14th century: evolution of the single-layer gown

Until about 1350, getting dressed meant putting on something colorful over a white linen gown. The design of the outer garment changed, but the basic idea was always the same, until the outer garment became more or less vestigial.

The last stage, in the early 1300s, borrowed the mens’ “Cyclas” notion to create what is now called a “sideless gown.” The sideless gown had a full, long skirt, but from the waist up, it was cut more like a cook’s apron. There were no sleeves, but rather just straps over the shoulders. It was open at the side from shoulder to waist. The sideless gown was a vehicle for display, not a garment to keep someone warm. The under-dress had never been so little covered, so it was no longer adequate for it to be plain linen like a smock or nightgown.

Once the sideless gown had elevated the under-gown’s importance, ladies began to leave off the sideless gown altogether. The new style was know as a “cotehardie.” It was like a modern dress: cut to fit the body, with long narrow sleeves. It was generally low-cut, exposing shoulders and upper chest. There was at least one feature no modern dress would include: large, vertical slits in the front of the skirt through which the lady could pass her hands to keep warm or lift the heavy skirt to walk.

The sideless gown, and then the cotehardie gown, were the lucky recipients of the heraldry fad. Brass effigies and paintings show both kinds of gown covered with embroidered chevrons, lions, fleurs-de-lis, and other insignia from coats of arms.

The cotehardie had two other unique features. Like a modern dress, it form fitted to the shape of a human body. Tailoring had come a long, long way since the days of the blocky, T-shaped Byzantine tunic. For a few years, form fitting had been accomplished with lacing at front or back; now, they built the skirt and bodice out of long narrow gores of fabric to be tight at the waist but flared below. The cotehardie’s sleeves were not wide or bell-shaped; they too were closely fitted. During the 14th century, buttons had been invented. The invention of buttons, by itself, spurred the new close-fitting fashion. Small, close buttons ran from wrist to upper arm, and down the back.

Unlike modern dresses, the cotehardie was then decorated with long streamers descending from the upper arms. It’s not entirely clear from etchings and paintings whether these streamers, called tippets, were attached to the dress or added separately. They may have been arm bands slipped up the sleeve after dressing. What is very clear from images is that the tippets were about four feet long and two inches wide. There doesn’t seem to be any use for tippets; they may have imitated pennants and streamers on tournament flagpoles. But every fashionable lady wore tippets down to the floor for several decades.

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