I first prepared this material for a class at Known World Costumers Symposium in 2002, and it was an attempt to give a "first look" at Basque clothing in period. I will freely admit that this was a passing curiosity, an outgrowth of my interest in Spanish costume. Although I found references to many primary sources, I haven't yet pursued them, primarily because they are in a variety of European languages in their Medieval or Renaissance forms. Since I am not a linguist, I have relied on secondary sources. (See Spanish Bibliography) Perhaps someone with these skills will expand upon this knowledge. For early 17th century Spanish dictionaries online, I would recommend Real Academia Española (www. RAENTLLE).
As a word of caution, I will warn that much of the relevant secondary sources are in academic language, and translation is not for the faint of heart. I am indebted to Marianne Perdamo, who lives in Gran Canaria for her help with complex passages.
("No wonder you didn't understand it. It's a very convuluted sentence!! Worthy of the worse excesses of period texts.") I would also check in Vascos y Trajes. In the back there is a glossary of costume terms. Lastly, I would read on the history of the Basque people. I find that that this has done much to explain the individual nature of clothing of the region.

Some Notes About the Information
In my bibliography for this section you will find a lengthy list of period sources. I freely admit that I have NOT read most of these sources. While I became curious about Basque costume (mostly because the headwear was fascinating) my interest in this area of the Spanish peninsula in not all-encompassing. The serious student of Basque costume will discover much that I don't know. This is just a beginning.

The great majority of the sources that I have been able to find date from 15th and 16th Century costume books written by foreigners. For the most part they show common people that a pilgrim would have encountered as he or she journeyed to Compostela. While this makes a nice change from the endless depictions of the upper classes that researchers usually encounter, it gives us an incomplete picture of the society. What little evidence I have encountered leads me to believe that fashions at court were similar to those of other Spanish courts.

It is reasonable to assume that the pilgrims also influenced those with whom they came into contact. As typical tourists, they commented upon those aspects of dress that were novel; this may explain why there are many images of women's dress, but not many of men's fashions. It would also be reasonable to assume that Basque people living in the more isolated areas would develop more distinctive regional dress, but, for the most part, those who commented on the fashions never saw these areas. One must also remember probably differences between the dress of the mountains, the seacoast, and the foothills. Also, observers seems to have been much more interested in the unusual appearance of the women, so there are far fewer depictions of men.

In conclusion, what follows is an incomplete picture of period clothing in the Basque country. Hopefully, it will provide you with a starting point for you explorations. (And when you learn more, I would love to hear what you find.)

General Costume
If you study the clothing of Spain, you will encounter the same basic garments seen in other European countries, especially France and Italy. For example, clothes are often made of damask, silk taffeta, velvet, linen, and wool. However, as in the rest of Spain, there is usually a "twist". In the Basque country there is an unknown (to me) fabric called "palometa" and the headwear of the women is quite distinctive.

The earliest descriptions come from the Romans and Carthagenians. According to them mean wore trousers tied around the calf with strips of leather or fabric, and wore black mantles made of goatskin. Throughout Navarra mountain workers wore the skins of bears or goats.

"Recueil de la diversité des habits qui sont au present en usaige tant enpays d'Europe, Assie, Affrique, et illes sauvages, le tout fait apres le naturel" by François Deserpz. Paris 1562.

Many of the fashions seen in later years are said to have had their origins in earlier years--i.e."legend has it". For example, in certain areas 16th century women are seen with extremely short hair and sometimes with a tonsured head. "Legend has it" that this fashion dates from the Battle of Olast in 785, when women cut their hair and skirts to fight with the men. The women of Valle wear folded blue skirts, showing the red lining in remembrance of their bloodied skirts. The men wear capes of black woolen cloth and hoods with long tails sewn to simulate the tongue of the dead king that was pulled off and presented to the King of Navarra.

"Girl of Vizcaina"

"Trachtenbuch de Christoph Weiditz von seinen teisen nach Spanien (1529)und den Niederlandeden (1531/32)"

 In the 8th Century, Ludovico Pio (one of the sons of Charlemagne) appeared at court with other young men dressed "in way of Vascone". Accounts say that he wore a camisa (chemise or shirt) with wide loose sleeves, a tunica redonda (literally a "round tunic", whatever that is), tubrucos (pants), a short round cape, spurs, and a lance.

XIth century mention is made of fabric stockings (early hosen?) and pleated headwear which required up to 50 yards of fabric. It is possible that these are related to those seen in other areas.

In the XIIth Century Aymeric Picaud , in the "Codex Compestellanus" tells us that Basque men dressed “like Scots”, wearing a black short cloth to their knees. He also give us an account of lavarcas- shoes of hairy leather which only covered the sole of the foot, which will be discussed in more depth later. On their heads they wore black hoods that reached to their elbows, and their bodies were covered with saias. (Saya is a somewhat generic Spanish term for gown).

