In this excerpt from photographer Charles Fréger’s book Portraits in Lace: Breton Women, published by Thames & Hudson this month, Breton costume specialist Yann Guesdon discusses the history of Brittany’s traditional headdresses.

The coiffe or headdress is perhaps the most striking element of a French regional costume. Situated at eye level, it is the first thing to be noticed. But although coiffes are highly identifiable today, this has not always been the case throughout history.

Originally, the coiffe fulfilled two important functions. On one hand, it served to protect a woman’s head from the vagaries of the weather, including wind, rain and blazing sunshine. On the other, it covered her hair, preventing it from stirring the lusts of men and thus helping to maintain the moral order imposed by religion.

It has always been made up of four basic elements. First is the visagière or brim that surrounds the face; this is extended by two wings (ailes or barbes) of varying lengths that hang down to the shoulders. At the back is the cap or fond, which covers the hair, and this is edged at the bottom by the bavolet, a band or flap designed to protect the neck. These elements, which originally formed a basic hood-like shape, have gradually evolved over time. Some have disappeared and others have been refined to form the remarkable lace coiffes that are a source of great pride to Breton women.

In the 1970s, several circles set up ‘costume committees’, with the aim of researching and collecting antique costumes in order to reproduce them accurately. René-Yves Creston’s authoritative book Le costume breton (1973), followed later by the publication of Lalaisse’s sketchbooks, led to a focusing of energies. Campaigns were fought to track down a missing piece of a particular costume or a specific style of coiffe; closets were ransacked and hidden treasures revealed. Other valuable resources for these researchers included the museums of Quimper and Rennes, among others, whose collections date from the late 19th century and house many unique pieces.

In parallel with this research and its scientific rigour, a complementary campaign emerged, designed to preserve traditional craft skills. Of course, it was now unthinkable that original costumes could be worn for parades and dances as they once were in the past. These pieces, made fragile by age, needed to be preserved for posterity in an appropriate fashion. The making of replica costumes therefore became a priority, and this was only possible thanks to the cooperation of a few people who refused to let this traditional knowledge die. Taking on an often unrelenting task, the last guardians of these skills passed them on to another generation, allowing new costumes to be made, restored and maintained.

The growing success of large-scale public events bringing together thousands of participants, as well as smaller religious ceremonies known as pardons, in which those taking part proudly carry banners and wear the costumes of their parents and grandparents, all demonstrate that Breton costume traditions are still alive and flourishing. For some years now, it has not been uncommon to see a Breton bride or a girl at her first communion coming out of a church wearing a coiffe. Several fashion designers have also found inspiration for their seasonal collections in the colours and shapes of Breton costumes. Some Celtic circles, realizing that the costumes cannot remain fixed, have even begun a new process of evolution towards more contemporary and daring styles; this may well be the surest sign that Breton costume is thriving.


Excerpted from Portraits in Lace: Breton Women, by Charles Fréger

“The Breton Coiffe” © 2015 Yann Guesdon

Reprinted with permission of Thames & Hudson Inc.,

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