Fashion Tells a Story
To begin with—I’m pretty new to the SCA, although I have been sewing for a long time. I am fascinated by the history of fabrics and clothing, by the way people have always used clothing for personal expression. We tell stories with the clothes we wear: their cut, color, fabric, decorations, brand names, and accessories. Think “goth”, “punk”, “metro”, and you have an image in your mind, right? Medieval clothing told a story, as well, a story about status, wealth, “national” culture, and the kind of work you did.
The Story I Wanted to Tell
It’s 1385 for our SCA personas — Caterina da Savona, a previously-widowed Italian woman from a shipgoing merchant family who is on her second marriage, and Hugues de Rethel, a Frenchman from a minor noble family who used this (his second marriage as well) to bring in some new money to his old bloodline. Following this, I wanted to make two sets of clothing for each of us (one Italianate and one French) that reflected this story of an aspiring, yet not exorbitantly wealthy, couple.
The Italian Influence
Caterina is from Savona, a small coastal city under Genoa’s influence, a city who might in fact (ahem) have built a certain amount of their success upon pirating Genoese ships. Medieval Savona also makes and exports fabrics, pottery, and glass. So, Caterina has access to some imported trade goods as well as fabrics made in northern Italy. As a wealthy woman looking to impress her noble husband and his peers, she wants to dress in the latest fashions!
This was a great time for Italian merchants. Trade across the Mediterranean Sea and to northern Europe was booming. There were great advances in weaving technology, with Italian workshops producing silk brocades that copied Persian, Egyptian, and Chinese influences… as well as weaving linen, linen-cotton blends, and pure cotton fabrics. (However, no aspiring Italian noblewoman would want locally-woven cotton underwear if she could afford imported French linen!)
The inspiration for Caterina and Hugues’ late 14th century Italian garb came from a combination of frescos from churches and illuminated manuscripts. These gave me a great sense of the shape and fit of the garments, yet the artists of the time were just beginning to draw in such details as seams. Precious few garments have survived the centuries, so extant examples are rare. This made the technical side of construction a study in creative interpretation.
For Caterina, my inspiration came from a fresco in Florence, showing Queen Herodius in “modern” dress. Her gown tells us a story of wealth and prestige: a brilliant red vesti (underdress) and a sopravesti (overgown) with a beautifully tailored shape, dags on the sleeves for extra trendiness, fine embroidery at the wrist and neck, and a long skirt that says, at once, “I never have to go anywhere dirty” and “how many yards of fabric did this dress take”? And, just in case all of that didn’t make a point, a crown!
Of course, Caterina isn’t a queen — far from it. She is also living in Rethel, between Paris and the Low Countries, where the weather is cooler (and muddier)… hmm. I chose to make the sopravesti in a medium-weight, gold-and-cream brocade, fitted, and dagged on the sleeves, but with a hem that barely skims the ground and, in lieu of embroidery, a narrow band of trim cut from a larger piece of fabric. We have evidence of a transition from embroidery to more applique after the Black Death, and selvage-edge ribbon didn’t exist yet, so this was my best interpretation of the trim I saw on other period images. Warm red wool for the sleeves of her vesti is a nod to a cooler climate.
The inspiration for Hugues comes from one of the many illustrated Italian versions of the Tacuinum Sanitatus, a secular manuscript (originally Arabic) interpreted in Europe with an idealized agricultural-pastoral theme. Here we see a nobleman who turns a fine calf– an important element of male beauty– in closely tailored calze (hosen) and, over a black tunic we can barely see, a gonnella (a straight-bodied “surcoat”) of fitted, patterned fabric with contrasting lining. And those dags! His tailor must have spent hours laying out, cutting, and sewing them. The neckline has a low collar, the newest of fashion, and several fasteners we can’t quite make out.
