Dressed to kill? A 16th century doublet in historical context

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A dazzling Renaissance silk doublet is now on display in the Fashion and Style gallery at National Museums Scotland. In this blog Helen Wyld, Senior Curator of Historic Textiles, and Calum Robertson, Curator of Modern and Military History, take a deep dive into the history of the doublet, and its relationship to both fashion and war.

At over 450 years old, the doublet is an extremely rare survival. Due to its fragility it will only be displayed for a limited amount of time. But who would have worn this garment, and what would it have said about its wearer?

Red doublet on its own against a black background. Silky red texture with golden thread details on the sleeves, middle and collar.
The doublet from the front. The silk satin is worn in places, so that the yellow warp threads are showing through the red wefts. The narrow, 25 ½ inch waist suggests that the doublet was worn by a boy or a young man. © National Museums Scotland
Back of the red and gold doublet against a black background. Elbows are slightly bent, and vertical lines emphasise pads across the back.
The doublet from the back. Vertical rows of quilting stitches hold in place a layer of cotton wadding between the silk shell and the linen lining. © National Museums Scotland

Made from luxurious red silk satin, the doublet immediately strikes us as a high-status garment. With an exaggerated point at the waist, delicate snipped collar and cuffs designed to frame a frilled shirt, and hand-made buttons decorated with silk embroidery, it would have formed part of a fashionable ensemble in the mid sixteenth century. It is probably Italian, and similar garments can be seen in Italian paintings of the period.

Closeup of the doublet's collar. Gold details surround an opening, exposing part of a plan mannequin stand underneath,
Detail showing the snipped collar of the doublet, which would have set off the frilled and possibly embroidered linen collar of the shirt worn underneath. © National Museums Scotland

However, recent scholars have suggested that this may actually be an ‘arming doublet’, designed to be worn under plate or mail armour. Is this possible? Let’s look at the evidence.

A tale of war and the origin of doublets

When we acquired the doublet in 1983, it was thought to have been worn in battle, specifically at the 1535 Siege of La Goulette (Tunis) by the 2nd Marquis of Modejar, who was Captain General of the Cavalry of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The siege of La Goulette was part of Charles V’s campaign to seize Tunis, then controlled by the Ottoman Empire. As proof of this story, two cuts – one in the arm, one in the back – were seen as evidence of the Marquis’s wounds. But can this story be true?

Closeup of a section of the red doublet with stitching over a damaged section.
Detail showing a mended cut in the back of the doublet. This was once believed to show where the original wearer, the Marquis of Modejar, was stabbed; but there is no sign of blood, and the damage probably has a more mundane origin. © National Museums Scotland

The shape of the doublet, with its pointed waist (known in English as a ‘peascod’), suggests a date closer to 1550, making the link to the siege of La Goulette untenable. However, the idea that this garment was worn in battle is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The origin of the doublet – a close-fitting, padded garment worn on the upper body – actually lay in the medieval period, when it was designed specifically to be worn under armour. Our doublet still retains elements of this early function. Most obviously, it is quilted, with a layer of cotton padding sandwiched between the outer layer of silk and the linen lining.

Doublets later evolved as a kind of underwear in non-military contexts too, and were always worn under an outer coat or tunic. To hold the doublet in place, it would be laced to the wearer’s breeches with cords. Our doublet shows signs of this usage. A row of stitched eyelets around the lower edge, which has been reinforced with a band of coarse linen, would have held these cords. But in the later 15th century, men began wearing doublets as outerwear, and they start to be made of richer, more fashionable materials, like our red silk satin example.

Closeup of the bottom of the doublet. Its inner front edges are lined with red dots and stitched eyelets.
Detail from the lower edge of the doublet, showing stitched eyelets which would have been used to lace it to the wearer’s breeches. © National Museums Scotland

Eyelets and aiglets

Despite the clearly fashionable appearance of our doublet, costume historian Janet Arnold still suggested that it might be an arming doublet, capable of being worn under armour. This was largely due to a second set of stitched eyelets, around the top of each sleeve. These too could have held cords or laces, in this case to attach plate armour to the body.

Closeup of the doublet's shoulder, with blank black space taking up the top right corner. A seam with gold smudges around it is in focus.
Detail from the shoulder of the doublet, showing a row of six stitched eyelets. This image also shows the layer of fine crepeline net used by conservators to support the fragile surface of the doublet. © National Museums Scotland

A portrait of the English Lord High Admiral Lord Clinton in 1582 shows the wearer in a silk doublet with decorative cords streaming from shoulder eyelets, and a leather jerkin.

Renaissance-era portrait of a man in a splendid yellow-cream doublet, wearing a cross on a chain and sporting a thick goatee.
Portrait of Edward Feinnes de Clinton, 9th Lord Clinton and Saye, Earl of Lincoln and Lord High Admiral (1512-85). Lord Clinton wears a leather jerkin over a silk doublet, with decorative points (cords) tipped with aiglets threaded through shoulder eyelets. The snipped edges of his doublet frame a frilled shirt collar and cuffs, as ours would have done. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The shoulder cords, and those tying the centre front of Lord Clinton’s jerkin, are tipped with metal tips known as ‘aiglets’ (or aglets) – literally, small needles. Known collectively as ‘points’, these cords, and their decorative aiglets, were frequently used on both civilian and combat clothing.

