6 July 2013

Pink lower class dress: finding a pattern

I wrote before about my new project, a pink wool dress for scumming about camp in when it's cold and/or wet (as it so often is when reenacting in Wales...). Having found my inspiration, the next thing to do was to find a cutting pattern.

When I made my first dress, I just used a variant of the 'rectangles and triangles' method which is espoused by my reenactment group. For my wedding dress, being all posh and fancy, I tried something based on the Gothic Fitted Dress theory of Robin Netherton and Tasha Kelly. This time, I wanted to try something that is actually based on archaeology. So, I went for a spin through the Kyrtles/Cotes/Tunics/Gowns section of I. Marc Carlson's 'Some Clothing of the Middle Ages: Historical Clothing from Archaeological Finds' website.

One of the first things that became apparent was that almost all of the finds listed have side gores which reach up to the armpit. The only ones that do not are two children's garments from Herjolfsnes (Nørlund #61 and #62), the Bocksten Bog Man's tunic, the Kragelund tunic and the Skjoldehamn tunic - the former two have gores at centre-front and centre-back which are inserted at waist height, whilst the latter three have gores at these points, plus similarly sized gores at the sides.

One could argue that the style with full-length side gores is an earlier style, which disappeared with the 14th Century revolution in fit and only remained in obscure outposts on the fringes of Europe where life was a daily struggle and news of any sort, never mind up-to-date fashion, arrived decades late if at all (i.e. Herjolfsnes, Greenland). This is an entirely plausible argument. However, as I said before, this is my inspiration:

Haine (Hate), Felonie and Vilanie.
Roman de la Rose, c. 1365, France.
University of Chicago Library, MS 1380, f. 2r.
Although this image is from the 3rd quarter of the 14th Century, the costume is nearly identical to that used over 100 years earlier:

Rebekah dresses Jacob in Esau's clothes.
Maciejowski Bible, c. 1250, France.
Morgan Library, MS M. 638. Source.
Note how loose and unfitted the dress is in the torso. It is kirtled up over a hidden belt, just like those of Haine, Felonie and Vilanie. Also, like them, it has sleeves which are loose in the upper half and fitted in the lower half. Even her wrapped headdress is nearly identical to that of Felonie. The only visible difference is the open armpit in Rebekah's dress, a feature seen in several dresses in the Maciejowski Bible, which permits the wearer to slip her arms out and, once the sleeves are tied behind her back, essentially have a sleeveless dress. However, as far as I'm aware, this feature is only seen in the Maciejowski Bible.

Anyway, I personally think the similarities far outweigh the differences. It is enough to convince me that this style of garment lasted long past the point it was fashionable, past the 'fit revolution' of the mid-1300s and into the latter half of the 14th Century, not only in remote regions but also in France and likely in England too. There it was likely relegated to the old, the unfashionable and most of all the poor. Certainly, in such cultural backwaters as rural Wales, I think the argument for the old-fashioned, unfitted dress is quite strong. Equally, I think it is plausible to conjecture that with the old styles, the old cutting patterns were retained for this sort of dress.

...that is how I rationalised it to myself, anyway. ^_^

So... a dress with long gores running from armpit to hem. The obvious choice for archaeological inspiration was Greenland, not only because there are more garments than anywhere else, but also because there is not one but two English-language books and, as I said before, I'm an ignorant monoglot.

First, was the choice between a "12 gore gown" or an "8 gore gown" (the "10 gore gown" being a myth based on a mis-reading of Nørlund's pattern diagrams for gowns #41 and #38). I chose an 8 gore version as a) there are more 8-gore garments than 12-gore garments in the Greenland finds, but also because b) it would be a lot easier to fit.

