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Early Medieval Cottes, Gownes & Tunics

The 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.

Often a woman's garment in this early 13th and 14th centuries might be called a gowne.

Early are 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.

The 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.

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 surcote.

The garment just pulls on over the woman's head, or had a little slit at the neck. This was closed with a brooch.

There are no buttons or lacings down the front of this style of early medieval dress. Shown at left is a woman wearing a cote from the 13th century French manuscript, the Maciejowski Bible. Often a couple of buttons might be shown at the sleeve.

Wool was th eoverwhelming choice for medieval clothing. 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.

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