Because Hugues is a nobleman of average status, much like our model in the Tacuinum Sanitatus, I stayed close to the inspiration photo. I selected a cotton brocade in a geometric pattern, a nod to the “exotic” Islamic trade goods Caterina would want to show off to his French peers, and fully lined the garment in green linen. We did shorten the surcoat’s sleeves to be more comfortable in summer, a common variant in Italian period images. He selected period fasteners from Armour & Castings. His linen tunic and lightweight wool calze complete the summerweight look.
Our Finished Italian Garb
And here we are! Accessories include medieval shoes from Revival Leather Goods, leather belt with metal fittings from Armour & Castings and Gothic Cast, braids without a veil for Caterina, and a bycocket hat by the Honorable Lady Tabytha Morgan for Hugues. Hugues crafted his period hat-pin and ring himself.
The French Influence
Rethel is in France today, but in the late 14th century, this city located between Paris and the Low Countries had recently become Burgundian rather than Flemish. Medieval Rethel is an agricultural area that exports wool, wheat, and flax. Via roads and the Aisne and Meuse rivers, Rethel also has ready access to long-distance trade routes. Flemish weavers depend primarily upon English fleece for their high-quality wool fabrics, but the Hundred Years’ War frequently disrupts that traffic. We can imagine why Hugues may have chosen an Italian merchant widow to wife!
A 14th-century Frenchman might display his wealth with Flemish wool, French linen, Italian silk, lightweight fur, and numerous buttons. The idea of button closures on fitted garments was probably introduced by Europeans returning from the Crusades in the 1200s — by the mid-1300s, buttons and buttonholes are all the rage. Garments take on new shapes, tighter than in the previous centuries. Consider the time and skill to tailor a fitted garment, then the cost of the buttons themselves, and we can imagine the “story” that the owner of a tightly-fitted cote with buttons up and down the sleeve is trying to tell.
Caterina’s Cotehardie and Surcoat
For Caterina, I chose the well-known French cotehardie-and-surcoat style of dress, with a supportive undergarment in white linen. I found images of this style, essentially unchanged, from 1360-1405. One writer humorously noted that the women of Paris were warmly dressed — except for “leurs vents et leurs tétines“!
Caterina shows her wealth in the fur trim of her brocade surcoat, much like Madame Jehanne, — but also with her light orange linen cotehardie (closely fitted, so fashionable!). Linen is more difficult to dye than wool and usually comes out in pale tones, even with the best vegetable-based dyes, so colored linen is a statement. The brisk late-medieval trade in alum and oak-gall tannins provides the essential elements to fix dyes on plant-based fabrics — adding to both their intensity and their expense.
Hugues’ Cote, Surcoat and Hose
The inspiration for Hugues was a supporting character (apparently a nobleman who followed the Marquis of Saluzzo) in a story about patient Griselda. He displays his wealth with a row of closely spaced buttons on each sleeve of his fitted cote, in the generous cut of the surcoat’s sleeve and skirt, and in the trim that adorns the low collar of his surcoat.
Hugues’ cote is in light blue linen, inspired by French woad dyes, with extra “bling” on each cuff in the form of metal buttons and a band cut from a metallic brocade. He shows off his ability to afford this very fancy fabric (but only a 7″ x 20″ piece of it!). A soft green-and-black patterned wool suggests access to Flemish goods. Add an abundance of buttons down the front, and Hugues cuts quite a flashy figure. His hose are in the bright madder-red shade seen throughout French and English medieval art, and a brilliant yellow (weld-inspired) hood tops off the ensemble.
I realized, looking through many period images, that our 14th century predecessors had no fear of bright colors. During the late medieval explosion in dye technology (and increased trade of dyestuff), this was a new, exciting time for COLOR. The more, the better? … Whatever their logic, they certainly did not share our modern ideas of what colors “go” vs. “clash”!
Our Finished French Garb
For accessories, no married French lady would go without her white veil, with modestly braided hair peeking out around the sides. Caterina’s plaque-studded belt has hardware from Armour & Castings and Gothic Cast. Hugues has a lined wool-on-wool hood with a long liripipe, which can be arranged as a chaperon if desired. His belt pouch also came from Armour & Castings.
