The Medieval Dresses of The 14th Century
THE LACED KIRTLE - THE BUTTONED KIRTLE - THE SHORT-SLEEVED
THE MI-PARTI or PARTICOLOUR KIRTLE - THE HERALDIC GOWN
in a name?
The kirtle, kyrtle, kirtill, tunic,
cotte or gown is the main garment of a medieval
woman's wardrobe. I will be using the spelling kirtle throughout
the website as my own personal choice. Shown at left is a typical
kirtle from a 1400-1409 illumination detail, St Jerome Tempted
by Dancing Girls.
This garment is often referred to as the cote-hardie by
modern dress historians which is more correctly the male garment
from the same period. Very rarely is the woman's gown referred
to as other then the kirtle in documents, warderobe accounts and
French tend to use the word cotte as the underdress and
gown for the outer, whereas the Warderobe accounts of Edward
II have already ceased to use kirtle in favour of the term
gown. It does make one mention of an overgown called a
cote-hardie as an overdress for riding. Shown at right
is a detail from a 15th century French illumination from Boccaccio's
de Claris Mulieribus, Festival Of Flora.
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
...12d and one of my old gowns
to make her a kirtell.
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.
It does appear that the kirtle falls into three distinct categories-
the first two include those which button and those which lace.
It is probably no great coincidence that there were two primary
purposes- those intended to be worn over a smock with no other
outer garment or a sideless surcote and those
intended to be worn underneath a form-fitting outer gown. The
third type falls into the laced gown category but has the distinguishing
feature of short sleeves. Some had sleeves which extended over
the knuckles, like the one shown in the detail at right. Most
of these were cut with a wide, low neckline.
In 1375 a decree aimed at improving
...that a woman's neckline:
above all, her décolleté should not be so low
that her breasts can be seen. The neckline should not be lower
than the armpits.
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:
If her neck and throat are fair
and white, let her see to it that her dressmaker cuts the neck
so low that half a foot of fine white flesh is visible front
The laced kirtle
It makes sense that the laced kirtle would be most likely to be
worn as an undergown although clearly this was not always the
case. The lacing would provide a flat, smooth silhouette. It would
be unlikely that a woman would go to the expense of buttons which
could not be seen under the outer garment. Shown at right is a
detail of The Virgin Mary from the Heurs de Rohan, Paris,
dated between 1419 and 1427. The front-lacing is clearly visible.
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
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 buttoned kirtle
The buttoned kirtle, that is, the one which buttons down the front
and up the back of the sleeves, is more likely to be worn as an
outer garment. The
ball-shaped buttons provided an opportunity to display the wearer's
wealth. The buttoning on the sleeves usually reached to the elbows,
but in some instances, the sleeves buttoned further up the arm.
A heavy, jeweled belt appears to be the usual fashion accessory
of this type of gown although it is possible that the belts may
have been silk and heavily applied with metalwork or embroidery.
It was worn low on the lady's hips.
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
This is one of two types of gown. The first has short sleeves
to above the elbow and is always an overgown. It is usually worn
with tippets or has lappets where the sleeve has been cut away.
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.
good example of this kind of gown can be seen above in the detail
of the right panel of the 1450 Van Der Weyden's Braque Family
Triptych which clearly shows the lacing pulling apart at the
front and the chemise showing through at the sleeve and at the
top of the gown. At the back of the pin-on sleeves, the chemise
can be seen between the kirtle and the sleeve.
Pins with decorative ends or glass beads were often used as a
dress accessory Shown at left are pins which are fairly typical
of the medieval period. The group of three pins are from 15th
Osbern Bokenham's Life of St Elizabeth talks of how devout Elizabeth
was when she was young saying
the Solemn Holy days this girl
observed with such devotion that would not permit anyone to
lace up her sleeves until after mass.
Mi-parti or Particolour kirtle
This is the kirtle or gown which is one colour on one side and
another on the opposing side. The concept of multicolored clothing
was always popular with musicians and entertainers who liked bright
clothing and at the height of the 14th century this style also
became popular with noble ladies.
The essential difference between the clothing of a noble lady
and that of an entertainer is the positioning and quartering of
the colours. An entertainer might have opposing colours on the
sides of the gown, both front and back, side to side, sleeve to
sleeve, whereas a noble lady has one colour on one side and the
other colour on the other side in it's entirety. Even
if one half of the gown is patterned, this still holds true. Shown
at right is a detail from the 1370 tapestry, the Lovers,
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.
The Heraldic Gown
heraldic gown is that which has heraldic devices like a coat-of-arms
emblazoned on it. Many of these were to show loyalty to a household
or to denote the heritage of the wearer, much like a knight's
tabbard or surcote identifies him and his heritage. Most of there
were also mi-parti or particolour kirtles also.
Shown at left is a detail of Phillipa of Hainault, wife of King
Edward III from Froissart's Chronicles.
The hunting scene, The Bourbons Meeting in Clermont en Beauvais
shown at right. It shows various members of the party each
with their own heraldry and how the colours are worn on the main
body of the gown and the sleeves. In the Chronicles,
there are two other illuminations showing Phillipa in different
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
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