The Kirtle

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Overtop it all, we have a V-necked robe lined in fur. It is my belief the robe opens in front, like the kirtle, and is pulled on and held shut with the belt- much like modern bathrobes. Many depictions of the Burgundian gown show evidence of a front opening, a line of fur or trim extending to the navel or merely a front seam-line. If this front opening is laced shut, it is done so in a way that is carefully concealed from the outside. “Invisible lacing” techniques from later finds might be in use here, where the lacing holes or eyelets are on a separate piece of fabric attached inside the opening. Early V-necked robes that are more houppelande-like appear to not have any sort of lacing holding them shut at all, the slit tapering closed naturally with the fullness of the body of the gown.

four tracings of backs
Four tracings of backs: The first three are from Margaret Scott’s book, the last from a manuscript illustration reproduced in The History of Dress. The second shows what I mean by a “Y-shaped” back. The fourth also appears more Y-shaped in the original than my crude tracing. The first and third are examples of cape-backs. The Third is a picture from the front, included here because of how clearly it shows the hanging nature of the fur. None of these are unique shapes, they are represented in other sources as well, though the fourth style is clearly paired with a narrow front more in keeping with the earlier houppelande style, it was worn with a tall, pointed hennin.

The collar is by far the most distinguishing characteristic of these gowns. The V-neck is always adorned with a trim of fur or velvet, forming a sort of lapel. This lapel usually extends out to the edge of the shoulder, obscuring the construction of the top of the gown. The fur (or velvet) continues on to the back of the gown.

It is a common misconception that these gowns were cut with a deep V in the back to mirror the front. The subsequent result is a gown that won’t stay put on your shoulders. Pictures of the backs of these gowns show otherwise. Sometimes a V-cut is employed, but it is always shallow, extending no further down than a curved neckline would in back.9 Rather, the back of the gowns are shown to either have a high neckline, as one would expect to support the plunging neckline in the front, or to have a V-shape of fur attached. These fur V’s hang loose over the belt, like a small cape. Another variation is a Y of fur created by the two lapels coming together over the shoulders into a shallow V or scoop, and then joining together to hang down as a double row of fur over the belt. The simple high-back without a fur V is shown on women wearing simple veils or hoods and could be seen as a lower-class alternative. None of the pictures of these gowns from the back show lacing or a hint of a back opening, reinforcing the theory that these robes open in the front only.

Earlier outfits

At the outset of the style, when the gowns are more houppelande-like, the V-neck is narrow and deep, sometimes shown open under the belt. The top of the V does not expose much of the shoulder, if at all, and the gown is also fuller in the body and looser in the sleeves. With time the style progressed toward wider and wider necklines until it ends with a V so wide it is really no more than a curved neckline with a V of fur superimposed on top of it. The gown is also far tighter later in the 15th Century. By the dying days of the style, the gown is so tight the belt is no longer needed, and is abandoned.

To create the earlier style of gown, I cut a four-panel pattern that is somewhat fitted in the shoulders, but otherwise bells outward. My evidence for this is the lack of wrinkles at the shoulders in depictions of these gowns- the gathering wrinkles in the body seem deepest at the belt, narrowing out over the bust, indicating to me that the fullness of the gown is starting at the bust where the wrinkles start. No V-neck is cut, rather the dress is fitted with the front seam pulled outward into a V. These gowns invariably show deep folds in the front center, which do form when the top of the gown is distorted outward in this manner. Also, some depictions of patterned gowns from this time period clearly show the pattern to be off horizontal on the bodice, though little of the bodice is revealed, usually.

Some of the early gowns appear to have the sleeve head pleated in on top, which lends an almost shoulder-pad-like look.

For a Burgundian gown from the height of the style’s popularity, I cut a little more fitting into the body of the gown, flaring outward from the level of the belt rather than the bust. Along the front seam line I cut a very narrow V, perhaps 15 degrees. The body of the dress is then pulled taut, using the stretch of the bias to form a 45-degree V-neck. The neckline is then left taut, in an unlikely-to-stretch state, which keeps it up and on your shoulders.

Evidence for pulling the upper part of the bodice like this is hard to find. Though patterened fabrics were used, the fur collar obscures the gown, leaving little chance of finding out if the pattern is off-grain. However there are some Italian illustrations from this time period which show a V neckline with no fur collar (after all, who would need such a thing in sunny Italy?). In these gowns the pattern of the bodice material can be seen to be pulled off the horizontal with regard to the rest of the gown, and a fold in the skirt at the center front attests to the extra fullness that would result from forcing a turn into the fabric. This same center front seam fold appears on the Burgundian gowns of the time period, evidence that the same technique is being used.

Later outfits

For the later gown, the only alteration is to cut the body fitted down to the hips. The neckline can be cut a shade wider, though be cautious- a sliver cut off the bias will transfer into more stretch than you might realize. As you stretch the neckline further, you will notice it naturally tends to form a curve rather than a straight line. This is expected, and a part of the later look. The later gown needs invisible lacing up the front to stay closed all the way to the base of the V-neck.

As the style progressed to the end of its lifetime, the cut V is abandoned for a scoop-neck and the cotehardie pattern (shown in dashes below) is most likely what was used: the practical introduction of the underdress style as an over dress in response to the change of fashion. (Some later gowns even show the fur V to be pinned on to a scoop neck, before the V was lost altogether. This development -the return of scoopnecks after nearly a century of V’s- is dealt with thouroughly by Robin Netherton in her work.)

In all cases, the front opening of the gown opens to the navel. With the earlier, fuller gowns, there is no need for any sort of closure save the belt, though I find a hook and eye handy at the top of the opening/ the bottom of the V. We know that eyes such as are used with hooks and eyes existed at this time from the pictorial evidence, and we know that hooks and eyes were in use in Elizabethan times. I feel it is a reasonable conceit to use them in this case. An alternative that is perhaps more provable though not necessarily more likely is to use two eyes from two pairs of hooksn- eyes and tie a cord through them to draw the gown closed.

Prepubescent girls in this time period are depicted either in a miniature style of their mother’s dress or in an altogether unique adaptation of the kirtle. This girl’s kirtle is very wide in the lacing at the neckline, resulting in a deep V all the way to the navel, behind which is either a very large piece pinned to the chemise, or perhaps a secondary underdress. This exposed fabric is surpassingly smooth, as is the line of the V. After this period women past puberty are depicted in similar dress and the 16th Century depictions of beautiful maidens in 15th Century costume nearly all copy this style of dress, albeit poorly. It is a lovely style, but I’ve yet to find depictions of it on fullgrown women before 1500.

my pattern Here is a drawing of my dress pattern, showing the way it differes from its inspiration, a fourpanel cotehardie patern. The Cotehardie pattern is in dashed lines. See how the sleeve opening of the gown is distorted in response to the narrow-cut front that will become the wide V neck? Also, the front is kept straight as possible below this cut, rather than conforming to the body, and the sides are expanded outward to provide a full skirt immediately below the belt. Fullness on the front center seam will be added when the dress is deformed to shape. This stretching back of the shoulders produces a fold on the front center seam that points upward. This wrinkle is ubiquitous in drawings of this style of dress. Later period gowns would be cut more conforming, more like the cotehardie pattern below, save for the distortion.