The Outer Layers: Overgowns,
Surcotes & Sideless Surcotes
SURCOTES - SLEEVELESS OR SHORT-SLEEVE SURCOTES
SIDELESS SURCOTES - FURRED SIDELESS SURCOTES
A surcote is the garment which is an outer gown. It comes
in two basic styles. One is relatively fitted and has short or
long sleeves and looks exactly like the gown that is underneath.
This is a plainer gown which is worn over the more elaborate undergown
or kirtle which was usually made of a better fabric. Seen at right
in the detail from the centre panel of the 1445 Van Der Weyden
painting the Abegg Triptych. In many artworks this is what
looks like the
main dress, when in fact, there is another underneath it.
In the detail at left from the 1460 painting by Bouts, The
Lamentation of Christ, we can see a surcote which may be waisted
and has three-quarter length sleeves which have been folded up
the arms. Underneath, her patterned kirtle is visible.
The habit of hitching up the outer gown to show off the more expensive
fabric underneath was very widespread amongst women, whether European
or English. Many contemporary paintings of women sitting show
the outer gown folder back. It appears that a great number of
these were fur lined, although not all. It is reasonable that
in the height of a European winter, that a gown lined with fur
would provide the necessary warmth. In summer, however, it follows
that lighter fabrics were used and for the poorer women, be unlined.
A woman might own several surcotes.
Shown at right is a detail from a manuscript showing a woman wearing
an overgown or surcote which has hanging sleeves and is fitted
like the dress underneath. Surcotes with hanging sleeves were
popular in the 12th century, and were worn on and off over the
next few hundred years with the sleeves becoming longer and longer
until they reached ground length. In some cases where just the
lining of the hanging sleeves are seen, they are mistaken for
furred tippets. This image shows clearly that in this case, the
hanging part is actually the sleeve of the outer garment.
In their book Women In The Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph
Gies discuss the wardrobe of Margherite Datini, the wealthy wife
of a businessman in the 14th century. It lists only two gowns
and 11 surcotes in 1397, two of which she had in 1394 and still
possessed. Her wardrobe included purple lined with green, blue
damask trimmed with ermine, camlet (camel's hair and angora) lined
with pale blue taffeta, ash-colour bordered with miniver, Oriental
damask and aristocratic old rose. She also had a heavy overcoat
of heavy silk, which was full-cut to the floor. It is noted that
the cut and style of these garments varied greatly with some requiring
twice the amount of fabric as some others.
One imagines that the closer cut ones were worn at home during
domestic duties and the more ostentatious garments worn for social
also appears that as well as being thrifty with her clothing,
it was acceptable for a woman of good breeding to keep and wear
outer garments for more than a year or two like we do with a winter
jacket today. It also appears that the number of surcotes owned
by that of our model woman, Margherite, was not seen to be excessive.
In many cases, fitchets or fichets were utilised
in the front of the gown. Fitchets were small slits in the front
of the gown for the hands to pass through so that they might access
the pouches hanging on the belt below. They can be seen in the
pink dress in the detail of the illumination at left from the
15th century manuscript Guiard des Moulins Bible Historial.
The second type of surcote is an outer garment which is quite
loose and is worn as an outdoor gown for work or travel. It sometimes
had a V neck and shorter sleeves, although often it had long sleeves.
In artworks it is shown either lose or belted under the bust.
Shown at right is a detail from the right panel of one of Van
der Weyden's Diptychs from 1440. This surcote is actually
the fourth layer of clothing over the woman's chemise, kirtle
or Short-sleeve Surcotes
This is the garment is an outer sleeveless gown which falls into
two categories- for the working class and for the upper classes.
It is a looser fit and can either have a regular neckline, be
slightly gathered onto a decorative band or have a loose V shaped
neckline and three-quarter sleeve. If sleeveless, the sleeves
are usually high cut just under the armpits.
A working class woman would wear a surcote like this to protect
her clothes underneath from excessive wear and dirt. Shown at
left is a detail from Ruth Threshes Grain For Naomi from
the Maciejowski Bible.
An upper class woman might wear a sleeveless or short-sleeve surcote
for warmth or when traveling.Many illuminations and paintings
clearly show linings in contrasting colours. In a few paintings
of working women, the garments do not appear to be lined. Considering
the cost of fabric, a general rule of thumb is that the more well
off a woman, the more likely her garments were lined. This type
of gown is often shown with side seams which were laced to allow
for an expanding waistline of a young pregnant mother.
Sideless surcotes were designed to show off the gown underneath
and were quite different to the utilitarian kind of surcote worn
in the country to protect clothes or those worn by the upper classes
for warmth when raveling.
could be cut from underarm to hip, or as the image detail at left
shows from the 1345 Paris manuscript, Romance of the Rose,
can be cut much lower.
They have no band of buttons or jewels down the front and are
often very plain-looking with a minimum of embroidery at the very
outer edges of the opening or with none at all. Shown at the right
is a detail from 1464 - 1467 Bouts painting, The Gathering of
the Manna, can have a side fastening, although usually the sides
are left to gape to show off the gown underneath.
style of surcote was often described as the gates of hell
because the wide, low-cut sides showed off the more formfitting
undergown or kirtle. This style was most popular with fashionable
ladies and nobles who could afford showy displays of expensive
fur trimmings or gold embroidery. I have not seen any evidence
for this style being worn by the lower classes. It would neither
have been practical as a protective garment or warm due to the
openings at the sides. The image at right shows an illumination
The Madness of Lancelot showing a gold-embroidered bottom
and furred top.
The top section of these garments
were furred and often they were lined with fur also. The arm openings
were frequently cut right to the widest part of the hips. Many
top halves had a decorative and elaborate jeweled band or buttons.
If a belt
was worn, it was never worn over the top of this garment, but
low on the hips of the gown underneath. In many illustrations,
the belt is barely visible or not visible at all.
the sideless surcote is shown as a heraldic garment- that is,
one with the coat of arms of the family of the wearer. The detail
of the image shown at right shows Phillipa of Hainault from a
15th century manuscript by Jean Froissart.
The statue of Jeanne De Bourbon at
right dates from 1390 shows a very long, jewelled band down the
I have read that the band was designed to be removed or that the
metal squares or large, jeweled buttons were stitched onto a separate
vertical band, which certainly makes sense for cleaning, but having
made a replica of this outfit, I found the band which was metal
to begin with and further set with semiprecious gemstones and
freshwater pearls, to be extremely heavy to suspend from the top
alone with no other support.
of Jean de Bourbon's and Isabella of France's surcotes show better
details of their jewelled bands but shed no real light onto how
they were attached. They show a similar style of ornamentation-
a lozenge shape in the centre surrounded by what are probably
pearls or jewels. The image on the far right shows what looks
like a buckle across the band, possibly for securing purposes.
It is very difficult to tell whether
these are secured individually or as one band, although it is
generally accepted that it is one band with the individual segments
either joined together or attached to a separate band which could
be removed for cleaning.