Kirtles

kirtle

We are naturally fascinated by the glamorous dresses worn by medieval queens and their ladies at court.  But under those fancy gowns was the same staple garment worn by gentry and peasant women alike – the kirtle.

Worn over a linen smock, the kirtle acted as an early girdle or corset that shaped and supported the body in the time before modern bras.  They were made from wool, linen, or silk and were usually sleeveless, often holding the under smock down to reveal much of the neck, shoulder and chest of the wearer.

On top of their regular kirtles wealthy women wore an additional fancy frock called a cotehardie or surcoat.  This was made of fine cloth and decorated with fur, jewels, embroidery, lace, belts or buttons.  Their kirtles could lace up at the sides or back because they had maids to help them dress.

Less wealthy women had kirtles that fastened at the front.  This was a more practical choice because the laces could be easily opened to allow for pregnancy and breast feeding. Most women would roll up their smock sleeves for the everyday household chores, but  interchangeable dress sleeves could be pinned or tied to the kirtle for going out.  At a time when material was very expensive, such extravagancies were usually saved  for ‘best’ occasions such as visiting friends or attending church.  Therefore, if a lady was fortunate enough to have several sets of sleeves, she could change the look of her outfit without needing to change her kirtle!

Picture: Orazio Gentileschi

Coifs

In most historical fiction set in the European Middle Ages, the female characters wear coifs.

4x5 original

Hans Holbein

But what exactly was a coif?

Coifs were various styles of close-fitting caps that covered the top, back, and sides of the head, holding the hair in place and away from the face.

In the Thirteenth Century coifs were worn by everyone, but they slowly fell out of fashion for men.  Women and children, however, continued using them well into the Seventeenth Century.  Not only were they a practical item for additional warmth in winter, they also provided a level of respectability for women and could be turned into a decorative status symbol for the nobility.

Up until the Tudor era, coifs were made from unadorned white linen and tied under the chin.  In Elizabethan and Jacobean times the hoods of the wealthy were made from silk.  They were often embroidered with elaborate Blackwork stitches.  Many had fancy lace edges.

Noble women’s coifs were usually wired to fit discretely under the current head fashions of the day.  They gradually became smaller to allow curls to flow down the back of the lady’s gown.

Workers and servants wore large, plain practical wraps that completely covered their hair.