13th Century: Cyclas and Gardcorp

In the 12th century, men had mostly covered their basic tunics with cloaks that were some variant of a circle: semi-circle, 3/4 circle, or oval. It draped around their shoulders in grand idleness, made of heavy, rich fabric. But in the 13th century, noblemen began wearing two distinctive types of surcotes. One had no sleeves; the other had fake sleeves.

At the fringes of the Byzantine Empire, the Greek Cyclades Islands appear to have been exporting a particularly rich fabric. It may have been a silk brocade; the Muslim Caliphate had moved some Eastern (Chinese and Indian) technology into Damascus and Egypt, including the draw loom. Until the early modern Jacquard loom, the draw loom was the most complicated piece of fabric machinery. It required a second person, the weaver’s assistant, to sit on a perch by the ceiling and manipulate extra ropes and levers. Silk weavers could create complicated figures like peacocks, crowns, elephants and trees instead of the simple goose-eye diamonds possible in Europe.

The fabric from the Cyclades Islands may also have used a lot of gold threads; gold has the property of being drawn into very, very fine wire without breaking. Other fabrics at this time, called a variety of names like baudekyn, siglaton and just “cloth of gold,” used gold threads in their patterns.

In any case, the fabric was so expensive and showy that it didn’t require much tailoring to show to advantage. The “Cyclas” cut, as it came to be called, was a sleeveless tunic with a neck slit and a slit up the front of the skirt so that the wearer to walk more easily or even mount a horse. The under-tunic of the time usually had a batwing sleeve at this period: tight at the wrist but very loose and floppy at the armhole. As the Cyclas developed, sometimes it was not sewn up the sides, but instead lay open and was clasped at a few points. Eventually, women adopted and adapted it.

The Cyclas with sleeves was the Gardcorp. The sleeves were in a new style, too. They were often smocked at the shoulder so that a great deal of fabric could be gathered at teh shoulder but hang loose in the arms. However, the sleeves were often not worn. At the top of the sleeve, the tailor cut a slit for the arm to go through. The gardcorp’s smocked sleeve hung at the back, for show, while the wearer really just used his arms freely via the slits. Its name, “Gardcorp,” suggests another step in the evolution of the coat: something you put on to guard the body from cold.

By the middle of the 13th century, the costly fabric imported from the Byzantine Empire was no longer the definition of the Cyclas; it was just the cut of an over-tunic. So it was time to create a new fashion, the quintise, which meant “fancy” in medieval French. Heraldry cut shields into sections with zigzags, wavy lines, square-cut crenelations, and leaf shapes. The bottom of the quintise was cut into any of these fancy shapes, especially at Christmas time.

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