Kirtle, kyrtle, kirtill, tunic, cotte, cotehardie – a tunic type garment usually worn over a chemise or smock (and often under an outer-gown).
A mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe for centuries from the Middle Ages (14th century) to the Baroque period (17th century). In a time when a woman’s beauty was of great value, and modesty was expected of them, kirtles enabled both. The ankle-length garment meant the less-to-do could carry on with their household chores and the rich, by choosing the finest fabrics, could show off their wealth. Thousands of thousands of women will have a worn a kirtle – including those we hold in the most high-esteem.
From Emma Watson in Beauty and the Beast (on cinema release 17th March) wears a flowery fairytale version.
To The Virgin Mary: The laced kirtle; practical and perfunctory
Lacing the bodice gave a flat, smooth silhouette. And also made them practical for baby mothers. The Book of Hours, a fifteenth century Christian devotional book (that also served as a family memorial, was very popular in the Middle Ages) depicts the Madonna, suckling her Child. Wearing a crown on her head and regally composed, the kirtle and gown protects her modesty adding to the picture of grandeur and solemnity.
Joan of Arc (1412-1431): The sweet sixteen year old from Domrey, who was driven by voices in her head to help the French army defeat the English at Orleans. Modest in all ways (she had never spoken to a man), she is often depicted heraldic – and in a kirtle.
Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton (1600): The Tudor Times prized the showing of a woman’s neck and bust (acres of creamy whiteness) – all within the bounds of taste and decorum of the time. Fabric was so expensive, but the more you wore, the better to show your wealth and social standing. Women’s outer gowns generally favoured a fitted bodice with a low waistline and a wide, scooped neckline attached to a full-length skirt.
Elizabeth 1: Then fashion became much more flouncy. The introduction of the farthingale (boned underskirt) from Spain saw women dress for spectacle and show. Now a overly-sculptured waist, a layering of extravagant fabrics (which meant no need for knickers) and lots of embellishment became the thing . A look we most associate with Queen Bess.
Marie-Antoinette: Overly showy clothes continued into the seventeenth century, eptomized by the court of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.
High Fashion has been plundering the Tudor wardrobe for a few seasons now;
And now it’s it Medieval wear that’s inspiring haute couture;
So go, get the Kirtle on.
Featured Image: Christian Louboutin