This post is about my work with 15th c dresses for the Golden Egg challenge I do in the SCA, and it will be something like an overview on dresses. If you want pattern outlays and sewing tutorials, check out my tutorial page!
What is really the difference between a kirtle, middle dress, dress, underdress and so on? Not much, except the words. All these can be used for the same garment, depending on the country of origin and the period. A kirtle refers to the main (upper body) garment for both men and women, which should be long (and loose at the hem). A tight-fitting, short garment with the same function is called a jacket or doublet. A kirtle can be both a tunic and a dress. So it is more of a language term than a specific garment.
Dresses are basically what you think it is; long garments (for women in this post) worn in different fashions, styles and materials. The medieval women generally wore several layers of garments, so to better talk about these, they are given different names.
- The shift, chemise or underdress is your underwear, usually in bleached or unbleached linen, washed frequently as you would do with modern underwear.
- The supportive shift is a sleeveless, tight underwear to support and shape your bust. You can see it in both pictures and as a find (Lengberg). You can wear it on its own under the middle dress, or together with a shift with sleeves.
- The kirtle or middle dress is the next layer, often in wool, but also in silk, cotton, velvet or mixes of materials. You can wear this in public, and during the 15th c, it is often tight fitted. The cotehardie? That is french, meaning basically a kirtle but is referred to as a tight fitted 14th c garment for both men and women, often with buttons or lacing.
- The dress or overdress is a warm layer worn on top of the first two, during the 15th century it is often loose, with lots of draping fabric. And as expensive as you can afford it. The houppelande? A certain style of overdress, with an opening at the centre front, often elaborate sleeves and lots of fabric in the skirts.
- The coat or cloak is a layer of its own, to protect the wearer from the weather (or for symbolic/religious use) or as a fashionable garment. Women and men both wear them and own them in sources, but they don’t seem to be high fashion during the 15th c, more like a practical choice.
During the 15th century, fashion seems to change quite fast, and you can also see many different styles of dresses in the same picture or geographical area during the same time. If you want to research different kinds of styles yourself, I recommend diving into some artwork for the period. I have two pinterestboards to check out, one about my Golden Egg project here, and another on interesting 15th c clothing here.
I also wrote a post about research and artwork here. I could really go on and on about different models of dresses forever, but to keep it simple I am just going to show you some different examples I have tried to recreate from the 15th c:
For my wardrobe, I opted for the green kirtle, a simple dress with long sleeves, a waist seam and front closure with hooks and eyes. The sleeves can be loose enough to roll up to the elbow, or a tighter version like mine. The front opening continues after the waist for a bit, to make the dress easy to take on and of. Decorative clasps by the front or lacing seem to be options for this style. It also seems like the kind of dress you can wear as both middle or overlayer on your outfit, depending on how you fit it and the choice of material.
But I also got curious and tried out the loose dress model with my dove blue dress, based mainly on a picture from Bohemia. These model can often be seen with a decorative closure at the neck and is held together by a thin belt by the natural waist. The breast can be seen as two individual shapes; you need a supportive shift with separated cups or a modern balconette bra to achieve this look! (or go natural)
Before, I tried to recreate this kirtle with short sleeves and a waist seam with a plaited back, based on some artwork of Weyden. The sleeves have a seam under the arm instead of the more common S-sleeve, the middle back has a seam, and there is a strip of fabric around the neckline, as a way of giving support to the shape. The front of the skirts lay smooth to the upper body, but at the back, there are plaits to add volume and a nice drape to the dress.
The houppelande is such an interesting garment, and I have tutorials about the different pattern and outlay. These are some of the different versions I have made. I really am a fan of this green colour as you may have noticed, and my friends use to joke with me if I don’t wear green at events…
And here is my pinterestfolder on different houppelandes and overdresses.
This became a quite long post! I will try to keep up with making some more tutorials for the different models if you want to try them out yourself.