A MEDIEVAL WOMAN'S LIFE - AT HOME
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The Medieval Dresses of The 14th Century
THE LACED KIRTLE - THE BUTTONED KIRTLE - THE SHORT-SLEEVED KIRTLE
THE MI-PARTI or PARTICOLOUR KIRTLE - THE HERALDIC GOWN
in a name?
The kirtle was worn over the chemise or smock and usually under the gown, surcote, sideless surcote or houppelande. Servants often had clothing handed down to them, particularly gowns which might be of value or in good repair. One London bequeaths record for a merchant shows a legacy of
hinting that the old gown which was being passed on would be cut up and remodeled to make a new garment for a new wearer. Since fabric was an expensive commodity, this does not come a real surprise.
In 1375 a decree aimed at improving modesty declared:
although compliance was not altogether successful and it can be deduced that it was a common enough phenomenon for lower-cut gowns to be prevalent amongst women in the towns and cities; so much enough to warrant sermonizing. In the Roman de la Rose, the 13th century's most famous French poem, a character discusses the cut of the dress:
Sleeves for this kirtles appear to be in their entirety to the wrists in most cases. In some cases, the sleeve is short and has pin-on oversleeves. In one or two cases, like the effigy shown at left, lacing is combined with full-length sleeves which are closely buttoned at the very edge of the sleeve opening. Tomb effigies for noble women such as the one at left, sometimes show lacing on an outer garment but often show gowns with no kind of fastening at all, leaving us to assume that the garment is either loose enough to pull over the head, or that the fastenings are at the back.
This is not to say that front-lacing kirtles were not worn by women as outer garments. Illustrations from the 14th and 15th century show lacing at the front. Some memorial brasses clearly show front lacing gowns, but many others favour buttons. Illuminations of peasants toiling in the fields in the Limbourgh Brothers painted from 1416-19 Duk du Berry's Book of Hours shows a short sleeve kirtle which laces at the front. The detail shown at right is from the month of June. The woman's smock is clearly shown underneath.
It appears that lacing would be more likely
at the back of a gown on women who has domestic help and therefore had
assistance with dressing. Illustrations which show front lacing gowns
on well-to-do ladies tend to be, but are not always, are breastfeeding
mothers, often the Virgin Mary. Buttons, also, are more likely to make
a bumpy ridge under a tight surcote making it better suited to those
worn under the sideless surcote which was cut specifically to show off
the gown underneath.
The image at left shows close-set buttons down the front at least to the lower thigh and up the entire arm, although most kirtles in effigies show buttons only to the elbow. The badge is made of pewter and dates to the 14th century in London. It is described as being a milkmaid, probably because of the bucket, although it is doubtful that a milkmaid would dress with such an abundance of buttons and such a belt. I have seen no evidence to date that buttoned gowns closed at the back, but that is not to say that they absolutely, positively did not.
The short-sleeved kirtle
The second type is most usually seen with
pin on sleeves- regular sleeves for the working week and perhaps more
decorative or more expensive fabric for Sunday best. The sleeves were
interchangeable and pinned on at the shoulder. The well-known song Greensleeves
dates from the Middle Ages and is a song about the green pin-on sleeves
of the author's beloved's dress. For daily chores which were messy,
like laundry, the sleeves could be removed altogether and the chemise
sleeves could be rolled up out of the way.
Mi-parti or Particolour kirtle
For example, the detail above at left comes from an illumination from the 1350s The Bride Abandoned by Nicolo da Bologna. We can see that the red side of the gown has a red sleeve and the green side of the gown has a green sleeve. Another Italian gown shown in the detail at left also shows mi-parti clothing where the sleeve matches the fabric on the same side of the gown. The colours of her kirtle underneath and her overgown also match side for side.
It is important to note that the same-side sleeve and colour rules of a noble lady's gown which applied to the mi-parti gown also apply to the heraldic gown. The sleeve matches the colour and fabric of the gown on that side to which it is attached. That is to say, that if the left side of the gown is red, then the sleeve on the left side should also be red.
Another early illumination showing a heraldic gown comes from the 13th century French manuscript. The detail at right is taken from a miniature of Queen Blanch Of Castile With Attendants. It shows a heraldic gown with matching sleeves.
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