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Costumes and courtiers: garments and fashion ideas in late medieval Western Europe

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Female garments.


The costumes of women in the Late Middle Ages had less variety than those of men, but were at least their equals in splendorous appearance. The cut of the female garments in the fourteenth century did not change significantly from that of the thirteenth century, when the difference between male and female garments was not so much marked.

The cotte, the undergarment introduced in the thirteenth century, became more tight-fitting, as it was seen in the case of the male costumes as well. The back was opened, and laced with ribbons. The skirt part was cut in relatively loose form. In the first part of the century the difference was not so striking, but the sleeves were buttoned in the same manner as in the case of the male ones, and the close-fitting cut made necessary the introduction of additional pieces. The neckline was rounded, but by around 1340 it began to deepen and widen. A narrow belt was worn around the hips with it. In 1362 a certain lady named Yolande de Bar listed among other good stolen from her, her scarlet cotte, the sleeves and edges being decorated with pearls and small gems.

However, the cotte itself would not have been visible if the sleeves of the surcotte had not been cut, making the armholes deeper and deeper. The two garments, cotte and surcotte, were usually mentioned together : in 1338 the Queen of France had a robe of four pieces, composed of a cotte, two surcottes, and a corset, a mantle with round cut. As a general trend, from the middle of the thirteenth century the cotte, surcotte and cloak or mantle were made of similar materials, hence the term "une robe" in the inventories of the period.

The surcotte itself in the beginning could be shaped with a wide neckline and with or without short sleeves. However, in the second half of the century a special variation of it, the surcot ouvert was used almost exclusively. Its especially close-fitting shape was achieved by several individually cut pieces under the armpit. The deepening of the décolletage reached its peak in the years 1370-1380.

The bodice part of the surcot ouvert always was cut independently from the loose skirt, and was seamed into it later. The former had a wide plastron in front, which was decorated with fur around the neckline and the sleeve cut. By the end of the century the bodice was made entirely of fur, termed plackard, which was decorated with square mounts, often clasped together as a chain.

The cotehardie was the other upper garment for women of the fourteenth century. It was understood as a dress with sleeves, although the length and width of these could vary. The cotehardie (coathardie) was not as closely associated with courtly-aristocratic costume as the surcot ouvert, but was considered as an outdoor garment. In 1347 a certain Jeanne de Presles bequeathed a black cotehardie trimmed with miniver to her maid. Among the many varieties of this garment some can be decorated with buttons in front, and to its sleeves the characteristic coudieres or tippets could be added: the hanging, opened and lengthened parts of the cuff, which might also be trimmed with fur. Two edged pocket slides can be observed as well in some cases. In Hungary, the wallpaintings of Szentmihályfa show a red cotehardie with hanging coudières trimmed with fur, worn over a red cotte with close-fitting long sleeves.

Cloaks and mantles also belonged to female costume. The gardecorps was used in cold weather, and therefore was lined with fur. It was used by both sexes. The cloches à chevaucher, as its name indicates, was worn when riding. For ceremonial occassions a loose mantle came into usage, often pleated at the shoulders, and decorated with embroidery, appliquéd pieces or cords. It was called the corset rond.

Headdresses and hairstyle. The headdresses and hairstyle in the fourteenth century among women show much greater variability than do garment types whereas men generally displayed a greater veriety of clothing types than women. It almost seems as if women tried to outshine men in this one field at least.

The thirteenth century touaille or wimple continued to be worn, completed with a veil and fixed with a woolen band. The hairstyle for this was two plaited braids worn around the ears, or set into small caps near the temples. This latter style gradually was widened through the century, giving the face a wide look. The wimple itself could also be worn with pins around the head, or under a box-like headdress to which the veil was fixed.

No veil was worn, however, with the surcot ouvert by the noble ladies. The hair was put into two decorated net, called coiffes or coifs, stiffened with gems and gold or silver threads, and the whole construction was fixed with a crown-like band, usually with a golden base, decorated with gems. This so-called chaplet, or chapel, was worn in different forms and with various decoration at the beginning of the fifteenth century as well.

But the strangest headdress of the century was the one called in the French and English-speaking areas the nebulé-headdress, after the heraldic device almost identical to its look. Its name in German territories was the krüseler. This headdress, appearing in the sixties of the century, was made of several veils, folded repeatedly into each other around the face, the edges being frilled and plated beforehand. Though this was the most popular in areas like Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and England, it was completely absent in France.

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