Download the perfect overdress for the 14th century!
Buy our downloadable pattern with complete instructions and historical notes for 14th century Sideless Surcote. Worn over the tightly-fitted kirtle, this is the overdress Church elders called "The Gates of Hell" because it revealed a woman's curves through its side openings.
Fits busts 30½"-48" and waists 23"-41". All Sizes in one envelope. Historical notes and embellishment suggestions included.
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light weight to coat weight wool or silk
light linen, silk or fur for lining
3 yds 45" or 2 yds 60" wide
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Below is an excerpt from the historical notes you will receive as part of this pattern:
The Sideless Surcote
In the 14th century, a new fashion swept Europe, much to the consternation of conservative writers and church officials. This new form-fitting style of dress revealed the human shape, both male and female, and caused much comment among contemporary writers. But the garment to receive the epithet “The Gates of Hell” was the sideless surcote.
But where did this surcote come from? The word has long been used in English and French texts meaning, simply, a garment worn over another garment. The earliest versions of the English Chronicle known as the Brut, from the first years of the 14th century, make reference to surcotes that have tippets (sleeve decorations) “which hang down too long”, clearly not the sleeveless version we seek.
And yet in 12th and 13th century Spain, we see depictions of men wearing surcotes with large armscyes. The musicians in the illustration at right are just one example of this garment. There are also a number of surviving examples, know as a pellote, such as the Pellote of Enrique I, shown at left, which is housed in the Museum de Tales Medieval in Burgos.
We cannot explain why a male Spanish garment of the 13th century turned up as a female garment in the 14th. Perhaps the Spanish pellote had no relationship with the 14th century sideless surcote at all. However the strong visual similarities cannot be ignored.
On women, the earliest sideless surcotes appear to be merely sleeveless. The Manesse Codex, a German manuscript from the earliest years of the 14th century, shows men and women wearing flowing upper garments that reveal the sleeves of the garments worn underneath. The armscyes vary in depth, but the surcote appears to be cut in the same style as the under cote, just lacking sleeves.
By the 1320s, the armscyes begin to lengthen and the necklines widen, as shown in the Luttrell Psalter, reproduction seen at left.
Folio 202 verso Luttrell Psalter, from 1335, shows the classic sideless surcote complete with heraldic blazons. While the decoration of their surcotes may have been simply a illustrative convention to identify the wearers, heraldic symbols were certainly worn on clothing, especially when people appeared together as a household.
Like the cote worn under it, the neckline of the surcote has become nearly horizontal. The armscyes are open to at least waist level. Both Luttrell ladies’ surcotes are trained but floor-length and shorter surcotes are seen at this time as well.
Not all sideless surcotes magically changed at the dawn of the 1330s, however. Like all fashions, the deep armscyes permeated some sectors of society faster than others. Even in the same illuminated manuscript, the armscyed surcotes of the Manesse Codex are represented alongside the deep, waist-revealing openings that came to be called “The Gates of Hell”. The late 1330s/early 1340s version of the Romance of Alexander, currently housed in the Bodlein Library at Oxford, shows many variations of the sideless surcote, two of which are reproduced here, at left and right. The style on the left has small armholes with buttons down the front, presaging the closure method of some surcotes later in the century. Buttons also appear on the shoulders. The version on the right shows the deep side openings that reveal the gold belt worn over the wearer’s blue underdress.
A 1350s version of the Romance of the Rose displays sideless surcotes as well. The one reproduced at left has deep side slits, but not the deep armscyes associated with the sideless surcote. It is clear that the sideless surcote existed in many forms, none of them definitely attributable to any particular decade, social class or geographic location.
Other variations in armscye shape are seen throughout the 14th century. Square-bottomed sideless surcotes show up in the French Chronicles as well as the Songe du Verger. Surcotes may have always had the option of fur lining, but now white fur or ermine are highly visible, sometimes adorning the front top of the surcote as well as the interior. These fur-adorned surcotes are clearly the predecessors of the fur-topped surcotes of the late 14th century with their attached gathered skirts. These fur-topped surcotes would pass out of fashion and become uniformly made from ermine and indicative of royalty in contemporary art.
Back in the world of fashion, the armscyes continued to drop until the top of the thigh could easily be seen through the openings. Gold girdles were almost always worn underneath the surcotes, perhaps to draw attention to the wearer’s hips. This conscious drawing of attention to the shape of the wearer’s body is what earned the garment its epithet “The Gates of Hell” for it was feared that men would be tempted to sin by the sight of the female form.
Austin, Traci L. Women’s Dress Lexicon from Fourteenth Century England. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Nebraska, 2003).
Boucher, François. 20,000 Years of Fashion. 1987: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.
Crowfoot, Elizabeth, Frances Pritchard, and Kay Staniland. Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 4 - Textiles and Clothing circa 1150-1450. 1992: HMSO, London.
Dyer, Christopher. Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages: Social Change in England c. 1200-1520. 1989: Cambridge University Press.
Newton, Stella. Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince: A Study of the Years 1340-1365. 1999: Boydell Press, London.
Østergård, Else. Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland. 2004: Aarhus University Press, Aarhus, Denmark.
Payne, Blanche. History of Costume. 1965: Harper Collins, New York.
Piponnier, Françoise and Perrine Mane. Dress in the Middle Ages. 1997: Yale University Pres, New Haven, CT.
Wieck, Roger S. Time Sanctified. The Book of Hours in Medieval Art and Life. 1988: George Brazillier, Inc., New York in association with the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
http://www.wga.hu/index1.html and pictures in the author’s collection.
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This information © 2009 Kass McGann and Reconstructing History