Medieval Cottes, Gownes & 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
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
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
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.