Barbara von Erlach

Barbara von Erlach by Diebold Schilling the elder: Spiezer Chronik. 1484/85. Burgerbibliothek Bern.

The reason I got interested in the late 15th century fashion of southern Germany/Switzerland is because of the spectacular headdresses! I feel SO uncomfortable wearing an ordinary veil, so three years ago I looked through various digital medieval manuscripts to find other types of headdresses. When I found the Spiezer Chronik from 1480’s Switzerland I knew that I had found the right thing for me!

Spiezer Chronik is a chronicle by Diebold Schilling the elder. It contains the early prehistory of Bern from the foundation of the town to the events in the middle of the 15th century. It was commissioned by Rudolf von Erlach, knight, bailiff and member of the Great Council of Bern. He was married to Barbara von Praroman in his first marriage. Both Rudolf and Barbara are depicted in the chronicle.

Rudolf von Erlach by Diebold Schilling the elder: Spiezer Chronik. 1484/85. Burgerbibliothek Bern.

The moment I saw Barbara I fell in love with her dress! Her bright pink/brown kirtle is probably worn directly over a smock which is decorated in the neckline. The reason I believe this kirtle is not an surcoat is the tight fit, the color of the dress underneath – it is white, the common color of the smock – and the fact that she wears a belt with a drawstring purse attached, something almost never worn on top of the surcoat in this period.

The kirtle has a deep V-shaped neckline and is closed either with lacing rings or metal clasps at the front. It is not entirely clear to me whether the kirtle is constructed with a waist seam or straight panels and gores. The skirt is very full however, and it looks almost as if it was pleated at the waistline. If that’s that case, it indicates a separate skirt and bodice.

Detail. Diebold Schilling the elder: Spiezer Chronik. 1484/85. Burgerbibliothek Bern.

The 3/4 sleeves are open at the back, which means that the full length sleeves of the smock are visible. The kirtle sleeves are laced with green ribbon at the back, and it appears as if lacing rings are used, rather than worked eyelets.

The yellow decoration on the shoulders is a mystery to me. Is it some kind of lacing rings? Or plain decoration? I really have no idea, since I haven’t come across the same kind of decoration in any other picture from the same period. If you know more about this, or if you have your own theory, please drop me a line!

Lacing rings in the neckline. Is this the answer to the mystery? Detail from young girl and old man, c. 1475-1480, Housebook Master, South Germany (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

The reason that I love Barbara’s dress because of the flattering fit and interesting details. However it is worn by a very rich and probably influential lady. Since I go for a little more common look when recreating 1480’s dress,  would not be appropriate for my imagined persona (middle class townswoman). But, what would happen if my imagined persona saw Barbara von Erlach wear this kirtle, went to the tailor and asked for something similar in cut and shape, but with cheaper and less material? What would that dress look like?

To get an idea what ordinary Swiss women wore during the same period, I went to another digital manuscript by the same author: Bern Chronik – The Bern Chronicle. It was commissioned in 1474 by the City Council of Bern. About ten years later, Diebold Schilling was able to hand over to the Council the three-volume work, adorned with colored pages, initials and more than 600 large illustrations. The third, artistically richest volume contains Schiller’s own description of the Burgundian war, including its prehistory until 1480. And in this third volume I found some very detailed images of camp followers wearing kirtles very similar to Barbara’s.

Detail. Diebold Schilling the elder: Amtliche Berner Chronik. 1478-1483. Burgerbibliothek Bern.

This woman has the same V-shaped neckline at the front, cut almost down to the waistline. She doesn’t seem to wear a belt in the natural waist – instead it is probably used to bring her skirt up, managing her to walk more freely. You can see the bulk of fabric below her waist as a result of this. And this indicates that her kirtle is cut with a waistline, rather than with straight panels and gores.

Detail. Diebold Schilling the elder: Amtliche Berner Chronik. 1478-1483. Burgerbibliothek Bern.

The wounded woman in red in the picture above has the same 3/4 sleeves as Barbara. They are open at the back and tied in three places. In this picture you also get an idea what the kirtle looks like at the back, with a very deeply cut neckline. She has got the same bulk of fabric below her waist, indicating a separately cut bodice and skirt. 

By using the Bern Chronik as a source for my new kirtle, I think I’ll manage to get as close to Barbara’s dress as possible, without having to ”try to rise above my station”. These kirtles have all the details I’m so fond of: the sleeves, the neckline and the marked waistline.

Now it’s time to start making my new kirtle! Wish me good luck!

About the chronicles by Diebold Schilling:
Barbara von Erlach, Spiezer Chronik:
Wounded women, Bern Chronik:
Camp follower:

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