Oh My, It’s Cold at Ursulmas! (Outerwear)
So, outerwear wasn’t even on my radar when I started making our garb last year in April… but our first official event was in December, and wow! Cold! Barely in time for Ursulmas, having been warned about the chilly semi-outdoor site by kind members of our new Barony, I finished (fake) fur-lined overgarments for each of us and a wool-on-wool hood for myself. These were all French — Italians apparently didn’t need winter wear!
I displayed these at Candlemas in Dragon’s Laire in February, so I’ll just add a couple of pictures here. The medieval design proved quite sensible, with wool on the outside to deal with the rain and warm, fluffy, fur to trap my body heat on the inside.
Into the Weeds: Garb Construction Details
Every garment shape / seam arrangement came from my research, simply patterned on-body in “muslin” (old bedsheets), and I built my medieval pattern collection one piece at a time. I tried different variations as I went, such as different numbers and arrangements of gores. I also made some sleeves with underarm seams and some with back-of-arm seams, each having pros and cons, and I guess that’s why our medieval tailors left evidence that they also used both types.
I will be honest — my main goal was to get us both dressed, so I used machine sewing for most of the non-visible seams, eyelets, and buttonholes, and I saved hand work for the places that show. (It has still taken over a year to get where we are today, what with life and all.)
I did, however, finish every interior seam allowance, tack them down with running stitches, and reinforce every stress point, because — durability. As it stands today, almost all of our garments can go in the washing machine on gentle.
Constructing Caterina’s Italian gown
Because the woman’s gown appears fitted and yet with no belt or other exterior shaping, I made this dress in several panels. Sadly, I couldn’t find any images with seams, nor any extant gowns of this type, leaving me to work this problem out on my own. I chose to interpret the front of the gown as a sideless surcoat that had sides added. Then, I found several period Italian images with inset sleeves, cut very close to the actual shoulder joint — a good way to maximize range of motion in a fitted garment.
Any tailoring actually starts from the skin out, so there’s a hidden undergarment patterned after the German/ Bohemian bathhouse girls, more supportive than the (more Italianate) sack-like chemise. I would like to point out that the western European feminine ideal at this time was small round breasts, “com un pomme“, on a 15-year old girl (how the church-dominated culture imagined the Virgin Mary looked). This is a far departure from the average modern American woman! So… allowances must be made. I went Bohemian.
I expect that this undergarment is the most controversial item I made, because while each of the components have period evidence, there is no image showing an assembled garment such as this. The detachable sleeve is an especially loose interpretation; there are no images showing detachable sleeves in the 1300s, although there are myriad written descriptions of women’s sleeves– pairs of sleeves, or single sleeves– as lady’s favors, gifts, inheritance, items that (in 1350 London) even had their prices set by law. But by the time we see a detachable sleeve in detail, we’re in the 15th century, the sleeve hardware has moved to the outside of the clothing, and the sleeve-pins were a form of jewelry.
I can imagine ladies with less wealth than a queen — queenly garments were saved for centuries because of her prominence, and OF COURSE she had 3 fully voluminous layers on — but the lesser ladies? Perhaps they figured out how to have the appearance of that layered look without all the expense of fabric. Detachable sleeves and hems could have been removed for laundering, and a lady could pull off the layered look with two yards (or less) of fancy fabric. I used the leftovers from cutting Hugues’ red hose.
Anyway, the gown was my first project with dags, and they had to be fully lined. I figured out the best way to make this work would be to construct the sleeve, in full, then attach it to the body. Of course, fitting dags to the curved edge of the sleeve was its own learning experience!
The overcast stitches were an unexpected consequence of having lined dags — but except for having raw edges coated with oodles of overcast stitches, this is the best way I could figure to get a flat, fully finished, durable edge out of such ravel-prone fabrics as brocade and linen. It looks beautiful and much like the dags in period images.
BUT — I see now why most of the northern European dagged garments were made with fulled wool, unlined, instead of these Italianate fabrics.
