and that's the man with the army. That's right for the most part, status is extracted through the point of a sword, sure there's a degree of privilege and status conferred upon peripheral characters, the courtesans, the hangers on but that's appointed, gained through sufferance and strictly administered only to those who's faithful obeisance is assured.

So who're these newly influential people that form this emergent class, well I suppose they should be called middle class, although today that moniker is associated with an income bracket, the wealth and affluence of the people concerned here could often outstrip that of their ennobled contemporaries. They're merchants mostly, occasionally artisans but trade is the big winner in the 15th century, aided by the lifting of the economic burden imposed by the crusades. People like Giovanni Arnolfini, the Medicis, sure people like this were always around but now's the first time we start to learn about them, they're important, significant enough to appear in the art of the period.

So what's the significance of a piece of headgear, well something funny happens when the people getting rich don't go round threatening to slap you irons, cut your throat, rape your children, steal your livelihood and generally leave you destitute and broken if you don't cough up your taxes. When wealth is acquired through endeavour, rather than coerced through threat, those rich people tend to be, less, well, you know, psychopathic. That being the case, they have all social and emotional needs of their ordinary peers. They like nice food, art, social graces, cloths, ever notice the sartorial impoverishment of the notorious dictators, Mao, Stalin, Hitler,  their insistence of control over artistic expression or their constant expansion of those activities they categorize as vices? Most ordinary folk don't really care about those kind of things their preoccupations are more prosaic. They'll go along with the imposed social strictures either through convenience or a sense of responsibility but for the most part they just want a better mobile phone or if you're in the 15th century a fancier hat.

That's how the transformation of the chaperon came about, it started out as a utilitarian garment a short hooded cape, usually woollen, the kind thing you've seen in filmed depictions of the medieval period. Chaperon is the French term for such a garment, in English I believe it's just called a hood, chaperon being adopted from the French for it's later incarnations because there's not much evidence for them within an English context and it would seem incongruous to refer them as hoods at that stage of their evolution. This gives rise to a slight problem, in that when does a hood become a chaperon,  it's led some to adopt chaperon for both garments. The first stylistic enhancement to the hood was the tippet, this being the pointed summit of the hood, which is usually turned in on modern examples but was left external during medieval times. This was extended to become the liripipe, you've seen those too, a long extension of the summit that dangles, sometimes to the feet of the wearer. Of course having a this dangling around your feet could pose problems for practical use so people started to wrap this extension around their heads or necks. This in turn led to, you've guessed it, longer liripipes, that were intended to be worn solely in this manner. There were more stylistic enhancements, staggered hems, rosettes but the really big change came when some bright spark decided to put his hood on upside down. That is, place the hole intended fro their face atop their head with the rest of the garment either dangling dangling or wrapped decorously around the head instead of around the shoulders, the medieval equivalent of putting your baseball cap on backwards. It's been speculated that this occurred through practicality, you know the sort of thing, "Ooh it's hot I must put my hood on backwards so I feel cooler". Of course, no one really knows but I suspect, it was just some dick head who wanted to look special,"Ooh look at me I'm wearing my hood on backward, aren't I a trend setter".

By now we can say the hood has safely transformed into the chaperon and this when all the artifice and stylistic enhancements start to come thick and fast. Fine fabrics, vibrant dyes, patterns, variations in form and size of the brim,  It's no longer a utility, it's a personal expression of style and affluence, This is something the thug overlords of the previous era couldn't share, not because they're beyond expressions of affluence and power it's just that when style is dictated, it's bereft of variation and creative flair, creative flair is what marks the chaperon out as an item of interest. Yeah they'll spend fortunes on exotica beyond the pockets those beneath them, fancy armour, jewels, silk from the orient but investing in something as prosaic as a woollen hood would be incomprehensible.

The chaperon didn't last, it was far too flamboyant for the grim times ahead, by the 16th century it was deader than a duck under a steamroller. The affluence and influence of the trading classes diminished somewhat too, there's the been the occasional recovery, probably you could cite the late 18th to early 19th century and late 19th century to early 20th century as such periods but on the whole it's a process that continues to this day. To make that point I'll ask a question, how often do feel you're being treated fairly by the interests that exercise near monopolies, like the utilities, insurance and bankers. What's your thoughts on the government, do approve of the concept of policing the world, do you feel you're engaging in a free, mutually beneficial association or do you feel coerced, robbed and threatened? Interesting question isn't it? I wonder if Patrick McGoohan ever wore a chaperon, I doubt it, far too dour, it's a shame really it would have suited him.

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