What Is a French Hood?

The French hood is one of the most distinguished fashion items during the 1500s, just at the onset of the Renaissance period. Obviously enough, the French hood originated in France.

It is a type of bonnet backed by a stiff frame. But unlike bonnets of the 18th to 19th centuries, which resembled a hood found in a horse-drawn carriage, the French hood was worn back on the head.

The French hood somewhat resembles the English hood (also known as gable hood) except that the former has a rounded shape as opposed to the angular, gable-like shape of the latter. The English hood is also more conservative as it covers the front part of the hair. The less conservative French hood, on the other hand, exposes it. However, both hoods cover the ears.

Anne Boleyn wearing a black dress and French hood
A portrait of Anne Boleyn, wearing the French hood

The French hood is most popularly associated with Anne Boleyn, queen of England and the second wife of Henry VIII. She is said to have introduced the French hood into England. During her stay in France, Boleyn adopted the continental style. She had continued to wear it upon her return to England.

Detail of Anne of Brittany in prayer
Detail of a painting depicting Anne of Brittany in prayer. She is seen wearing the earliest version of the French hood

However, portraits of the French duchess and queen consort, Anne of Brittany, in the early 1500s show her wearing what could be the precursor to the French hood. And we think she had the more appropriate credit to that.Catherine of Aragon wearing a French hood

The pleated band, usually gold-colored, at the front of the French hood (worn by Catherine of Aragon [above], widow of Arthur, Prince of Wales, and the then first wife of Arthur’s brother, King Henry VIII) would remain an integral part of this headdress for the next couple of decades.

Other distinctive features of the French hood are the embellishments on the top and bottom edges of the hood. They are called “billiments,” which consist of a neat row of jewels (usually pearls) on both edges of the hood. Although they were not essential features, these decorative elements definitely added the fashionable factor to the otherwise plain French hood. The French hood also features curves on the sides.

As the French hood was gaining popularity, its shape and form evolved. The size of the French hood became smaller and its side curves grew even more pronounced. It was worn even further back on the head.A portrait by Hans Holbein of an unknown woman wearing a French hood with a strap underneath

There was also a variation of the French hood, which was even curvier than the previous iterations. In the above painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, this version of the French hood worn by an unknown woman (previously thought to be Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife) has a curvier shape. It features a strap underneath the chin to keep the hood in place.

Queen Elizabeth I portrait by an unknown artist

During much of the Elizabethan era, the look of the French hood changed dramatically. It shrank even further into a delicate arrangement of lace and jewels. It was entirely referred to as a “billiment” even more than “French hood.”

Queen Mary I with the squared French hood

Queen Mary I, like many other women at the time, used to wear the typical crescent-shaped French hood when she was younger. In later years, though, she preferred wearing the flatter, square-shape type as shown in the above 1555 portrait.

Unfortunately, there are no surviving pieces of the original 16th-century French hoods in existence, so historians cannot determine how it was exactly constructed.

The French hood’s popularity peaked from 1530 to 1580. Although the shape and the look evolved as years passed, the basic construction remained the same.