The Outer Layers: Overgowns,
Surcotes & Sideless Surcotes
SURCOTES - SLEEVELESS OR SHORT-SLEEVE SURCOTES
- SIDELESS SURCOTES
FURRED SIDELESS SURCOTES - JEWELLED BANDS - HERALDIC SIDELESS
A surcote is the garment which is an outer gown. It comes
in three basic styles.
One is relatively fitted and has short or long sleeves and looks
exactly like the gown that is underneath. This is a plainer gown
which is worn over the more elaborate undergown or kirtle which
was usually made of a better fabric. In many artworks this is
what looks like the main dress, when in fact, there is another
Seen at right in the detail
from the centre panel of the 1445 Van Der Weyden painting the
Abegg Triptych which shows the surcote or over-gown lifted
to reveal the sumptious undergown
The second is a volumnous, loose overgown worn as an outdoor gown
for work or travel. It sometimes had a V neck and shorter sleeves,
although often it had long sleeves. In artworks it is shown either
lose or belted under the bust.
Shown at right is a detail from the right panel of one of Van
der Weyden's Diptychs from 1440. This surcote is actually
the fourth layer of clothing over the woman's chemise, kirtle
The third is an overgown with the sleeve sides which might be
absent or cut low and wide.
Records and contemporary accounts can be confusing as dress terms
vary and over-gown, gown and surcote can
mean different garments at different times or in different countries.
In the detail at left from the 1460 painting by Bouts, The
Lamentation of Christ, we can see a surcote which may be waisted
and has three-quarter length sleeves which have been folded up
the arms. Underneath,
her patterned kirtle is visible.
We know that this is different to pin-on sleeves because the surcote's
sleeves are over it, whereas the pin-on sleeves we see
in other manuscripts go over the top of the other sleeve
or can be seen actually pinned onto it.
The habit of hitching up the outer gown to show off the more expensive
fabric underneath was very widespread amongst women, whether European
or English. Many contemporary paintings of women sitting show
the outer gown folder back.
It appears that a great number of these were fur lined, although
not all. It is reasonable that in the height of a European winter,
that a gown lined with fur would provide the necessary warmth.
In summer, however, it follows that lighter fabrics were used
and for the poorer women, be unlined.
A woman might own several surcotes.
or overgowns with hanging sleeves
Shown at right is a detail from a manuscript showing a woman wearing
an overgown or surcote which has hanging sleeves and is fitted
like the dress underneath.
with hanging sleeves were popular in the early 14th century and
again in the early 15th century. In some cases, where just the
lining of the hanging sleeves are seen, they are mistaken for
furred tippets. This image shows clearly that in this case, the
hanging part is actually the sleeve of the outer garment.
In their book Women In The Middle Ages, Frances and Joseph
Gies discuss the wardrobe of Italian woman Margherite Datini,
the wealthy wife of a businessman in the 14th century.
It lists only two gowns and 11 surcotes in 1397, two of which
she had in 1394 and still possessed. Her wardrobe included purple
lined with green, blue damask trimmed with ermine, camlet (camel's
hair and angora) lined with pale blue taffeta, ash-colour bordered
with miniver, Oriental damask and aristocratic old rose. She also
had a heavy overcoat of heavy silk, which was full-cut to the
floor. It is noted that the cut and style of these garments varied
greatly with some requiring twice the amount of fabric as some
One imagines that the closer cut ones were worn at home during
domestic duties and the more ostentatious garments worn for social
occasions. It also appears that as well as being thrifty with
her clothing, it was acceptable for a woman of good breeding to
keep and wear outer garments for more than a year or two like
we do with a winter jacket today. It also appears that the number
of surcotes owned by that of our model woman, Margherite, was
not seen to be excessive.
In many cases, fitchets or fichets were utilised
in the front of the gown. Looking very much like edged pockets,
we know that they were not.
Fitchets were small slits in the front of the gown for the hands
to pass through so that they might access the pouches hanging
on the belt below.
