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The Cotehardie and the Western Fashion Revolution

It all began when men began indiscriminately showing off their legs, and women bared their collarbones…

When viewed across its long history, Western fashion is seen as particularly unique for two reasons. The first is a continuous evolution of style that is unlike anything seen in other cultures, with changes in fashion that can often be marked decade by decade. The second is the sharp contrast that has long existed between men and women's formal costume, generally consisting of a short shirt and jacket for men, and a long gown for women.

Yet neither of these things was true throughout either Antiquity or the long centuries of the Early and High Middle Ages. Nor, after centuries of slow evolution and innovation, is it likely that anyone would have expected a single garment to be the birth of modern European fashion. But it should not surprise us today that the history of costume was swept along as the rest of European society and technology was up-ended by the sweeping changes wrought by the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, and the first stirrings of Humanism in the Italian city-states.

At the turn of the 14th century, the simple tunic and dalmatic had formed the basis for male and female costume in Europe for nearly a millennium. While in any given century or location the tunic might be worn longer or shorter, with tighter or looser sleeves, and with or without an additional over-tunic, the basic pattern always remained the same: a loose, relatively unconstructed garment made of straight seams and draped fabric, which was primarily given shape through belting.

  
Left: Buttoned cotehardie onJoan de la Tour, weeper
from the tomb of Edward the III, c 1377-86.
Right: Laced cotehardie on Catherine Beauchamp,
Countess of Warwick, c 1370-1375, St Mary's Church

Lateran Manuscript, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris

But in the second quarter of the century, male and female costume began to undergo a rapid and radical evolution. The source of the evolution was simple: tailors began to shape their clothing with curved seams that were meant to emphasize the natural form of the body. This led to a simple yet elegant new style that favored a sleeker, fitted, and youthful silhouette. The most dramatic of these innovations was the cotehardie, which appeared in Western Europe during the mid-fourteenth century.

This new garment evolved either from, or in parallel with, the simpler,buttoned cotte. But while the cotte stilled owed much of its styling to the late-medieval tunic, the cotehardie was the first truly fitted and tailored garment in European fashion. Fitted throughout the torso, the panels of the body required both careful shaping, and either tight lacing, or a long row of buttons down the center front. The sleeves were also tight, with buttons from elbow to the little finger. They were worn long, so that the cuff flared out in a distinctive &quote;tulip&quote; or &quote;trumpet&quote; shape, and covered the back of the hand. Finally, to allow a comfortable, and full, range of motion in such a close-fitting garment, 14th century tailors developed a distinctive new way to set the sleeves - the &quote;grand assiette&quote; armhole.

As with the man's garment, the woman's cotehardie used careful tailoring, rather than just belting or lacing, to give the body of the garment its shape. Fitted throughout the torso, the gown was open from the collar to well below the hips, and was closed down the center front by either lacing or a long row of buttons. From the hips, the gown flared into full skirts that could have either a short train or, in the case of the wealthy, literally pooled on the ground.

Such a complex garment required professional tailoring, and thus became associated with the aristocracy, who ordered cotehardies in everything from simple linen to the most expensive samite and silk brocade. Of course, not everyone had the ideal, long torso and athletic figure that the cotehardie emphasized. But the role of a good tailor is to determine how to build in what God may have left out, and by padding the breast of their cotehardies, wealthy men found a way to give themselves the deep-chested, narrow-waisted figure that the new fashion suggested.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of themen's cotehardiewas its length, or lack thereof. Whereas the old super tunic had ranged over the years from ankle to knee length, the new garment was quite short, just barely reaching the knees. Having now liberated his calves, the fashionable courtier decided to work his way up his thigh - the garment grew ever shorter and more fitted throughout the second half of the 14th century. The shortness of the new garment was noted and condemned by conservative clerics, who complained about the &quote;immodesty of knights and squires, more concerned with the displaying the firm roundness of their calves, than with their duty.&quote;


Images from Lancelot du Lac of cotehardies with contrasting sleeves

Indeed, so obsessed where clerics with the shameful display of men's legs, that more than one writer directly linked France's misfortunes at Poitiers to the &quote;luxurious, lewd and vulpine dress, manner and habits&quote; of her knighthood. Their cries seem to have fallen on deaf ears. By the end of the century, the most fashionable aristocrats were wearing their garments so short that they needed to be pointed directly to their hose. This need for joined hose further altered the silhouette of male costume, and set the stage for the doublet, which slowly replaced the cotehardie in the second quarter of the 15th century.

If clerics lamented the amount of leg the men were showing, it was thecotehardie'swide neckline and fitted bust that caused problems for women. A papal legate to the French court, writing in 1376, complained that &quote;so tightly do the women of the court constrain their bosom, that there can be little doubt as to its form, while the breath of their collar is want to distract men to contemplate the fruits found beyond.&quote; In 1388, his concerns were echoed by the chronicler Giovanni de Mussia, who turned his attentions to the cyprianae - an Italian version of the cotehardie that fully revealed the collarbones and was generally worn without even a veil to conceal the neck. Giovanni wrote that the gowns of the ladies in Piacenza would haven quite beautiful, &quote;were their necklines not so great that their breasts always seem want to leave them.&quote; An exaggeration to be sure; just as it is sure that the fashionable ladies of Europe were little concerned with scandalizing Giovanni or his counterparts. Indeed, one wonders if these ladies weren't bemused by just how loquaciously these clerics wrote about their bosoms!

By the 1380s, the cotehardie was contesting with a new garment - the houppelande. Although cut upon new lines, this was return to the old, draped gown, of previous generations. The two garments co-existed, with the one often worn beneath the other. But all of those liberated calves would not covered-up once more. The houppelande was often worn with its skirts slit to show the leg below. Ultimately, over the course of the next century, it also developed several short variations that became particularly popular in the fashion centers of Burgundy and Italy. The cotehardie itself outlived the 14th century, and for men slowly evolved into thedoublet. The cotehardie persisted longest in women's fashion, coming back in and out of style for the first half of the 15th century, before being supplanted by entirely new forms of thehouppelande.

So the 1960s scandal of the mini-skirt was nothing new, it just happened to have begun with medieval men. Likewise, it should now be no surprise why the cotehardie is so popular with modern reenactors. For all of it is alien, in our eyes we can see the birth of our modern aesthetic for a fitted gown and a short top-coat.

 



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