Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204) was the greatest lady of medieval Europe. In her own right she was Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers, ruling over a large chunk of what is now France. By marriage she was also Queen of France, at least for the 15 years of her union with Louis VII; a high point was when she rode at the head of the Second Crusade with her ladies decked out as Amazons. After divorcing Louis she married Henry II, thus becoming Queen of England—the only woman in history to wear the crown of both countries. In her spare time she sponsored the greatest literary revival of the High Middle Ages; she also masterminded a military rebellion against Henry that landed her in prison for 16 years. She was freed after Henry’s death, and went on to rule England as regent for her son King Richard (who was off on the Third Crusade) and as the power-behind-the-throne for her son King John (who was a doofus).
Eleanor was renowned in her day as a beauty and a fashion plate, but the only real likeness we have of her is the tomb effigy at Fontevrault (see our main illustration above). It was the Middle Ages, after all; even kings and queens weren’t in the habit of having their portraits painted. In fact, nobody even recorded what color Eleanor’s eyes and hair were. So when most of us picture Eleanor of Aquitaine, we’re really thinking of Hollywood: Kate Hepburn in The Lion in Winter, Glenn Close in the remake of the same, Eileen Atkins in Robin Hood. Our costume is a nod to those memorable movie costumes, but using super-easy modern garments. It might not win you any authenticity awards at a Renaissance Faire, but you’ll look marvelous. The pieces we suggest, from left to right:
1. T-shirt maxi dress. We chose this maxi dress because it has a flared skirt with princess seams, which gives it the right shape for Eleanor’s period. Any color is okay as long as it’s not some bright modern shade; we went with black because it’s easy and looks great. The fashionable gown in Eleanor’s day was the bliaut, which was laced at the sides. To get that side-lacing effect with this maxi dress, first do a fitting by putting the dress on inside out. Use safety pins along the sides to scrunch it to your body. The material is stretchy enough that you’ll be able to leave the safety pins in place and still pull the dress off and then put it back on right side out.
2. Wide jacquard ribbon trim. You’ll need about 3 yards for your girdle (belt) and another yard to trim your sleeves. We used a basic gold, but there are a million different patterns to choose from. For the girdle, just wrap the ribbon around your hips, fold one end over the other in front, and let the long end(s) hang down the front of your skirt. Use some 1.5 inch wide Res-Q tape or other double-sided tape to keep it all in position once you get it situated. For the sleeves, just wrap a piece of ribbon trim around the bottom edge of each sleeve and hold in place with Res-Q tape.
3. Long sleeve print top. It doesn’t have to be this particular top; you just need one with a pattern that doesn’t look too modern. And in fact you don’t even need the whole top; you just need the sleeves. Wear it (or the sleeves) under your maxi dress for that layered medieval look. If you can’t find a suitable print top, a gold blouse would also work. One of the few specific things we know about Eleanor’s wardrobe is that she liked to wear cloth woven with gold threads.
4. One-piece hijab with fancy trim. The white nun-like thing that medieval ladies wore is called a wimple. You can try draping your own or buy a reenactment version (at Revival Clothing, for example), but for an inexpensive and stress-free alternative, we recommend a modern one-piece hijab. This particular hijab drapes beautifully (the pleats are sewn-in), and it even has gold buttons on the shoulders. You just pop it over your head and you’re good to go. It’s beautiful.
5. Gold crown. This is a good, substantial piece, with nice cabochon jewels and figured gold detailing.
6. Medieval style necklace. Eleanor of Aquitaine was the richest woman in Europe and known for her love of jewels, so bling is good. Just look for medieval type pieces: cabochon jewels (they didn’t have faceted gemstones back then), bold shapes like the quatrefoil, that sort of thing.