An Icon of Brittany

Immortalised by artists such as 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.

Bigoudene headdress
The Bigoudène headdress was originally quite modest but evolved between WW1 & WW2 to reach heights exceeding 35cm. Initially made of canvas, it changed to lace as its size increased.

At its core, the traditional Breton headdress of the 17th century had four main elements created from the two large quadrangular sections of the, once popular, 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 here 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 difficult 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, in the main, 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.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

151 thoughts on “An Icon of Brittany

      1. There is so much cotton clothes now I do that anyway. It’s funny because I remember my mom getting so excited because they were doing away with most pure cotton clothes. As an new adult I loved not having to iron much. Now everything I get needs ironed. Drives me crazy! Lol

        Liked by 3 people

  1. I like the higher headpieces the most. Do you know what makes them a religious symbol (you said that retaining that aspect was important, but not why it’s religious – unless I missed it)?

    Love, light and glitter

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. I’ll try my best to answer! The headdresses aren’t really a religious symbol but shared the same medieval roots as many of the monastic head-coverings. You’ll notice that many are strikingly similar to the headdresses worn by various orders of nuns. There were hundreds of convents and monasteries dotted throughout Brittany and this had a massive impact on the populance particularly in regard to what was considered modest dress. Many of these conventions became traditions that were strongly adhered to.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m pleased you found it interesting. I agree, it’s amazing how many different styles there were in such a relatively small area. Hehe, sadly that headdress was lost when the city of Ker-Is was submerged long ago 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Magnifique. Merci infiniment pour ce post. Les coiffes Bretonnes étaient un art. (Même si elles sont encore portées lors des Pardons). Personnellement je n’en ai jamais vu qu’à Sein. en ’76, lors d’une manoeuvre à l’armée. Seules les vieilles la portaient encore: la coiffe noire de Sein, pour les morts en mer…

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Heyy I’m a design student and i’m currently working on this headdress project and I decided to work on this particular ethnic group and this beautiful headgear. Can you please help me by telling me that what are some of the reasons for the decline of this headdress and is there a possiblity that we can redesign it so that its more accepting and cherish it for their youth ? If so what are some of the key points I should focus on while designing it. Some answers would be of great help to me , thank you .

    – Manasvi

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for this. I hoped you liked it?
      Some of the reasons they fell out of favour are in the post but others include daily practicality and the mass migration from the province to the big French cities. While fashions changed – as they did throughout Europe – these hats immediately identified you as Breton and thus sometimes became problematical. This is related to a wider undermining of Breton culture that took place to create a more homogeneous country.
      Since the late 1980s, many movements in Brittany have made great strides in reaffirming a distinctly Breton identity. Children are again learning the language and the regional hats are worn often by women and young girls at religious and secular festivals.


    1. Thank you very much!! Unfortunately, I am having some local difficulties and these have meant it has been quite difficult to blog as before. Hopefully, I can get all resolved by the new year!! Stay well! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I find the details about headdress fascinating and represents the righteous etiquette followed in that era. Which is similar to the current wearing of different hats by the fashionistas and the common people. It surprises me how unique it used to be and how re-cycling of styles are brought into light. After all, fashion runs with creative blood which is bound to be under creative blocks where such revisiting of earlier styles can bring in refreshing ideas. You rock like you usually do and happy to refer such authentic nostalgic dresses.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you very much! I am very glad that you liked it! Yes, I too found it amazing how the styles changed so markedly between one parish and another. Seems quite strange to us nowadays where so much, even across continents, is the same!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Very cool! France was always a leader in fashion – so even if is not really a thing, it influenced many countries, including the United States

    They had similar here and bonnets. (Like you say, not so much now) people do not wear bonnets anymore here 😄

    But sometimes the lace caps… for special occasions or funerals … sometimes a veil is added (in black or white usually – depending on purpose)

    Also… your review of history reminds me of the Kentucky derby … still to this day, their hats 👒 are incredible!! It’s a thing at the Kentucky Derby 🐎

    I am not really one for anything on my head unless it’s a baseball cap 🧢 ❤️✌️

    Although, in winter also maybe a warm winter cap that covers my ears.

    Quite the fashion huh?

    Funny how fashions and styles come and go. Is cool to look back and see. 😊

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Haha but practicality is as important as fashion too! 😉 Yes, fashion comes and goes and, like you, I find it fascinating how each generation and even area, takes an idea and adapts it to their own taste. It is very fortunate that so many of the old distinct styles were captured on camera! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m glad things captured on camera too ❤️ is cool to see how people looked and lived!!

