The Medieval Dresses of The 14th Century


What's 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 wills. The 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.

Types of kirtle
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 modesty declared:

...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 and back.

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 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 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 did not.

The short-sleeved kirtle
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.

The 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 century Hungary.

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.

The 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, from Bavaria

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
The 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 heraldic gowns.

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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