The kirtle is a garment worn by women through most of medieval history and was the main garment in their wardrobes. It went through stages of being worn as a simple overdress is the 12th and 13th centuries by common and wealthy women, and was also used as an undergown. In the later 14th and 15th centuries, it became the main overdress for commoners, and an undergown for the wealthy, being worn under cotehardies, sideless surcotes and houppelandes. 1
In the 12th and 13th centuries, the kirtle was a floor-length and loosely-fitted gown, and had long, tight sleeves. The wealthier women would use more embroidery on their gowns to help denote their status, and the mantles that they wore may be lined with fur, to further enhance their status and display their wealth. 2
The kirtle became more close-fitting as time went on, and in the 14th and 15th centuries they were generally either laced or buttoned closed. We can deduce that laced kirtles were intended to be worn under overgowns, as it would be too expensive to have buttons on a gown that would be unseen, and lacing would create a smoother silhouette. It appears that wealthier women would have lacing at the back of their kirtles, as they would have had assistance with dressing. Buttoned kirtles were generally worn as overgowns, as they could convey the wealth of their owner better. 3
Even later still, they could be constructed by combining a fitted bodice with a skirt whichwas gathered or pleated into the waist seam. This image shows a woman wearing a kirtle over her smock, c. 1626. 4
There are so many variations on the kirtle, that it’s difficult to pin it down and say ‘yes, this is it’. Especially as they’re not always called kirtles, the terms cote, cotte, tunic and gown can all be used as well. This leaves us with room to create something that is elegant, stunning, or simple, depending on our tastes (and sewing ability!) What do you think of this clothing item?