They can be seen in the pink dress in the detail of the illumination
at left from the 15th century manuscript Guiard des Moulins
or Short-sleeve Surcotes
This is the garment is an outer sleeveless gown which falls into
two categories- for the working class and for the upper classes.
It is a looser fit and can either have a regular neckline, be
slightly gathered onto a decorative band or have a loose V shaped
neckline and three-quarter sleeve. If sleeveless, the sleeves
are usually high cut just under the armpits.
A working class woman would wear a surcote like this to protect
her clothes underneath from excessive wear and dirt.
Shown at left is a detail from Ruth Threshes Grain For Naomi
from the Maciejowski Bible.
upper class woman might wear a sleeveless or short-sleeve surcote
for warmth or when traveling.Many illuminations and paintings
clearly show linings in contrasting colours. In a few paintings
of working women, the garments do not appear to be lined. Considering
the cost of fabric, a general rule of thumb is that the more well
off a woman, the more likely her garments were lined.
This type of gown is often shown with side seams which were laced
to allow for an expanding waistline of a young pregnant mother.
Shown at the right is a detail from 1464 - 1467 Bouts painting,
The Gathering of the Manna, which shows an unusual surcote
with a side fastening. Usually, side fastenings are laced.
Sideless surcotes were designed to show off the gown underneath
and were quite different to the utilitarian kind of surcote worn
in the country to protect clothes or those worn by the upper classes
for warmth when raveling.
They could be cut from underarm to hip, or as the image detail
at left shows from the 1345 Paris manuscript, Romance of the
Rose, can be cut much lower.
They have no band of buttons or jewels down the front and are
often very plain-looking with a minimum of embroidery at the very
outer edges of the opening or with none at all.
This style of surcote was described as the gates of hell
by one particularly cencorous preacher because the wide, low-cut
sides showed off the more formfitting undergown or kirtle. This
clearly, would lead men into temptation, and therefore, the gates
of hell itself.
This style was most popular with fashionable ladies and nobles
who could afford showy displays of expensive fur trimmings or
gold embroidery. It would neither have been practical as a protective
garment or warm due to the openings at the sides for the lower
or working classes. If a belt was worn, it was never worn over
the top of this garment, but low on the hips of the gown underneath.
In many illustrations, the belt is barely visible or not visible
The image at right shows an illumination The Madness of Lancelot
showing a gold-embroidered, cloth bottom and furred top.
The top section of these garments were furred and often they were
lined with fur also. The arm openings were frequently cut right
to the widest part of the hips. Many top halves had a decorative
and elaborate jeweled band or buttons.
The statue of Jeanne De Bourbon at right dates from 1390 shows
a very long, jewelled band down the front of her sideless surcote.
I have read that the band
was designed to be removed or that the metal squares or large,
jeweled buttons were stitched onto a separate vertical band, which
certainly makes sense for cleaning, but having made a replica
of this outfit, I found the band which was metal to begin with
and further set with semiprecious gemstones and freshwater pearls,
to be extremely heavy to suspend from the top alone with no other
of Jean de Bourbon's and Isabella of France's surcotes show better
details of their jewelled bands but shed no real light onto how
they were attached. They show a similar style of ornamentation-
a lozenge shape in the centre surrounded by what are probably
pearls or jewels.
The image on the right shows what looks like a buckle across the
band, possibly for securing purposes.
It is very difficult to tell
whether these are secured individually or as one band, although
it is generally accepted that it is one band with the individual
segments either joined together or attached to a separate band
which could be removed for cleaning.
Occasionally, the sideless surcote is shown as a heraldic garment-
that is, one with the coat of arms of the family of the wearer.
The colourised image on the left shows a line drawing from a brass
plate dated 1395 of Hugues de Roucy and his wife. Her own arms
are halved with that of her husband on her sideless surcote.
The detail of the image shown at right shows Phillipa of Hainault
from a 15th century manuscript by Jean Froissart.