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Cover your head: women's coifs

Women’s caps, properly called coifs, are a fascinating, functional little item of clothing.  We’re not talking baseball caps or even those darling hats from the 1940’s. We’re talking Tudor-era caps.

We spell it coif (as in the French “coiffure” meaning hairdressing), but the English pronounced it “quaff.”  We know this from the phonetic spellings in period inventories.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, women of all classes would cover their hair both indoors and out.  This had extremely practical benefits. Europe was experiencing a little ice age during this time where the average temperatures were 5-6 degrees cooler than now.  While that might not seem like a big difference, the effect overall was noticeable, especially when there was no central heating.  Additionally, bathing was not nearly as frequent as now (no running water, no water heaters) and keeping your long hair braided, up, and covered kept it cleaner, longer.

Women of all classes and ages would wear some sort of head covering, mostly linen, and either plain or embroidered depending on class and economic level.  Often, a cap was paired with a forehead cloth.

English coifs have a very distinctive shape when laid flat that folded up into the classic coif shape.   They take on their proper silhouette only when they are placed on a head and cinched around a bun. Of course, when displayed in a museum, curators are loathe to stress the fabric and leave them untied, which makes it difficult to see how they would be shaped in real situations.

When leaving the house, the women would put a hat on top of her coif.

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