Immortalised by Gaugin and adorning countless postcards, biscuit tins and souvenir plates, the traditional women’s headdresses of Brittany, the c’hoef (or coiffe), are one of the region’s iconic images. Descended from the religiously-inspired headgear of the Middle Ages, the now emblematic knitted embroidered headdresses evolved gradually over time, reaching their apogee in the late 19th and early 20th century.
At its core, the traditional Breton headdress of the 17th century had four main elements created from the two large quadrangular sections of the medieval veil: the visagière surrounding the face and extended by two wings that hung down to the shoulders. At the back, a simple cap which covered the hair and edged at the bottom by the bavolet, a flap designed to cover the neck. Together these formed a shape akin to a monastic hood or camail which adjusted slowly to the demands of practicality and the dictates of fashion. The camail was too heavy for labouring in fields, so, it was cut; the shellfish gatherers of the coastal regions found the wings too often sodden with sand and seawater, so, cut them in half; the shopkeeper and craftswoman, cramped in their working environments, removed the cumbersome wings completely.
The overall similarity of form can be largely attributed to three main factors: similar climatic necessity; the power of cultural norms and the influence of the large number of religious communities amongst the population. Maintaining the religious character of the headdress was important to the pious folk of Brittany, so, changes were slight: a tighter lace; a fold at the base of the cap; the careful application of pins to raise the wings above the head or even to form a rosette at the crown or simply use knots to tighten them to the chin. These were small adjustments that completely changed the character of the wearer’s face while remaining within the traditional style.
This adherence to tradition is key – in the Brittany of yesteryear what you wore formed as important a part of one’s sense of identity as the dialect you spoke; proudly anchoring you to your, identifiable, roots. Headdresses differed from region to region and studies have shown that the disposition of each type roughly corresponds to the territories of the old deaneries. The parishes of each of these ancient deaneries shared the same basic headdress but, as noted above, subtle differences in design and arrangement meant that one headdress was not quite the same as that sported in a neighbouring parish. This created a uniqueness that was a significant source of local prestige and spurred the development of the headdress as parishes sought to express their distinctiveness by crafting and wearing finer items than their neighbours.
Headdresses were usually made at home either by the family or by a travelling artisan adept at the art of coarse canvas sewing. The use of hemp or finer linen reflected the wearer’s social status but the headdress was also an indicator of the age and marital status of the wearer.
There were generally two types of head wear – a covering for everyday wear and a finer item worn during formal events, such as fetes, church pardons, confirmations and weddings. Often headdresses were handed-down through the generations and it was quite usual for the headdress worn for a girl’s confirmation to be used later for her wedding ceremony. Widows’ periods of mourning were also reflected in their headdress; in some regions bespoke headwear was worn, while in others black ribbons were added to existing head gear.
The late 18th century saw the emergence of more intricate sewing and embroidery techniques and an increased use of lace; likely a result of the abolition of the sumptuary laws after the revolution. It is worth recalling that for centuries before the revolution, modes of dress and adornment had long served in France as one of the most visible indicators of social status so it is not surprising that clothing and dress were profoundly affected by the tide of post-revolutionary changes.
Towards the latter part of the following century, the then fashion for knitted netting was steadily absorbed into the making of headdresses in Brittany. The embroidered knitted net was found to be an ideal material for the caps as it comfortably accommodated various types of embroidery and styles of netting. Many headdresses retained the character of earlier headdresses while others made an ornament of the hair. Some were frequently made in net, such as ‘the sardine head’ from Douarnenez and the Penn Kolvez (named after the town of Corlay) which in the town of Carhaix was paired with a lace collar.
The headdresses continued to evolve into the 20th century but retained two key elements: the wings and the bottom. Some became smaller, like ‘the wheelbarrow’, the headdresses of Pays Pourleth (around Guémené-sur-Scorff), others went taller, like the Bigoudène from Pays Bigouden (a small area south west of Quimper); some became bonnet-like such as the headdresses of Léon while others remained stylistically close to the shape of the caps of the 19th century.
The materials with which the headdresses were made differed according to the period, the region and the wealth of the wearer. Initially fashioned from a coarse canvas, headdresses were later made from tulle, organdy, fine lace and even synthetic fibres.
The wearing of the headdress fell out of fashion in the years following the Second World War and by the early 1960s it was a rare sight. However, the headdress has not been consigned to the history books and can regularly be seen worn at some Pardons and at many folk festivals. Thanks, in part, to the work of the Celtic Circles who have done much in recent years to successfully re-connect younger Bretons with their rich cultural heritage.
Some sources claim that there were once as many as 1,200 distinct regional headdresses worn in Brittany although others put the total figure closer to around 700. Whichever figure you choose, it represents a staggering level of diversity in a region just a little larger than Belgium or the state of Maryland and about half the size of Tasmania.
The gallery of headdresses below are taken from Les Coiffes Bretonnes – 100 Modèles Différents by Maurice Bigot; a work published in limited numbers in 1928.
To me, these images form a wonderful record of the individual grace and rich regional distinctiveness that is now, sadly, mostly lost to us.