Rogier van der Weyden, like most artists of his time, did a large quantity of religious work and he has left us with a number of detailed images of women, mostly identifiable as Mary Magdalene, in their kirtles. These kirtles are especially interesting because they have a number of differences, which suggests that they were painted from actual examples and not from a standard kirtle ‘pattern’, and because they were all observed by the same individual, working in one region.
The Deposition Altarpiece, 1443
Of all van der Weyden’s paintings of Mary Magdalene in her kirtle this one probably has the best over-all view of a kirtle of the period. We can see a lot of detail, not just of the bodice, but also of the sleeves and skirt.
The kirtle is of a taupe cloth, probably wool (wool mixes were available so it is hard to be accurate), with a grey fur border at the bottom of the skirt and pinned-on red sleeves.
The bodice is of a complex cut and is separate from the skirt which starts at the natural waistline. The side seam is at the side, however I am uncertain whether there is a centre back seam (but probably is). The short kirtle sleeves are set in. The neckline is squared off but with rounded corners and the front lacing pulls the centre down somewhat (as it does in the Mary Magdalene below). All around the neckline the bodice has a narrow yoke (about 3-4 cm wide).
The bodice fits very smoothly and allows the curve of both her breasts to be visible without any bumps or puckers. I suspect that this bodice has been cut on the bias. Bias cut woollen cloth has a lot of elasticity and was used to achieve a close fit in hose and also in the cote and cote-hardie, which were the ancestors of the kirtle so it would have been an obvious development. The yoke is another indication that this might be the case. The yoke would have been cut on the straight and therefore stops the kirtle from stretching too much at the top edges and eventually becoming saggy. There is also what appears to be either a line of top-stitching or piping around the neckline which would also strengthen the neckline.
The kirtle sleeves are the only point at which there is any bunching-up in the cloth. They are cut very close to the arm and tight under the arm-pit.
The over-sleeves are of red damask (self-patterned) cloth, almost certainly silk. They are pinned to the kirtle sleeve with a single brass pin. We can’t see it’s end so it is possible that there is some kind of cap on the end but other examples suggest that it is unlikely – the coarser metal itself holds it in place. The sleeves are fairly loose but not really baggy. They have a narrow cuff that is closed with two small cloth buttons that match the sleeve fabric. (The chemise sleeve is just visible at the wrist which shows that this one has a long-sleeved chemise under it). The sleeve seam does not appear to run up the back of the arm (like the modern suit jacket sleeve), so we assume that it runs under the arm like most modern sleeves.
Seven Sacraments, 1445-50 (right wing – detail)
This important work gives us one of the only clear back views of a kirtle of this era. The centre back seam is clearly defined as is the rounded back neckline and the standard 1 inch yoke. The bodice appears to have a natural waistline and is seperate to the skirt both at front and back and we can just make out a side seam.
One of the most interesting features with this kirtle is the appearance of pleats across the centre back of the skirt. The skirt’s fullness is mostly created by being constructed of gored panels as are the skirts of the other kirtles shown here but some additional fullness at the back is given by these small pleats.
Apart from that the kirtle looks to be very similar to the other three. Its made of bright red wool and would have been lined.
The short sleeves are more fitted than in the previous painting but not tight and the yellow woollen oversleeves have seams up the back of the arm and appear to come up to points. Interestingly there is no evidence that the short kirtle sleeves are seamed at the back of the arm – they may have under arm seams. The kirtle sleeves are set-in sleeves.
Another interesting feature of this image is the belt which appears very similar to the other two. They all three appear to be of soft woven stuff or possibly leather and end with large round clasps. This one sports a purse hanger.
Mary Magdalene, 1450 – 2
This is a very interesting painting. It’s a very similar kirtle to the ones above.
The kirtle is of a soft ‘woad’ blue, more or less greyish depending on the reproduction. It is almost certainly made of wool, whereas the sleeves are a silk brocade.
The bodice allows the curve of the breast without any obvious shaping. However in this case close inspection shows a small dart running from the top of the bodice into the yoke. There is no front bodice-skirt seam so we can say that the front at least is cut as one. None of the reproductions that I have access to can answer whether the back is cut the same way or not.
One interesting aspect is that the kirtle is laced through only every second brass eyelet. It is clear that the red lace actually goes through the eyelet hole to the inside of the kirtle so these are not brass rings just sewn on the outside of the kirtle.
The approx 1″ yoke runs around the top edge of the bodice and is the only part of the bodice that runs over the shoulder. The yoke in this case does not run straight across the chest, but rather dips down at the front. There is no puckering along the lacing line so the dip must be intentional.
The sleeve appears to be a raglan sleeve, which is unusual, with a decorative sleeve pinned over the top. The over-sleeves only just overlap the short kirtle sleeves as we can see some of the chemise poking out between them. Judging from the fittedness and general shape of the sleeve it is likely that the over sleeve is slightly shaped to the natural bend of the arm as was common with men’s garments in the previous era.