From the same time we also have description of soldiers' garments. On their bodies they wore a gonela (a "gown" of some kind), and bracae, leggings of skin that covered the front part of the leg and the foot. Their faces were covered with beards, and on their heads they wore a helmet(?) called an almofar. Picaud also mentions galtzerdimotz, which are leggings without buttons or ojales, and stocking of cloth or leather, reaching to the knee, that fastened or buttoned on the outside.

Throughout the years various styles covered the feet of the Basque people. The Codex Compestellanus mentions "sandals" of leather tied on with wool strips There are also mentions of crude leather held on by cords, over knitted socks. This most certainly describes the distinctive and important regional footwear called the abarka (ariak, lavarca). A famous 10th Century story illustrates the history and importance of the abarca: Towards the end of 985 Sancho II Garcés of Nabarra needed to lead his armies through the snowbound Pyrnean passes to come to the aid of his brother-in-law Guillermo Sanchez, Duke of Gascuña. The Moorish armies believed that the condition of the passes to conquer Pamplona. But Sancho and his armies, wearing the abarka, successfully negotiated the passes and surprised the Moorish armies and dispersed them. In a document of 987 Sancho signs in this way: "Yo, D. sancho, Rey por la gracia de Dios sobrenobre Abarka."

Images from : Various Authors. (1974). Como Han Sido Y Como Son Los Vascos: Izadera ta jazdera (Caractere indumentaria) II. San Sebastian: Editorial Aunamendi, Estornes Las Hnos. Basque

Another type of footwear mentioned is exkalaproin/???zuecos. which are made of wood and used to walk in snow and water, and are probably similar to sabots. Also mentioned are barajones, which are tied under abarkas to enable the wearer to walk in the snow without sinking (snowshoes?), and borceguies, or short boots. Lastly I have found mentioned a version of the chopine, which are describe as being covered with painted (guilded?) leather. In fact there was a guild of just such painters.
An outer garment for men was a hooded dalmatic (poncho) called the kapusaya (kapusayak, capucha), and also a version opened at the sides that had sleeves described as made of black barragán (Barracon). Also mentioned is the capilla, a cape with a pointed hood, and a kota, which was described as an exterior garment for rain.

In the XIVth Century men wore the jaqueta or jubon, which conformed to body without slightest wrinkle. We have descbribed a progression of , including hosen and braies, hosen with leather soles, and those that covered from the waist to foot. Musicians and dancers are described as wearing the capirote (pointed hood with small cape), saya, ropa, guarnacha, and aljuba.

Also worn were belted tunica redondas (whatever that is), and a jacket with long loose sleeves whose name has been lost).

The papahigo was wider “hat” covering head, ears and neck


Juglar14th c.


In the XVth and XVIth Centuries we are told that the women of Astorga (Asturia) go barefoot, wear skirts that only reach to their knees, and covered their heads and bodies with a blanket. Laliang, the chamberlain of Felipe el Hermoso, remarked that the women of Astorga reminded him of gypsies because of their earrings and rings. We also know that Basque women wore pierced earrings with bells, crosses, jewelry of silver, and paternosters of coral, jet, and amber.

Also reported is the story of the coronation of Carlos V in Bologna, describing the sumptious clothes of the Spaniards who attended the ceremony; It was noticed that the Count of Saldoña wore clothing of gold fabric covered in "martas with black velvet strips, with stockings and a jubón of the same, in the way of Guadalajara. While the texts indicate a variety of regional styles, they only give very little in the way of particulars. Perhaps period sources would give more complete information.

During this time there were numerous sumptuary law passed dealing with excess use of precious metal, jewels, and furs. However, it would seem that exceptions were made for the subjects in many of the Basque regions, seemingly because such escesses were part of the regional style. (Or maybe someone really knew just WHO to bribe...)

Sever forms of headwear for men are mentioned in the XVth and XVIth centuries.
1. Txano- like a beret, but larger
2. Txapela/kapela- a hat with wide brim, or short but cut in places, felted
3. Montera-Same as papahigo?

Montera on the right?

Head Coverings for Women (For examples of these, see the 13th Century Gallery.)
Sandoval, Chroncler of Carlos V reports that when Isabel la Catolica visited different regions, to show her love for them she wore the fashions of that town, including the hai/headwear, saya , belt, jewels. Moved on to next town, and returned the items “improved.”

The distinctive headwear of Basque women go by many names- kurbitxeta, buruko, estalkia, oiala, zapia, tontorra (Rivadesella), curibicheta, juicia, oyaba. Most probably the names are refer to specific regional styles, but I frankly have made no effort to sort these out. (This sounds like a good challenge for someone, but not for me.) No matter the name, most of the headwear fashions are cuniform in shape, and consist of a strip(s) of linen in some form
In writing about his 1517 visit to the area Laurent Vital said of headwear fashions, "Es el má loco tocade de mujores que jamás he visto." (Loose tanslation: They were the craziest I have ever seen.") Of great variety, he says that some were shaped like a rooster, some looked as if they were made of eight to ten floors of beehives covered with fabric, and some looked like great wide basket of cherries
Laurent Vital was only one of many writers to comment on these fashions, and many more have wondered about their origins. French writers automatically assumed that they were copied from the French hennin. Spanish writers defended them as a uniquely Spanish fashion. The following is what I have found.

