Netherlandish Women’s Kirtles

The second layer of the woman’s dress, in English referred to as the kirtle, was the development of the cotte of the previous century. This cotte, first covered by the similarly styled cote-hardie, and then by the voluminous houppelande, was a tightly fitted gown with a round neck and long slender sleeves. It provided body support and shaping so that the fine fabrics of the over gown were not under excessive stress.


Deposition Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden, 1443
Deposition Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden, 1443

The bodice had a rounded or squareish neckline, often reinforced with a narrow yoke.There seem to be many variations on the cut of the bodice – closer examination of the Mary Magdalene by van der Weyden shows a small tuck running from the armscye at the breast, and either a raglan cut sleeve or separate shoulder pieces.

Mary Magdalene, Rogier van der Weyden, 1450-2
Mary Magdalene, Rogier van der Weyden, 1450-2

It is notable that the curve of the breast is still quite defined which indicates that the bodice’s purpose was not to flatten the bust – it was not a corset in any way even though it is clearly quite fitting.

It is possible that these bodices were cut on the bias so that they had some stretch to them – this would mean that they could be tight enough to give support but would still be comfortable. One thing that supports this idea is the approximately one inch yoke clearly shown around the neckline of all three van der Weyden kirtles on the left. This edge would stop a bias-cut neckline from sagging.

They generally laced up the front. The kirtles worn in both van der Weyden’s Mary Magdalene and his Deposition are laced through rings sewn to the bodice, although only every second ring is actually being used.


Back of kirtle
Nativity of St John the Baptist, Jan van Eyck, c 1423

The bodice was often separate from the skirt with a natural waistline. However some appear to be cut separate at the back, but as one with the skirt at the front.

The gored skirt was usually pleated into the waistline at the back but often was not pleated at the front or even might be cut as one with the bodice at the front. A number of paintings show the bottom of the skirt edged with fur which would show when the overgown was pulled up when walking, notably in the Deposition Altarpiece by Rogier van der Weyden.

Another variation seen is a wide (10 – 15 cm) horizontal tuck made at about 40 – 50 cm above the hem – this is often in earlier kirtles as in the green one from a miniature by van Eyck at the right. This tuck may be to allow for wear of the long hem – once the hem got worn the skirt could be lengthened by adjusting the tuck, and then a new hemline made or it could help give the skirt some body… some fifty years later similar tucks are stuffed and turn into a farthingale.


Seven Sacraments,Rogier van der Weyden, 1450-2
Seven Sacraments, Rogier van der Weyden, 1450-2

Kirtles had short or cap sleeves to reduce the bulk in the tightly fitted sleeves of the overgown. Occasionally kirtles appear to be sleeveless.

When undertaking heavy work a lower class woman would work with her sleeves bare and the chemise sleeve showing as in the Nativity of St John the Baptist above, where the kirtle seems to be sleeve-less. However when at less strenuous activities she would pin a pair of over-sleeves to the kirtle sleeve. These over-sleeves often appear to have been decorative – as they only use a small amount of fabric one could afford more expensive cloth and many paintings show them in brocades or damask.

The over-sleeves on van der Weyden’s Deposition Altarpiece are set into a slim wristband and fasten with a button, probably made of the same cloth. Other paintings show between one and three buttons made of the same cloth as the over-sleeve.

The over-sleeves on his Seven Sacraments have the seam up the back of the sleeve (unlike most modern garments which seam up the underneath of the sleeve), and are lined with a lighter coloured cloth.


The examples that we have here show that kirtles were probably made in a wide range of colours. Here we have green, taupe, red, blue and there are other examples that show olive, white and other colours.

Over sleeve colours include red and gold and multi-coloured brocades.


Deposition Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden, 1448
Deposition Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden, 1448

Kirtles of this period are regularly shown worn with slim girdles that hang loosely around the hips and may have a purse hanging from them. These girdles were worn under the gown so having them loose meant that the wide belt of gown wasn’t being worn over them.

The few examples that I have looked at closely appear to be woven, probably on a band loom or using card weaving, and have quite fancy metals ends. One has a metal purse hanger attached on the left side. The one shown on the right has a chain hanging down at the closure.

Both the Weyden Deposition example on the right and the van Eyck Nativity of St John the Baptist example above appear to have metal plaques attached.

Later kirtles?

Rene of Anjou, c 1470
Detail, Rene of Anjou, c 1470

By 1470 a different style is also known, at least in France. It is likely that this is the style more often worn by the upper class ladies. In this style the front edges of the kirtle do not meet – the kirtle is laced up the front and the lacing crosses over the belly but stops at the bust. Over the bust area is a placket or stomacher – probably stiffened with leather or buckram and pinned in place. (Note the similarities to the ‘Cranach’ style German gown of the early 16th century). This placket may be of expensive cloth and shows in the V of the overgown.

It is interesting that in this picture the image of the kirtle from the front makes it look as if the chemise shows through at the front (again like a German ‘Cranach’ gown) but it is hard to see whether the lacing drops down to a point or whether the two sides continue parallel until the waist where the skirt begins as in the ‘Cranach’ gowns. Hopefully I will some day find a larger copy of the image that will make it easier to see.

Margaret of York, 1480
Margaret of York, 1480

One indication may be found in a style that is too often written off as a ‘young girls’ gown. These gowns were about around 1480 and lace across the width of the bust down to a point at the waist. They are collarless and have a stomacher that covers the gap beneath the lacing. While they are often shown on young girls they are not exclusively shown as such and this can as easily be explained by saying that they were a new style – therefore young ladies who are:
a. still growing out of clothes so frequently needing new ones, and/or
b. at marriageable age and therefore wanting the latest fashions…
are more likely to be shown wearing it.

In the Rene of Anjou picture the lady is still lacing up her kirtle so it may well lace in a deep V to a point, with a stomacher covering only the gap at the top. It is interesting to note that the kirtle is being laced from the top down.

Hours of Mary of Burgundy, 1480
Hours of Mary of Burgundy, 1480

At this time (1470s) it is also possible that the kirtle was sometimes abandoned by upper class ladies as the V-necked gown begins to extend so far off the shoulder that wearing anything under it at the shoulder seems impossible. Most likely it is at this point that a separate under-skirt was adopted and the very deep belts at this time acted to support the bust.