Behind the doors: Joanna Sleight on a truly Epic project!

Joanna is the originator & producer of A Musical Advent. She sings, plays piano really badly, arranges & composes music, teaches singing & Alexander Technique, and spends a lot of her free time sewing...!


"I always like to find projects to fill any spare time, so the lockdowns in 2020 saw me sewing scrubs for local medics, learning Norwegian and homeschooling in the spring, and building a Musical Advent Calendar (!!) in the autumn. In early 2021, stuck at home again, I wrote a few short pieces of music: I began with a winter song for this year’s Advent Calendar, and then decided I should fill in the other seasons too, so wrote some instrumental miniatures for Spring, Summer & Autumn. They are being recorded by the wonderful Emily Andrews of Trio Carmenco at the moment, and I am so excited to hear and see the final result!


I still had lots of time stretching out before me (or so I thought), so decided it would be lots of fun to sew Mediaeval costumes for The Ficta Quenes vocal & recorder ensemble. I studied Early Mediaeval languages, literature & history at Cambridge many years ago, so I loved the opportunity of poring over Mediaeval manuscript illustrations looking for costume inspiration! In the end, the main references I chose were two images: Philosophy presenting the seven Liberal Arts to Prometheus (from a French manuscript c. 1470) and a musician representing “the hearing sense” from “The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry (Paris c. 1500).

Mediaeval gown illustration
The seven exceptionally well-dressed Liberal Arts with Musique front-and-centre!

Each costume consists of at least two layers of gowns and a headdress, so making 18 gowns and 9 headdresses was a truly epic undertaking! I decided to dye the fabrics myself to try to attain colours that would have been achievable in the late 15th Century with the natural dyes available at the time, I researched mediaeval fabrics, pattern drafting techniques, lacing styles, construction techniques… After dyeing, pattern drafting and cutting, fittings and much machine and hand sewing, I finally finished them all in September, two days before we were due to film!


Tapestry of Mediaeval musicians in beautiful gowns
"Hearing" from The Lady & The Unicorn

The two different gown styles which are shown in the Prometheus illustration above are the elegant fur-trimmed “Burgundian gown” – a style imported from France to England and very much the thing to be seen in at court in the last 2 or 3 decades of the 15th Century (just before fashions changed dramatically to the more structured gowns and headdresses of the Tudor era). The other style – the scandalously open-sided surcotes known as “The Gates of Hell” because they showed off so much of the female anatomy! – were around for much longer, developing out of 13th century sideless surcotes (overgowns) which were apron dresses designed to protect the finer fabric of the gown beneath while women were working. By the late 15th Century, these sideless surcotes are only depicted in manuscripts as ceremonial gowns worn by royalty, and would no doubt have been seen as too old-fashioned and formal for daily streetwear.


The style of gowns at the time did not generally differ greatly between classes of society – what made you stand out as being a fashionista of the day was the quality, colour and volume of the fabric you could afford to wear, and the funkiness of your headdress! I cut the gowns with trains as long as I could and chose the royal colours of deep purple and red – exceptionally expensive dyes at the time and so reserved for royalty – well, we are the Ficta Quenes after all!


As for the music to go with them – well, that would be telling… but the music that we are singing and playing on the calendar was written in England in the 1470s for some very talented musicians – it is rhythmically very intricate and tricky! This was a period of great change in society, in philosophy and in the arts, and the use of the 3rd note in the chord – which we take for granted as a beautiful, harmonic part of our musical language now – was only just becoming acceptable to use in composition. Before this period, it was thought to ruin the beauty and clarity of open fourths, fifths and octaves. The music we are performing includes some of the first examples of the harmonic use of thirds… which to my modern ears makes it much more harmonically pleasing!


We had huge fun dressing up, and all agreed that the laced kirtles (the linen gowns underneath the glamorous outer layer) are just about the most comfortable items of clothing we have ever worn!"

The Ficta Quenes