Breton womenWith international clothing brands slowly stripping away cultural identities vis-à-vis the way we dress, it’s heartening to see a young generation in Brittany – a 10,500-square-mile region in the northwestern corner of France – reaching back into history to grab hold of costume customs that are distinctly of the place. Residents of different villages in the area during the 19th and early 20th centuries could be identified by their characteristic fashions, and in particular, the wild lace headdresses known as coiffes. From intricately tatted towering affairs to starched lace wings fit for flight, the Breton bonnets communicated a wealth of information.

In those times the coiffe was like an identity card, explains Solenn Boennec, an assistant curator at the Musée Bigouden in Pont-l’Abbé, in National Geographic magazine. “It can reveal who you are, where you’re from, and if you’re in mourning for someone,” he says.

Evolving from the simple caps worn by peasant women, the headdresses from some of the area's villages morphed into dramatic structures of elegant craftsmanship; the coiffes of Bigouden for example – narrow, teetering cylinders of delicately crafted lace – reach looming heights of more than 13 inches.

Although by the middle of the 20th century the tradition was mostly traded in for contemporary dress and millinery, today groups of young people are reviving the fashions of their heritage in social groups called Celtic circles. With year-round training to compete in costume at summer festivals, weddings and processions, the women are bringing new life to a wonderful local legacy; the type of which the modern world so often and effortlessly seems to extinguish. Long live the ladies in lace!

These photos, from the April issue of National Geographic magazine, were taken in Brittany with a translucent backdrop, each outfit is identified by village and département, an administrative unit of modern France.

Plouguenast, Côtes-D’Armor

Breton women

Photo: Charles Fréger/National Geographic

Each Breton ensemble is specific to a place: an individual village and sometimes the surrounding area, known as a pays.

St.-Évarzec, Finistère

Breton women

Photo: Charles Fréger/National Geographic

The wings of this coiffe are delicately pinned down and heavily starched to hold their shape. Even light mist will deform them.

Île De Bréhat, Côtes-D’armor

Breton women

Photo: Charles Fréger/National Geographic

The embroidery on this shawl is too fancy for a funeral, although it could have been worn at the end of a prolonged period of mourning.

Fouesnant, Finistère

Breton women

Photo: Charles Fréger/National Geographic

The forerunner of this coiffe was famous in the late 1800s due to the attention of the Pont-Aven school of artists, Paul Gauguin in particular.

For more photos from the series, visit National Geographic.

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