Initially, I went for Nørlund #39:

Nørlund #39, from Herjolfsnes, Greenland.
Radiocarbon dated to 1380-1530.
Pattern drawing by I. Marc Carlson, based on N
ørlund. Source.
Nørlund believed this to be a woman's garment. Also, I liked that the two side gores are not simple right-angle triangles - rather, the entire torso section is quite rectangular, only flaring out from the waist down (this is not terribly clear on Marc Carlson's re-drawing). The originals were, in fact, cut not as two triangles but as two trapezoids with two small rectangles sewn on top. However, the more I looked at the measurements, the more I couldn't rationalise it to myself.

In particular, this: length from shoulder 123cm, chest circumference 102cm (Medieval Garments Reconstructed', Fransen, Nørgaard and Østergård). Now, I'm 5'5", maybe UK size 10-12 but busty. The average medieval woman was around 5'2" (depending on which burial ground analysis you go by) and I'm suspecting at least those living in Greenland were fairly malnourished and slight. A 102cm chest is, to put it mildly, enormous even on me. Equally, a 123cm length is a little short (bang on mid-calf length on me). So, in short, I suspect this was not a woman's garment.

So, I turned to the other garment I'd been eyeing, Nørlund #42:

Nørlund #42, from Herjolfsnes, Greenland.
No radiocarbon dating.
Pattern drawing by I. Marc Carlson, based on N
ørlund. Source.
Nørlund considered this to be a man's garment because of the relatively long sleeves and the fact that the pocket slits are low, at the middle of the thigh. However, I think the width-to-length ratios are much more plausible for a women's garment: length from shoulder 123cm, chest circumference 79cm. With a modern bra, my widest bust circumference is about 90cm, so I think it is plausible that a woman who was a few inches shorter, a few cup sizes smaller and rather less well fed than I am would fit this garment. 

Also, the sleeve length is 54cm. My sleeve length should be about 56cm. The adults' long-sleeved garments listed in 'Medieval Garments Reconstructed' have sleeves of 50-59cm length. So, the sleeve length is neither implausible for a woman, nor is is really "relatively long" compared to the other Greenland garments.

Finally, the pocket slits. Reading from the cutting diagram in 'Medieval Garments Reconstructed' it is 44cm from the shoulder (give or take, considering the drape of the gore). Now, on me that hits smack-bang on the navel. Certainly not mid-thigh length. On the average height medieval man (5'7") the pocket slits would be in line with the base of the sternum - comically short. It rather makes me wonder whether Nørlund managed to take proper measurements of the garments at all.

(A final, final point is one that my husband made: the gore shapes. Men, in general, have a more consistent circumference between armpit and iliac crest. This is particularly true of men who do lots of physical labour  and heavy lifting (farmers, quarrymen, builders, etc.), who often develop a barrel-shaped torso. Women, in contrast, generally have torsos that vary in circumference - particularly women who do not wear bras and/or women who need to accommodate pregnancies. This could account for the rectangular shape of the torso part of the gores in #39 vs. the near-right-angle-triangle shape of the gores in #42.)

Anyway, that's my argument that Nørlund #42 is a woman's garment and that it's a good garment for me to base my dress on. What do you think?


  1. It sounds like a logical argument, and I saw another reference to a dress made by this same pattern at the following location: http://deventerburgerscap.blogspot.nl/2013/03/newnieuwe-rock.html, and it looks good. The lady has a more recent post regarding the fact that she added the pocket slits to the dress, as well. I personally have not been involved in making any historical garments in a long time, and was just surfing the net when I came across your post. I'm glad I found it. Now I'm off to see if you made the pink dress from this pattern!

    1. Hello! Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, I've seen Isis' version of the dress. I only hope mine turns out as nice as hers. I particularly like how she hasn't "prettified" it up - i.e. it is, like the original, rather loose.

      I'm sorry to say that life has eaten my sewing time (and I've been wrestling with annoying stitch-related questions for this project that neither reference book can answer). So, there are no more pink dress posts currently. However, it is still there on the back burner and I do want to finish it (maybe after grad school... *sigh*).