Medieval Cottes, Gownes & Tunics
very early medieval woman's dress was often called a cote,
although many modern people call it a tunic. Cunnington and Beard's
A Dictionary of English Costume 900 - 1900 defines the
cote from 13th
century. Everyday loose tunic being the main garment of both
sexes. A woman's gown- long, close-fitting with long sleeves
which is often referred to as a gown, kirtle or kyrtle.
To avoid confusion, I will continue
to use the term kirtle on this website to describe the
later gown which was laced or buttoned. Shown at right is a detail
from the 14th century German manuscript, the Manesse Codex
showing a woman in a cote with bands at the neck and sleeves.
Early are cut quite loosely and is drawn in with a belt, creating
an overhang at the waist. Even in many late medieval artworks,
this style of hitching up a longer train so it doesn't drag on
the ground can be seen.
The basic shape of the early medieval dress has a couple of distinguishing
features. It is quite long, in a basic A line- that is, narrower
at the top and wider at the hem. The neckline is quite high, and
is sometimes cut with a small vertical slit at the neck to aid
The shoulders do not have a sleeve hole cut in or set in at the
usual armhole. Sleeves are added at the edge of the rectangular
body of the tunic, giving a slight batwing shape to the underarms.
This gives the dress a basic T-shape. The sleeves are very tapered
at the lower arm and tight at the wrist but do not go over the
It was very common for this style of cote to be worn both as an
undergown and with another contrasting coloured one over the top,
or with a sleeveless surcote.
The garment just pulls on over the woman's head, or had a little
slit at the neck. This was closed with a brooch.
There are no buttons or lacings on this style of early medieval
dress. Shown at left is a woman wearing a cote from the 13th century
French manuscript, the Maciejowski Bible.
Wool was th eoverwhelming choice for medieval clothing. Distinctions
in class were made by the quality of fabric used and the richness
of the dyes used.
Some artworks show bands at the neck and wrist which could be
either embroidered directly into the gown but were more likely
embroidered onto a separate piece of cloth and stitched on. This
made it easier to embroider, and made it possible to remove the
embroidery and reuse it elsewhere if desired.