Even More Dags: Hugues’ Gonnella
The heavily dagged gonnella we selected for Hugues’ inspiration was constructed in 4 body panels, then 2 sleeves, treating each as a subassembly (with the edges dagged and finished) before these were put together for the body. If you want to try this yourself, this is the sequence:
- Use the computer to print a lot of copies of the proposed dag shape, then lay them out on the WRONG side of a lining piece… until they look good. Pin and/or tape them down.
- Trace the chain of dags onto the fabric. Now take this strip of dags and trace it onto all other lining pieces. If doing sleeves, remember: mirror image! (flip it over to trace)
- For sleeves: RIGHT sides together, sew the main arm/sleeve seam, making a tube. Do both outer fabrics and both linings. Iron flat and fully finish these seams so they can never unravel in wear/washing. For body panels: plan out in advance how you will assemble the long seams, after the dags are finished. Me, I sewed front-to-front, then back-to-back, then the side seams. The sleeves and collar came last.
- RIGHT sides together, pin the outer fabric to the lining, matching any ends, curves, seams, etc. Then sew them together along the chain-of-dags line. Reinforce sharp, narrow corners with a few extra stitches.
- Trim the dag seam allowance as narrow as you think you can get away with, but preserve the seam! Clip the curves as needed.
- Turn everything right-side-out. Take time to gently turn each dag, which will look like a bunch of round noodly fingers. Iron them flat; The dags will still look a bit puffy at this point.
- To finish, overcast stitches across the entire dagged edge, which will both hold them flat and reinforce that narrow seam allowance.
The was so much of this dagged edge to overcast, I broke down and used a fancy stitch on the machine to do these. I am happy with how it turned out, but I understand now why all the commercial houses make clothing with HUGE 15th century dag patterns, unlike the small ones I found in my 14th century primary sources.
The Hassle of Hosen
Actually, they weren’t that bad — after I picked the entire top half of my first pair apart to remove the ill-advised lining. Oh, no! Turns out, the muslin pattern was the easy part. I made one set of separate hosen (the black) and one pair of joined hose (the red).
For the joined hose, it took me a few tries to get the codpiece not to “gap” away from the legs upon sitting… well, not to gap too much! A review of period images showed me that hose will never fit like blue jeans, and this is why we see braies peeking out. (I know that joined hose are ahead of Hugues’ time, but no one sees these under his long tunic, and he wanted something versatile enough for Renaissance Faire.)
Patterning a 4-seam Fitted Cotehardie (Kirtle)
As a modern seamstress who has worked a lot in women’s fitted dresses, this pattern concept made me skeptical. Each seam in a garment is an opportunity to add shaping, so doing this with only 4 seams??! And supportive, as well? I decided to challenge my skills and see what I could do.
I chose the curved-front seam option, because I expected to need every bit of shaping I could get. It took enough fittings that the muslin became unreadable and the final pattern is in tracing paper! You can see where I still had to tape bits on and cut bits out.
The top of the dress is fully lined in cotton muslin, as extra support and insurance against linen’s tendency to stretch. Then I copied this pattern for the medium-weight linen underdress, but I made that layer a little tighter and side-laced. This means a total of 3 layers of fabric on top; mechanically speaking, I feel supported, yet comfortable, and the dress does not shift during wear. There is enough bias in the cutting to provide unexpected ease. And I got that French medieval shape that is impossible to achieve with modern shapewear!
Thus, I counted this experiment a rousing success.
Lined Hoods with Liripipes
I mention this because the pattern was pretty easy to design, but assembling this as a fully lined piece of garb involved a learning curve. It took me a while to puzzle out the correct order in which to put those two hood layers together! So, here’s the trick:
- Sew the outer layer into a hood shape, gores and all, but omit the extra-long liripipe, if you have one. (These were commonly sewn as separate extensions in period.) Do the same with the hood lining.
- Right sides together, sew ONLY the seam around the face. Turn everything right-side out and iron this edge flat.
