Medieval Cotes & Tunics
very early medieval woman's dress was often called a cote, although
many modern people call it a tunic. Cunnington and Beard's A Dictionary
of English Costume 900 - 1900 defines the garment as:
cote from 13th century.
Everyday loose tunic being the main garment of both sexes. A woman's
gown- long, close-fitting with long sleeves which is often referred
to as a gown, kirtle or kyrtle.
To avoid confusion, I will continue to
use the term kirtle on this website to describe the later gown
which was laced or buttoned. Shown at right is a detail from the 14th
century German manuscript, the Manesse Codex showing a woman
in a cote with bands at the neck and sleeves.
Many early cotes look like they are a two piece with a cut waistband,
although the tunic is cut quite loosely and is drawn in with a belt,
creating an overhang at the waist. Even in many late medieval artworks,
this style of hitching up a longer train so it doesn't drag on the ground
can be seen.
basic shape of the early medieval dress has a couple of distinguishing
features. It is quite long, in a basic A line- that is, narrower at
the top and wider at the hem. The neckline is quite high, and is sometimes
cut with a small vertical slit at the neck to aid dressing. This is
usually closed with a brooch. The body can be shaped a little by taking
the waist in a little but this style of dress was never fitted through
the bust and torso.
There are no buttons or lacings on this style of early medieval dress.
Shown at left is a woman wearing a cote from the 13th century French
manuscript, the Maciejowski Bible.
Distinctions in class were made by the quality of fabric used and the
richness of the dyes used. Some artworks show bands at the neck and
wrist which could be either embroidered directly into the gown but were
more likely embroidered onto a separate piece of cloth and stitched
on. This made it easier to embroider, and made it possible to remove
the embroidery and reuse it elsewhere if desired.
The shoulders do not have a sleeve hole cut in or set in at the usual
armhole. Sleeves are added at the edge of the rectangular body of the
tunic, giving a slight batwing shape to the underarms. This gives the
dress a basic T-shape. The sleeves are very tapered at the lower arm
and tight at the wrist but do not go over the hand.
It was very common for this style of cote to be worn both as an undergown
and with another contrasting coloured one over the top, or with a sleeveless