Golden strand against a plain white background. Resembles a shoelace, with knotted cord and pointed ends.
A rare surviving set of late 16th or early 17th century points with copper alloy aiglets attached at each end. Museum of London

In Lord Clinton’s portrait, the points are at least partly decorative, but their position on the shoulder suggests the wearing of armour. Some late 16th century portraits show shoulder aiglets that clearly have no function but are exaggerated in size, suggesting a symbolic meaning.

Painted portrait of a man wearing a black doublet with white frills at the neck. He has a pointed goatee and neutral expression.
A member of the Kempe family, by an unknown artist, 1589. The sitter wears large gold points tipped with oversized aiglets – which begin to resemble modern aiguilettes. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Painted portrait of a man in profile facing left. Short light brown hair, black vest over a red doublet.
Portrait of Leonello d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara, National Gallery, London. Leonello wears civilian dress but his doublet has a row of stitched eyelets at the shoulder, hinting at a now absent plate armour and the chivalric associations of knightly service. The National Gallery

In fifteenth-century Italy, shoulder eyelets in doublets had long been worn on otherwise civilian dress, and they can often be seen in portraits. Curator of arms and armour Tobias Capwell has suggested that these wearers were using the shoulder eyelets, with their martial associations, to suggest a kind of chivalric virtue based in military prowess. Our doublet, though dating to the sixteenth century, seems to be making a similar claim; it may be the only surviving garment to contain these intriguing signs. Interestingly, the eyelets show no signs of having been used.

Renaissance painting of a group of nine men, a woman and two children all in colourful clothes. A fortified, terraced town rises up in the background.
Portrait of Ludovico Gonzaga and his family, in the ‘Camera Picta’, Castello San Giorgio, Mantua. By Andrea Mantegna, c. 1465-74. Ludovico wears ribbons or points through eyelets at his shoulder, as do two of his sons and his two grandsons; but they are all in civilian dress. Web Gallery of Art.

‘An officer and a gentleman’

Distant as the arming doublet now seems, something of its martial origin and decorative form remains in the continued wearing of aiguillettes. Aiguillettes are the descendants of both practical arming points and decorative aiglets, and still form an important and highly visible part of the uniforms of many contemporary armies, navies and air forces across the world.

Typically made of gold thread, the wearing of aiguillettes today refers to the 15th and 16th century aiglets illustrated above: suspended from the shoulder, looped under the armpit, and secured by button to the wearer’s front.

Golden rope-like golden cord forming a tall oval with tassels hanging down on the right side. Resting on a grey surface.
A pair of red and gold aiguillettes worn by a British army staff officer in the first half of the 20th century. This image shows how the aiguillettes loop from the shoulder and under the arm. The small loop on the right is used to attach the cords to the officer’s front fastening.

The metal points that give aiguillettes their name are now exaggerated in size and typically decorated with symbols associated with wearer’s branch of armed service.

It’s not clear if aiguillettes were worn continuously from the 15th century onwards. However, with the development of professional armies and standardised uniforms from the 17th century onwards, the wearing of aiguillettes slowly spread as a symbol of military authority.

Golden rope-like cord with long, triangular points alongside a black case within a glass museum display case.
Royal navy aiguillettes on display at the National War Museum, Edinburgh Castle. The gold and navy-blue cords and anchors decorating the metal points indicate this officer’s branch of service.

The wearing of aiguillettes has always been reserved for specific groups and individuals. In today’s British armed forces, this includes the highest-ranking officers – admirals, field marshals and marshals of the Royal Air Force – as well as certain staff officers working for a commander or in headquarters.

Painted portrait of a seated man with grey hair wearing full military uniform. He holds a sword and his cap is on a table.
Portrait of General Sir Charles Guthrie, painted by Rosemarie Timmis in 2000. Guthrie served as the Chief of the Defence Staff – the professional head of the UK’s armed forces – between 1997 and 2001. © Rosemarie Timmis

Aiguillettes continue to be worn as a performative piece of costume that articulates a very visual message of authority and hierarchy. They also reflect a sense of moral hierarchy: the aiguillette is a ‘golden thread’ (or perhaps a golden cord) between today’s military officers and much older ideas of martial leadership and chivalry.

Further reading

Janet Arnold, ‘Two Early Seventeenth Century Fencing Doublets’, Waffen- und Kostümkunde, 1979, pp. 107-120

Tobias E. Capwell, ‘A Depiction of an Italian Arming Doublet, c. 1435-45’, Waffen- und Kostümkunde, 2002, pp. 1-20

John L Nevinson, ‘A Sixteenth Century Doublet’, Documenta Textilia: Festschrift für Sigrid Müller-Christensen, Munich 1981, pp. 371-375