- Now turn under the lower hem and sew the two layers together in sections. On a machine, this takes some creative smooshing of the lower-hem seam allowances through a small hole you leave open in the center back; do the left side, then the right, and then hand-sew the final gap closed. Or just hand-sew it with an overcast stitch, which takes more time but a whole lot less cleverness.
- Add the liripipe extension last, already assembled and turned right-side out. Hand-stitch this into place.
- To make the two layers move as one, take a few stitches through the seams of both layers, at the points and edges of the gores and the front and back of the hood.
- Hand-stitch through all the layers of seam allowances. I used a running stitch, but something more decorative would have been nice.
Room to Grow: Future Modifications
- More hand finishing. I learned I can hand-stitch over the machined buttonholes / eyelets and make them look more period.
- Compared with period images, Hugues’ wool hood should really have a band of ornamentation along the lower edge. So should the collar and the edge of the sleeve on his French surcoat. I’ve tried out some embroidery, tablet weaving, finger braids, and heddle weaving, but I am still deciding what I like.
- I would like some nice veil pins for Caterina.
- I might someday go back and change Caterina’s cotehardie to have buttoned-up sleeves rather than pull-over, just to fancy it up a bit. A little ornamentation at wrist and neck would also be nice.
- Tippets??! These are absurd, delightful, and so definitely period!
Note: The period images I included, above, have their source cited / linked through in the caption.
- Barsis, Max. 1973. The Common Man Through the Centuries. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co. 354 pgs.
- Bonito Fanelli, Rosalia. 1981. Five Centuries of Italian Textiles 1300-1800 : A Selection from the Museo Del Tessuto Prato. Published by Cassa Di Risparmi e Depositi Di. 349 pgs.
- Bradley, Carolyn G. 1954. “The Middle Ages: Part III, 14th-15th Century” in Western World Costume: An Outline History, pgs 133-152. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc. (My note: good detail on materials and accessories but use with caution for clothing design; this book predates many modern finds.)
- Casselman, Karen Leigh. 1980. Craft of the Dyer: Colour from Plants and Lichens, 2nd ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 249 pgs.
- La Cotte Simple. Accessed 6/29/2020. “Comparison between curved-front fitting and straight-front fitting.” http://cottesimple.com/articles/comparison/
- Davenport, Millia. 1948. The Rising Bourgeoisie: XIV Century in The Book of Costume: New One-Volume Edition, pgs 190-241. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.
- Deventer Burgerscap. 2012. “About Medieval Bra(shirt)s and Other Underwear.” http://deventerburgerscap.blogspot.com/2012/08/about-medieval-brashirts-and-other.html
- Donner, Morgan. 2016, accessed 6/29/2020. “Tutorial: Supportive Kirtle.” http://www.morgandonner.com/2016/05/tutorial-supportive-kirtle/
- Fennell Mazzaioi, Maureen. “The North Italian Cotton Industry 1200-1800.” PDF available online.
- Fennell Mazzaioi, Maureen. 2009. “The First European Cotton Industry: Italy and Germany, 1100-1800.” In The spinning world : a global history of cotton textiles, 1200 – 1850, eds. Giorgio Riello and Prasannan Parthasarathi, pgs 63-88. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
- Master Lorenzo Petrucchi. Accessed 7/6/2020. “An Overview of Men’s Clothing in Northern Italy: c. 1420-1480” http://www.houseofpung.net/sca/15c_mens_italian.pdf
- Riley, Henry Thomas, 1868. Memorials of London and London Life, in the XIIIth, XIVth, and XVth Centuries: Being a Series of Extracts, Local, Social, and Political, from the Early Archives of the City of London, A.D. 1276-1419. “Pair of sleeves” on pg. 255.
- Véniel, Florent. 2008. La Sexualité au Moyen Age. Published by l’Imprimerie Rigal, Paris. (Editions La Muse) 115 pgs.
- Willet, C, and Phyllis Cunnington. 1992. “Medieval Period” in The History of Underclothes, pgs 21-33. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.