        It’s very cool to see the different generations and items of the different areas 🙌

        I love to look back in time ❤️

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, it is interesting that they photographed the whole range from eight years to eighty!! Just looking at them all is like watching the journey from fresh youth to wizened old age! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I know – I love that too!!!!!!! ❤️

        Both in history and I see that at work too

        At work, we make movies for people to play during their receptions … is the life and times of their loved one… the family gives us their photos to make this…

        We see from birth to death alot 😮 is amazing to see and think of life like that. What they saw and experienced or how they lived or aged … quite amazing and fascinating!

        Very beautiful to see life in that way 😉✌️

        Liked by 1 person

  6. WOW, what an amazing assortment of styles! I love intricate, delicate seamstress work. So creative! It’s really great that people are still wearing the headdresses today for various events. Keep it alive! Although the women in the first painting–I think it’s a painting? It’s very realistic looking, but…..– anyway, they don’t look very happy, lol !! I’m just glad I was able to avoid 1. the bustle (how does one sit DOWN on that thing? and 2. the corset (for obvious reasons, most importantly, breathing, lol). 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, the diversity is quite amazing, isn’t it? Ha, yes, that header image is a painting or women at a Pardon but if you mean the image of the lady on her own, then that is an old post card from the 1950s. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I was peeling some fresh (boiled) chestnuts that a friend had found in the Korean store?? As I cut myself and ripped my nail down to the bed, I thought, “I bet Breton peasants knew how to do this more efficiently…”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha, well, obviously not laughing at your injury but the thought that someone somewhere in the depths of Brittany had a method that we need to re-discover! 😉 Although I suspect that nails were not an issue but now that you have set that hare running, I shall make a point of looking at hand in old photos!! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      3. LOL! I think I will stick to the vacuum packed ones I get occasionally. Then I just cut myself while opening the packet…😊 I have no nails but they are weak and brittle.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I am glad that you enjoyed it!! 🙂 Like you, I think the standard of workmanship is impressive especially considering these were likely made by candlelight and folk had to scrimp and save for the material!


    1. If you do make it over, the museum in Quimper has a good selection on display but there is also an antique shop in Gourin that always seems to have lots and lots for sale. So many, that one might wonder whether there is not now a market in producing “old” headdresses? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I am very pleased that you enjoyed it and appreciate you saying so, thank you!! 🙂
      Hope that you had a good Christmas and that the new year will be a healthy and happy one for you and yours! 🙂


      1. As always I love reading yr articles, they are very well researched and the images that accompany yr words are simply spectacular. I have a lot of catching up to do and will try and read through the ones that I have missed these past few months.
        Yes I had a lovely Christmas thank you for the well wishes. I wish the same to you and yr loved ones.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I am happy that you liked them!! Yes, they were surprisingly widespread once.

      Ha, yes, that one is a gem isn’t it? The lady must have been a bit of a celebrity in her day as I have seen her featured on at least two old postcards too 🙂


  7. Such beautiful head-dresses and such skill. How difficult many of them would have been to wear but how lovely to
    actually have them on. Knitting, embroidering and crocheting in fine cotton lets me see the hours of work in these
    lovely confections. Thank you for another interesting Post.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Not so much but it’s getting better, thank you! I’m writing again, anyway, and that’s a big step forward.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved seeing all the variations of bonnets and headdresses. Wearing scarves and hijab in my daily life, makes me appreciate the importance of head-wear for daily and for special occasions..The bonnet becomes an inseparable part of the clothing and the person wearing it..If for some reason , a bonnet fell off, I could imagine how they might feel almost naked in public without one:) Thank you again for your impeccable informative style.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Many thanks for taking the time to look at them!! Yes, I agree, the effort behind each headdress must have been incredible especially when you consider how poor the light must have been under which they worked. As you say, it became an inseparable part of daily life and thus something which everyone accepted that the effort spent in creating them was well worth while! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I realize now that I have not been getting notification of your posts. I think I have it fixed now. I was able to find the one about the head dresses. I think that I would have liked to live in an era when these were popular. I am fond of hats. I really enjoyed all the pictures and information! Hope you are well.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. How amazing that many headdresses to ppl new forms in the new world stemming from America’s colonies and then into various sects in society and work-status symbolisms.

    Liked by 1 person

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