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Coif

Detail of a medieval French illustration of a boy being received into a monastery. The child’s guardian/father (in brown) is wearing a coif Detail of a medieval French illustration of a boy being received into a monastery. The child’s guardian/father (in brown) is wearing a coif Trustees of the British Library, Royal 10 D VIII f. 82v.

A coif is a close-fitting cap that covers the top, back and sides of the head. It was worn by both men and women during the medieval period and later in Northern Europe. The word coif derives from the Old French word coife (modern coiffe) meaning a headdress. It is also related to the late Latin cuphea, cofea, meaning a helmet. The headdress and the word are probably related to the Anglo-Saxon cuffia/cuffie, known from the tenth century.

The wearing of coifs dates back to the thirteenth century and they were worn by all classes of men and women. They fell out of popularity by the fifteenth century for men, but continued to be worn by boys, girls and women well into the seventeenth century. Women often wore coifs under caps and hats of various types when in public, but at home coifs might be worn by themselves. Earlier coifs were usually made from white linen or silk (for the nobility) and tied under the chin. They were not normally decorated.

During the sixteenth century coifs started to be decorated with embroidery. The earlier ones were often embellished with blackwork as well as lace along the front edge. As the decades progressed the embellishment became more elaborate and colourful and included a wide range of stitches and applied decoration, such as spangles. Coifs developed into the lace caps worn by women from the seventeenth century well into the twentieth century as part of regional dress, such as the lace caps worn by women in Belgium, Denmark and The Netherlands. In some places, such as West Friesland (The Netherlands), some women would wear an undercap (originally the coif), a lace cap and a hat, all at the same time (especially on a Sunday). There are also coifs related to the legal profession and to military wear (under helmets), but as these were not decorated with embroidery, etc., they are not discussed here.

See also Elizabethan embroidered coif

Sources

  • OWEN-CROCKER, Gale, Elizabeth COATSWORTH and Maria HAYWARD (eds., 2012). Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles, c. 450-1450, BRill: Leiden, pp. 136-137; 165-166 (cuffia/cuffie).
  • Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: 'Coif'.

Digital source (retrieved 16 April 2016)

British Library online catalogue (retrieved 9 July 2016)

GVE

Last modified on Wednesday, 05 October 2016 09:15