Fashionista Friday – Hélène Fourment

Peter Paul Rubens, Hélène Fourment, c. 1630, chalk and pen and ink, 24 x 21 1/2 inches; The Courtauld Gallery (Samuel Courtauld Trust).

History has given us plenty of silly headdresses.  But what, exactly, is that thing on her head?

In this drawing, currently on display at the Frick Collection, Hélène Fourment is depicted in perfectly period attire, with a devotional prayer book in one hand and the other modestly lifting her veil to capture the viewer’s gaze.  She was the second wife of Peter Paul Rubens, who often used her as model and muse.  She is featured prominently—and flatteringly—in many of Rubens’ works.  Rubens was particularly sensitive to fashion of the time and rendered it in detail—this headdress, then, could hardly be a mistake on his part, but a conscious reflection of a legitimate accessory of the early part of the seventeenth century.

Hélène’s headdress has three components: the distinctive pom-pom, the rounded crown portion, and the veil. It appears in other surviving works by Rubens.

Peter Paul Rubens, Study for a Portrait of Hélène Fourment, c. 1638-1639, chalk on paper, 43cm x 26 cm, British Museum.

Peter Paul Rubens, Hélène Fourment with a Carriage, c. 1639, oil on wood, 1.95m x 1.32m, Louvre.

The Louvre’s notes on Hélène Fourment with a Carriage describe the headdress as a “hat in the pom-pom fashion then current in Germany and the Low Countries.” After playing with French, German, and Dutch translations of “pom-pom,” “tuft,” and “tassel,” I found references to headdresses in northern Europe consisting of a pom-pom hat in conjunction with the terms “bon grace” or “bongrace” and “huke” or “heuk.”  Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion defines the bongrace as a “stiffened oblong woman’s head-covering with drapery in back; worn in 16th and early 17th c. over a coif.”  In The Mode in Hats and Headdress, Ruth Turner Wilcox writes, “A most curious mantle covering head and body, was the huke, a hooded wrap of black cloth and of Moorish origin worn in Europe from the eleventh century.  It became especially modish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries particularly in the Netherlands, Flanders, Germany.”

Detail of plate from The Mode in Hats and Headdresses.

Further investigation of Flemish painters yields a few more appearances of this headdress.  It was not exclusively for adults, as modeled by a child in this painting:

Jacob Gerritsz. Cuyp, Three Children in a Landscape, c. 1635, oil on canvas,130 x 198 cm, Museum Boijmans van Beuningen.

The headdress appears twice in this painting of a market scene, suggesting its popularity among townspeople:

Attributed to Govert Jansz, called Mijnheer, Earth: Elegant Figures at a Vegetable and Cattle Market, after 1619, oil on panel,25cm x 30cm.

In the nineteenth century, Braun and Schneider recorded the headdress in their annals of costume history.

Plate 54D from Braun and Schneider’s The History of Costume.

In 1630, the headdress was described as follows:  “The richer sort of women doe weare a huicke which is a rob of cloth or stuffe plated and the upper part of it is gathered and sowed together in the forme of an English potlid with a tassel on the top.”

From Arabic garment of the Middle Ages to a potlid with a pompom–what a curious accessory!  Thanks to Hélène Fourment and Peter Paul Rubens for bringing it to our attention!

Calasibetta, Charlotte Mankey and Phyllis Tortora.  Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion.    New York: Fairchild Books, 2003.
Historic Costume in Pictures.  New York : Dover Publications, 1975.
Murray, James A. H., ed.  A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.  Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901.
Strachan, Edward and Roy Bolton.  Old Master Paintings and Drawings. London: Sphinx Books, 2009.
Wilcox, R. Turner.  The Mode in Hats and Headdress.  New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1945.
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