We are naturally fascinated by the glamorous dresses worn by medieval queens and their ladies at court. But under those fancy gowns was the same staple garment for gentry and peasant women alike – the kirtle.
The kirtle was worn over a linen smock and acted as an early girdle, or corset, to shape and support the body in the time before modern bras. Made from wool, linen, or silk it was usually sleeveless, often holding the under smock down to reveal much of the neck, shoulder, and chest of the wearer.
On top of their regular kirtles wealthy women wore an additional fancy frock called a cotehardie or surcoat. This was made of fine cloth and decorated with fur, jewels, embroidery, lace, belts or buttons. Their kirtles could lace up at the sides or back because they had maids to help them dress.
The kirtles of less-wealthy women fastened at the front. This was a more practical choice because the laces could be easily opened to allow for pregnancy and breast feeding. Most women would roll up their smock sleeves for the everyday household chores, but interchangeable dress sleeves could be pinned or tied to the kirtle for going out. At a time when material was very expensive, such extravagancies were usually saved for ‘best’ occasions such as visiting friends or attending church. Therefore, if a lady was fortunate enough to have several sets of sleeves, she could change the look of her outfit without needing to change her kirtle!
(Painting: Orazio Gentileschi)
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