13th century: peliçon and Persian coat

The basic notion of what it means to clothe oneself is far more conservative than fashions that come and go. Take the extreme example of how little has changed in the notion of a man getting dressed to go work in a bank in the last two centuries. A man expects to put on a pair of pants that go to his ankles and are in one solid dark color, a white t-shirt, a lightweight neutral colored long-sleeve shirt and a long, restrictive coat that can’t shed rain and isn’t warm enough to be an overcoat on its own. He even expects to put a colorful, useless thing around his neck. There’s no real reason why this is garb for banks and business. And yet the notion has proven nearly impossible to change, at least until Steve Jobs’ all-black style set a new royal precedent.

In the same way, getting dressed in the 12th and 13th centuries meant putting a surcote over a linen tunic. Fashions only changed in the style of surcote, for both men and women. Nobody was dressed for indoors without an under- and an over-robe; but nobody got dressed for a cold day by adding something else with sleeves.

Women’s clothing took a fairly radical step in the Crusades-era innovation of the Persian coat. It was a surcote but it opened completely at the front like a modern jacket. It fastened with one tie or hook at the front waist, and otherwise hung open. Made of richly decorated silk, it had wide hanging sleeves. It didn’t look anything like past European cold-weather fashions; it spoke strongly of the alien East. It was also the first “coat” for women that could be added if the room was chilly: a very new idea.

At the same time, during the era of Richard the Lion-Hearted there are effigies and references that point to a much warmer, more practical Northern European ladies’ surcote. It was called the “peliçon,” later shortened in French to “pelisse.” “Pelice” meant fur in Norman French. The peliçon was an over-dress lined inside with fur, usually with fur edges at sleeves and dress hem. While the under-dress had long sleeves and reached to the floor, the peliçon’s sleeves were 3/4 and it reached to the knees. It was for indoor wear, but obviously its goal was to keep the lady warm during winter.

The two garments gradually blended in time. First, when summer came and ladies still wanted to look fashionable, they needed fur-free pelisses. The summer pelisse had 3/4 sleeves and came only to the knees, but it was made of silk and no longer fur-lined. Second, the Persian coat was intended to be just an Oriental fad, but it gradually turned into an actual coat.

By Jane Austen’s time, “pelisse” meant a light outdoor coat used only for warmth. Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion, compares the known poor condition of his first ship with something that his female hearers were much more likely to understand:

“I had no more discoveries to make than you would have as to the fashion and strength of any old pelisse, which you had seen lent about among half your acquaintance, ever since you could remember, and which at last, on a very wet day, is lent to yourself.”

Very slowly, a new idea crept into the conservative notion of dress: a thing with sleeves to put on when you’re cold.

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