Sunday, July 24, 2011

The SCA Uniform is Not for Me

Isn't it funny how you start off looking for one little thing and it ends up in an avalanche of information on so much more?

I was recently looking for some documentable images of a short sleeved 14th century "cotehardie" to make with some new wool fabric I have just purchased. I was having problems finding any images of paintings or effigies or illuminations myself so I asked for help on a community group online. I was given a few references but none gave me exactly what I was looking for...there were always tippets or lappets involved or the image came from the 15th century instead.

Then one person directed me to a website: wherein I could find an essay with images written by Tasha Kelly McGann in 2003 about discussing the female dress layers of the 14th and early 15 centuries. This essay opened my eyes very wide!Without going in depth and copying and pasting the essay for you to peruse I highly recommend that you take a look at it, especially if you are interested in 14th and early 15th century dress for women, and most especially if you are in the SCA.

Reading this essay has put all those little bothersome issues that I have had since joining the SCA a couple of years ago into perspective for me. I have been told over and over that every good 14th century lady should be wearing a chemise, a "kirtle" and a "cotehardie". The kirtle being laced up the front with long tight sleeves and the cotehardie being buttoned up the front with long tight sleeves (with or without) buttons. This was what I would call the proper "SCA Uniform".But what about "surcoats"? What about ladies wearing visible laced fronted gowns? And how come I keep finding images of art and effigies that don't fit into the "SCA Uniform"?McGann's essay challenges what I have been told. In fact, she calls this elusive uniform the "scotehardie" since it seems to be the most popular fashion for women dawning 14th century personas in the SCA. She points out a number of instances in art and effigies where the rules of the "scotehardie" don't apply. In fact, she informs us that she found it almost impossible to find any pieces of art or effigy that would fit those rules.

McGann's findings uncover quite a few different styles and fashions available, including what I have been told is "improper" for a noble lady to be seen wearing in public. This outfit of which I speak is the single gown wearing a chemise and then only one layer of gown over the chemise. I have come to believe that this single layer is "underwear" and would only be worn in public by those who labour in fields or kitchens. However, McGann speaks of this layer as the "versatile" layer, which can be worn alone or with another layer on top of it. Because it is laced up the front and has tight fitting sleeves it makes it easy for this "versatile" layer to accomodate another layer if desired. And with that said, if another layer was added, it is highly unlikely it would be the elusive "cotehardie" with long tight sleeves and buttons up the bodice. Most second layers that she has found in art and effigies don't show this style in that exact description at all.
And how do we know that a noble woman could be seen in public wearing this single layer gown that is laced up the bodice? My favourite piece of evidence comes from the image of an effigy of Katherine, Countess of Warwick, circa 1375:

As you can plainly see, Katherine is wearing a gown, plain as it may be, with obvious lacing up the front of the bodice. As well, you can also plainly see that her long tight fitting sleeves dawn a nice long row of buttons. The fact that the buttons on there on the sleeve tell me that this woman is wearing a proper gown, as buttons would only be available to those with enough money to have them. As well, she is also wearing a rather beautiful headdress that one would not see on the likes of a peasant. This effigy, this outfit, prooves my point. If I wear a gown with lacing up the front of the bodice in public, I am wearing a gown, not underwear.

As I said before, I urge you to read the essay.

In conclusion, I will sum up McGann's conclusion in my own words: There is no one "uniform" that woman would have worn in the 14th and early 15th centuries. We enjoy a vast range of fashion for women today and the same can be said for those who lived in the 14th century. I am not saying that the "SCA Uniform" was not part of the fashion in those I am sure that it can certainly be argued that women, in fact, did wear it. What I am saying is that it was not the only thing worn and not the only combination available. And it won't be for me.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Layers: An analysis of fitted dress styles of the late 14th/early 1th5h centuries by Tasha Kelly McGann, found on