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Isabeau of Bavaria: First fashion icon

4 Jan

Fashion icons such as Marie Antoinette, Josephine de Beauharnais, Georgiana Cavendish and  Elisabeth Sissi of Austria are all well known, but who started all that? Who was the first to set trends and inspire, not just women at the court, but many other to follow her as an example of good taste and fashion sense? Well, the first modern fashion icon was Isabeau of Bavaria.

Isabeau of Bavaria - 19. century depiction

Isabeau of Bavaria was born in 1370. into famous House of Wittelsbach. She was born in Munich and baptised as Elisabeth. At the age of fifteen, on 17. July 1385. she married Charles VI. of France. He was very much pleased with her, mostly because of her beauty. They had twelve children; six daughters and six sons. Her husband showed his insanity in the early 1390s and Isabeau played an important role in leading the country and preserving the throne to her heirs.

Isabeau wasn’t very popular in her times. There were a lot of people who believed she and Louis of Orleans (her brother in-law) were lovers. An Augustinian friar, Jacques Legrand preeched a long sermon about court’s excesses, specially mentioning Isabeau and her ladies in waiting’s fashions – with exposed necks, shoulders and décolletage.

Isabeau with court attendants shown in a 19th-century print

Isabeau with court attendants shown in a 19th-century print.

Isabeau allegedly spent vast amount of money on court amusements including dance, balls, feasts and most importantly – fashion. She wore jewel-laden dresses, rich brocades, elaborate and extravagant braided hairstyles coiled into tall shells, covered with wide double hennins. She encouraged her ladies-in-waiting to wear the same fashions.

Beautiful brunette spent her days dressed in very expensive dresses with rare jeweles, golden, blue or burgundy coloured brocade dresses richly decorated with floral motives and trimmed with ermine. These dresses had long trains covered in jewels, embroidered with gold and trimmed with ermine fur and were carried by her ladies-in-waiting.

1380s - 1410s

Isabeau shown in brocade court dress with ladies-in-waiting carrying the ermine-lined train, gouache on parchment.

Women’s fashion in the late 14th and early 15th century consisted of long gowns, with long sleeves, worn over a kirtle or an undergown, and linen chemise was worn as the first layer, next to the skin. The long-waisted silhouette popular in 1300s started declining in 1390s and in early 1400s new high-waisted silhouette became fashionable. Dress was often full at the belly and usually confided with belt, as you can see down below.

The most popular fabrics for rich ladies of the period were brocade, wool, silk and velvet. Colour palette was limited, though, burgundy, all sorts of red, green, brown and indigo blue were all the rage. Fine linen was used for hair coverings. Outdoors, women usually wore mantles and cloaks lined with fur and trimmed with ermine.

Harley 4431 f.3

Miniature showing Christine de Pizan giving Queen Isabeau a book as a New Year’s gift in the queen’s closet with her ladies.

In a beautiful miniature portrait above Isabeau is wearing red high-waisted gown with green belt and very, very long and wide sleeves trimmed with ermine (traditional symbol of royalty). Isabeau and her ladies-in-waiting wear jewelled heart-shaped stuffed or hollow “bourrelets” on top of hair dressed in horns. Christine, on the other hand, wears a divided hennin covered in white cloth.

Isabeau’s dress is decorated with small gold floral prints. Under her wide sleeves you can see very right-fitting black sleeves. Two of her ladies-in-waiting have indigo blue dresses with bald golden print, while others have red, brown and green dresses. Christine is shown in ultramarine coloured gown with red under-sleeves.

1420. isabeau of bavaria

Isabeau was an art collector, like many of the Valois. She loved jewels and often commissioned lavish pieces made of gold and different jewels made with special technique called ronde-bosse – a newly developed technique of making enamel-covered gold pieces. She commissioned several fine pieces from Parisian goldsmiths, as Marie Antoinette had also done four hundred years later.

Isabeau died on 24. September 1435. at the age of 64-65. I found this little statue of her based on some portraits, and it shows the Queen in 1390s (I assume this looking at the silhouette of her dress) dressed in rich golden brocade dress trimmed and decorated wit ermine and jeweles. Note how the dress has a nice little floral print to it. She wears earrings, a ring and a rich necklace. Her head covering is also very exquisite; richly decorated with jewels and brown fur with a crown on top of all that. Take a look at her indigo blue shoes.

Isabeau of Bavaria statue