The Outer Layers: Overgowns
, Surcotes & 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 occasions. It 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 and overgown.

Sleeveless 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
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.

They 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.

Furred Sideless Surcotes
This 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.

Occasionally, 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 front.

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.

Close-ups 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.

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