A couple of months ago in Vienna, I wandered into the Arms and Armour section of the Kunsthistorisches Museums–included with my museum pass, but not something that usually interests me much.
But whoa! What was up with this extremely scary suit of armor with a skirt? Were there actual women requiring feminine suits of armor? The waist seems small enough for a woman. The helmet has a devilish look, male or female. Was this suit designed to get the enemy wondering exactly what he was up against?
The series Game of Thrones features a fearsome female knight, Brienne of Tarth. Would she have worn something like this? On the show, she wears some skirt-like pads for swordfighting, but nothing like the getup above.
I had trouble deciphering the German museum caption, and the photo I took of the caption didn’t turn out. The next day, I thought I’d pop back into the museum to investigate further. But the museum was closed. So I posted my mystery photo to one of the history Facebook groups I follow. Within minutes, people with a lot more knowledge than I had answers.
Armor like this dates from about the 1500s. King Henry VIII of England had a set like it. It was not made for a woman, but for a man planning to engage in ground combat. The skirt would protect his legs better than traditional pants-style armor. Form-fitting armor needs joints that bend. Joints mean there are gaps that a sword or axe or spear could penetrate. A strong skirt, covering the knees, might look unwieldy to us, but we might be glad enough to reach for one if we were faced with hand-to-hand combat.
The fluted design of the skirt was not just a fashion statement. The folds made the armor plate stronger. But it was still not strong enough to block musket fire, which was slowly taking over the battlefield. Fancy suits of armor went out of vogue on the battlefield by the 1700s, although kings and princes sometimes wore them into battle as marks of status, much as they sometimes wore battlefield crowns. This seems ill-advised to me–why make oneself an obvious target? Still, there are examples of elaborately decorated skirted suits designed to be worn on horseback.
Anyway, skirted suits eventually became obsolete on the battlefield, but the nobility still wore them for jousting–an extreme sport for the rich in the Renaissance. Hans Holbein the Younger, among other highly paid artists, designed armor for noblemen to show off in.
Later in Vienna, I came upon this store window, in a lingerie shop. Window display is an art. I have to think the display designer, like many Viennese, was a regular visitor to the Kunsthistorisches.