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15th CENTURY GOWNS

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Kirtles
The Medieval Dresses of the 14th Century

THE LACED KIRTLE - THE BUTTONED KIRTLE - THE SHORT-SLEEVED KIRTLE
THE MI-PARTI or PARTICOLOUR KIRTLE - THE HERALDIC GOWN

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, 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.

The 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.

Types of kirtle
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.

It falls into five distinct categories-

  • Those with buttons down the front
  • Those with lacing down the front
  • 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.


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 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.

Sleeves 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.

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 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
The buttoned kirtle which buttons down the front usually, but not always also has buttoned sleeves and is always worn as an outer garment.

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.

The short-sleeved kirtle
This 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.

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.

Short 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.

Kirtles 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.

Kirtles with laced sleeves
References 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 buttoned sleeves.

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.

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 showing the patterned side of the kirtle matches the same side of the sleeve. It is not counterchanged.

Another 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.

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
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 heraldic gowns.

Shown 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.

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.

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.

 

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