The Medieval Dresses of the 14th Century
THE LACED KIRTLE - THE BUTTONED KIRTLE - THE
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.
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 than the kirtle in documents, warderobe accounts and wills.
When it is mentioned by another name, it is usually simply, gown
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, but it's
construction is unclear and whether it is a tighly fitted dress
or a looser overgown is not clearly defined.
Shown at right is a detail from a 15th century French illumination
from Boccaccio's de Claris Mulieribus, Festival Of Flora
of a woman wearing a close fitting gown.
kirtle as a layer
The kirtle was worn over the chemise or smock and usually under
the gown, surcote, sideless surcote or houppelande.
It was very usually wool, although references from some sources
suggest that linen may have been used for hot weather in some
circumstances. There are some documentary sources HERE.
The kirtle had one of two primary purposes- those intended to
be worn over a smock with no other outer garment and those intended
to be worn underneath a form-fitting outer gown or a surcote.
falls into five distinct categories-
- Those with buttons down
- Those with lacing down
- Those with side lacing
- Those with pin on sleeves
- Those with laced sleeves
Most of these were cut with
a wide, low neckline.Some had sleeves which extended over the
knuckles, like the one shown in the detail at right.
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.
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 and the bulky
row of buttons down the front of her kirtle would ruin the appearance
of her outer layer.
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.
for laced kirtles appear to be in their entirety to the wrists
in most cases in the 14th century. By the 15th century, it is
more common to see 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.
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
possibly concealed at the side.
Some memorial brasses clearly
show front lacing gowns, but many others favour buttons. Illuminations
of peasants in the fields from 1416 to 1419 Duk du Berry's
Book of Hours by the Limbourgh Brothers 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.
Illustrations which show
front lacing gowns on well-to-do ladies tend to be, but are not
always, breastfeeding mothers, often the Virgin Mary.
The buttoned kirtle which buttons down the front usually, but
not always also has buttoned sleeves and is always worn as an
The ball-shaped buttons provided an opportunity to display the
wearer's wealth and status.
Shown at left is an image from the manuscript The Romance of
Alexander dated around 1340 showing a gown with buttons down
the front and on the sleeves. The size of the buttons are probably
greatly exaggerated. Extant buttons are 20mm or much less.
is commonly found in 15th century medieval art.
This style of kirtle has 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
or lower down the arm. 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.
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
sleeves kirtles allowed working class women, when doing daily
chores which were messy, to remove the sleeves altogether and
the chemise sleeves could be rolled up out of the way.
Ar right, we see a scene of a woman at home taking care of a baby.
Her linen chemise sleeves are visible as she has removed her top
sleeves for domestic work.
It would have been unthinkable for a working class women to go
out in public without her pin-on sleeves.
Leaving her linen chemise sleeves showing was just not done. It
was strictly an at-home thing.
with buttoned sleeves
The buttoning on the
sleeves usually reached to the elbows, but in many instances,
the sleeves buttoned further up the arm.
The image at right shows
close-set buttons down the front at least to the lower thigh and
up the entire arm.
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 personally feel the
woman is possibly a saint with a bucket for some unknown purpose.
with laced sleeves
of medieval dresses with laced sleeves are extremely rare. Only
one carving that I know of and one written reference supports
laced sleeves compared to the overwhelming amount of support for
The statue at right is from Neuremberg, and although it has been
partially restored when it was damaged, I believe the laced front
and laced sleeves are the original.
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.
Whether it indicated her
sleeves laced to her main dress or whether it means her sleeves
laced up the back, it is not mentioned. Lacing sleeves to the
body of the dress became popular in late 15th century Italy before
becoming a popular renaisance fashion trend, so it seems more
likely that Bokenham is referring to the sleeves being laced themselves.
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.
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 showing the patterned side of the kirtle matches
the same side of the sleeve. It is not counterchanged.
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.
Yet 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 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.
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.It shows six differing heraldic
gowns, all worn with tippets. In the Chronicles, there
are two other illuminations showing Queen Phillipa in different
at left is a detail of Phillipa of Hainault, wife of King Edward
III from Froissart's Chronicles. She wears the fluer-de-lis
on one hald and the red and gold on the other.
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.
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
© Rosalie Gilbert
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