Medieval Clothing: Medieval Kirtle or Dress

Dresses or Kirtles worn in Europe in the 11th century were similar to men’s tunics. They were loose and reached to below the knees or lower. Slits on the sides were pulled tight to fit the figure. Kirtles were typically worn over a chemise or smock and under a formal outer garment or surcoat.

Girdles and buckled belts were already popular in the fifth and sixth century, with tools and personal items suspended from the belt. Kirtles began as loose garments without a waist seam, which were later constructed by combining a fitted bodice with a skirt gathered or pleated into the waist seam. Kirtles could lace up the front, back or side-back. Kirtles became part of the most fashionable attire into the middle of the sixteenth century.

The main materials used in earlier dresses were woollen cloth, fur, linen, cambric, and, in the case of richer women, silk and silver or gold cloth. Dresses are sometimes featured with a distinct border in a contrasting colour. Although the imports of luxurious fabrics increased with time, clothing remained very expensive.

History of the Dress

The typical women’s clothing for the fifth and sixth centuries was a body-length garment pulled up to the armpit and worn over a sleeved under-garment, usually another dress, by fastening brooches at the shoulders.

Changes in Anglo-Saxon women’s dress began in the late sixth century in Kent and rapidly spread to other regions. These reflected the increasing influence of the Frankish Kingdom and the Byzantine Empire and a revival of Roman culture. 

Between the tenth and eleventh centuries, women wore a sleeveless overgarment with or without a hood (but with a head covering with an opening for the face), perhaps influenced by Near Eastern art. 

Around the year 1300, there was a change in well-off women’s clothing towards tighter-fitting garments, lower necklines, and more curvaceous silhouettes. Clothing was over-lapped and tightly bound. By the end of the 14th century, the dress had replaced all garment items aside from the surcoat

Types of Dresses

Cloaks can be classified flexibly into:

  • Anglo-Saxon “Peplos”: Pulled up to the armpit, worn over a sleeved under-garment, and fastened by brooches at the shoulders.

  • Laced Kirtle: Most likely to be worn as an undergown, the front lacing provides a flat, smooth silhouette. Lacing would be more likely at the back of a gown on women who had domestic help and dressing assistance.

  • Buttoned Kirtle: More likely to be worn as an outer garment, buttons are down the front and up the back of the sleeves. Ball-shaped buttons provided an opportunity to display the wearer’s wealth.

  • Short-Sleeved Kirtle: Usually worn with tippets or lappets where the sleeve has been cut away. Sleeves could be interchangeable and pinned on at the shoulder.

  • Particular Kirtle: The kirtle or gown is one color on one side and another on the opposing side.

  • Heraldic Gown: This type of dress has heraldic devices like a coat-of-arms emblazoned on it. They showed loyalty to a household or denoted the heritage of the wearer.

Image Gallery: Dresses in Medieval Manuscripts & Art

a typical kirtle from a 1400-1409 illumination detail, St Jerome Tempted by Dancing Girls.
a typical kirtle from a 1400-1409 illumination detail, St Jerome Tempted by Dancing Girls. Public Domain image.
A dress in the Celebrating May Day Near the Town of Riom in the Auvergne.
A dress in the Celebrating May Day Near the Town of Riom in the Auvergne. Punblic Domain image.
A dress in the BSB Clm 3003 Speculum humanae salvationis, dated 1400-1410, Germany. Image courtesy of Manuscript Miniatures.
A woman in a dress in the BIF MS.09 Pèlerinage de Jésus-Christ, dated 1400, France.
A woman in a dress in the BIF MS.09 Pèlerinage de Jésus-Christ, dated 1400, France. Image courtesy of Manuscript Miniatures.

Books about Medieval Clothing

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Medieval Tabard

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Medieval Clothing: Hoods

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The Hood could be part of a cloak or cape, or worn as a separate form of headgear.