What do you imagine when the term "Damsel in distress" is used?

A virgin tied to a rock in desperate need of rescuing? What is she wearing? A long flowing gown and an amazing headdress shaped rather like a dunce’s cap with a filmy veil?

Where does that freaky headwear come from? Is it just a piece of folklore?

No, these steeple headdresses have a name, Hennin or Henin. The conical shaped headdress is one of the most recognisable items of clothing from the Medieval Era. Does it surprise you to find out that the Hennin was only a small blip in the history of fashion? It was only at the height of fashion from 1460-85, (although some sources site 1450 to 1500) a mere few years but has fascinated people ever since.

The Hennin was conical in shape and speculated to be made of metal mesh or stiffened fabric. The cone was covered in brocades, velvets, cloth of gold and other rich fabrics. Attached to the point of the cone was a veil, made of a variety of fabrics including linen that cascaded down the back. Later on the semi transparent veil was delicately wired to create a sort of wing arrangement around the Hennin and the wearer's head. The Hennin covered the hair, as per the religious practices of the day for married woman. The hairline was plucked at the temples and nape to accentuate the long line of the era. The Hennin itself sat on the head at about forty degrees and required poise and grace to wear it. The exact method of securing the high and unstable headdress is unknown, given how heavy they would have been the chinstrap is the most logical but it rarely shown in portraits of the era. (Just the thought of having it pinned to the hair makes me cringe.) Needless to say this style was only worn by noblewoman who had the relaxed lifestyle to wear it.

A second style of Hennin was the truncated Hennin, which had the point of the cone sliced off. The shape not all that dissimilar to a fez. Also with a wired veil, this model also boasts a velvet chinstrap in many portraits.

Although the Hennin fell out of fashion it never really fell out of the public imagination. Children are the best place to see this action. Next time you come across a small girl, ask her "What does a Princess wear on her head?" Then tell her what they are really called.

Information gathered from authors personal book collection and the costumer’s manifesto, www.costumes.org

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