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Medieval Buttons & Gown Lacings

Kirtles and gowns closed either one of two ways- with buttons or with lacing. Some closed at the front, others at the side seams depending on what the garment was used for and whether it was an overgarment or worn underneath. By the mid 13th century, buttons were in everyday use for clothing, although the materials they were made from and the number of them on any one garment varied greatly.

Some illustrations show buttons from wrist to elbow or right up the back of the upper arm. Buttons were usually set very closely together. Seen at right is a pewter badge of a woman and bucket from the late 14th century from London. The buttons down the front of her kirtle and the entire length of her sleeves are clearly visible.

I am a little doubtful that a milkmaid would have worn an outfit with as many buttons up the arms as it seems excessive for the social status of the wearer. The belt, also seems to be indicative of an upper class woman, so the bucket is a bit of a mystery to me, although the badge is often refered to as "a milkmaid" perhaps it is a saint.

Buttons down the front of a lady's kirtle could be made from matching cloth of the gown they were intended for or of metal or semiprecious stones set into metal clasps. Cloth buttons were almost always ball-shaped. As with almost every other aspect of medieval clothing, it depended on what occasion the gown was to be worn and who was wearing it.

Lower classes would have to be content with matching cloth buttons, while the upper classes would have preferred yet another chance to display their social superiority on their clothing with metal buttons.

Above left is a beautiful example of a late 14th century tin button with glass stone set into it. It has a shank and is from the collection at the Museum of London. Above right is pictured a round, gold button from the 10th century which also looks similar to the Uppsala Gown buttons.

Shown at right is a garment fragment from the 1400s from the Museum of London showing the sleeve and cloth buttons. Unlike modern buttons, they were set at the very edge of the garment opening and not set in from the seam like today. Flat, modern buttons with two or four holes drilled right through seem to be unworn at that time.

In medieval clothing terms, the word lace refers to lacing, like our modern shoe-lacing, not of fancy, frilly lace. Lace was used extensively to close gown fronts, in some cases, sides and only in two cases that I know of on sleeves.. Lacings were also used by men to attach hose and for arming, which we won't look at here.

Until the 15th century, lacings were coloured to match the gown or kirtle it was worn on, thus making the closure fairly invisible. 15th century Italy led the way in leaving gowns unlaced widely across the bust, and at this time, lacing cords were often an entirely different colour to the dress as it was now a feature of the dress, not merely a way to fasten it closed.

Cord produced on a lucet produced a square braid or lace. This lace was strong, durable and didn't easily slip when used for garment fastenings. Many other braids and laces are made using the fingerlooping method- that is a method of looping the thread around the fingers to form a kind of knotted braid. Plaiting or braiding is also another method of making laces for clothing or shoes.

Front lacing
Front lacing on kirtles and gowns can be seen abundantly in paintings. Many images of the Madonna breastfeeding show the front of her kirtle unlaced. Shown at left is a detail from Bouquet'sVirgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, dated 1450. Other images which show front lacing gowns on noble women are the 1387 Bearosin Getting Engaged detail at right from a Prague manuscript and the Kathryn de Mortimer funeral effigy.

Lacing holes seem to be very close set to avoid gaping on the front of the dress. Lacing eyelets seem to be closely set, around 2cm.

An upper-class woman's under-dress would almost certainly be laced. A buttoned dress under another buttoned overgown would not only be uncomfortable but cause unsightly lumps down the front of the outer layer. A snugly laced under-kirtle provides a solid foundation to support the woman's figure and to prevent the outer garment's bottons from tearing from strain.

A working class women would have been likely to wear a front-lacing kirtle, as she would be able to dress herself relatively quickly and without assistance.

Side lacing
Side lacing on garments can be seen on images of young mothers-to-be. The ability to loosen a garment at the side seams to accommodate an expanding stomach and then pull it tight again after the birth of a child, made special maternity clothes unnecessary.

There are many images which show side lacing on domestic garments also. Side lacing has the benefit of the seam becoming almost invisible and giving a smooth look to the front and back. Many modern dresses from the 20th century have invisible side zips for the same reason.

In the manuscript shown at the right, we see a side-laced pink gown and in a 15th century painting by Van der Weyden, we again clearly see a side-lacing on a woman mourning Christ on the cross.

Back lacing
Many books on historical costuming, including Herbert Norris's Medieval Costume and Fashion and Dion Clayton Calthrop's English Costume cite back lacing in the early medieval period. There are no surviving garments which support this, and the idea that the lacing is at the back is possibly due to images in art having no front lacing or buttons visible.

My thought is that the lacing wasn't shown or was laced in the side seam, making it essentially invisible.

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