The first possible ancestor of the cuniform headdress is a second century statue from Asia Minor which shows an amazing resemblance to Spanish fashion in the 16th Century.

Woman from the Mountains "Trachtenbuch de Christoph Weiditz von seinen teisen nach Spanien (1529)und den Niederlandeden (1531/32)"

Similar Iberian headdresses are cited by the Greek Artemidoro, and the geographer Strabo. They describe a column a foot long, with hair tied over, covered with black wimple/toca, like the ones in Asia Minor. This is the last evidence we have of any kind until the XIIIth Century when we see saints dressed in this manner. Since this predates the henin, this would seem to make cuniform headwear not copy of French fashion, but one that developed in Spain.

However, most of the fashions involve a long strip of fabric which is wrapped in some way. To my mind this could also be the Basque version of the pleated headdress seen in Castille in the
XIIth and XIIIth Centuries.

12th/13th Century
Portal head
Burgos Cathedral

12th c. Sarcophagus of Doña Sancha,
Convent of Santa Cruz de la Serós (Huesca)

No matter what their evolution, what women wore on their heads received much notice from writers (to this day), based on the belief that they were a phallic symbol. My personal opinion is that, if they ever were symbolic, that meaning had disappeared long before the Middle Ages. From the 13th Century there are numerous churches (such as Silos) that have saints wearing this fashion. While saints are routinely shown with the symbols of their martyrdom, I hardly think that it is appropriate for saints to wear phallic symbols as a matter of course. Also, most period travelers who described the fashion failed to comment on its indecency. In fact, the first reference to phallic symbolism doesn't appear until 1587, in the writings of Frenchman Gabriel de Minut. It is only after this occaision that the church moved to prohibit their use of cuniform headdresses in church. In 1600 Lawyer Felipe de Obregón, for the general Bishopric of Pamplona, imposed fines on the husbands, and gave them twenty days to get rid of the fashion. Failure to comply could result in excommunication and ejection from the divine offices. Such prohibitions were imposed periodically in subsequent years, but weren't widespread, and their enforcement seems sporadic as well.

Actually, restrictions on this fashion ARE seen much earlier, but seem to arise not from moral concerns, but from financial ones. In 1434 an Ordinance of the City of Deba (Deva) restricted their construction to no more than 30 yards of light linen, and 6 yards of heavy linen. They could not be made of gold or silk and specifically banned were embroideries of gold and silk.

How were they constructed? I WISH I KNEW. Nothing I have read tells me clearly, but we do know that they were often made of a single linen cloth strip of fabric, and that the fabric could be linen or silk in white or gold (possibly other colors) and could have gold embroidery. As for their shape, there are references to sticks (cane?) and even some to thin rods of iron. (I made mine from a Thanksgiving cornucopia, but I know that isn't right. I just couldn't figure out what do and I wanted to make one for my class!) The Museo de S. Telmo has reproductions as part of their exhibit. I haven't been able to visit this museum, nor have I gotten around to writing to anyone. (Slack, I know...) They probably have some information that I am lacking.

Laurent Vita (1517) discusses how they mixed colors, so that when the neck veils were of white, then the heads were yellow, and when the heads were white, the neck veils could be yellow.

Here's my attempt at one of these things! (I don't have any large pictures, sorry.) I used a Thanksgiving cornucopia as a base. I'm sure that they didn't do it this way, but, since I didn't know.....

My site token is hanging from the peak. Someone suggested that we should hang Laurel medallions similarly on the heads of apprentices. Talk about the carrot and the donkey......!

Unmarried women with shaved heads
There are pictures of women with very short hair, and even tonsures, carrying jugs and baskets on their heads. Descriptions tell us that these were unmarried women, and one possible origin has been previously mentioned. There is also the theory that the fashion originated in practices of the Gauls: Long hair was a sign of freedom, short hair a sign of slavery. It has also been suggested that the fashion began when certain areas refused to convert to Christianity.

Schaschek, chronicler for León Rosmithal (1466-1467) and Antonio de Laliang (16th Century) praised the "beauty of the Basque women, who wear instead of caps a type of turban with many turns of the cloth and he maintains that the damsels/girls wear the hair shorn, [that] the unmarried women can not wear caps and married ones wear them covered in embroideries of gold and silk."

Spanish Bibliography

Basque Gallery 1
Basque Gallery 2
Basque Gallery 3
Basque Gallery 4