6 September 2014

Contrasting gores in medieval dresses debunked

The old hoary chestnut of contrasting gores in medieval European dresses/tunics keeps doing the rounds and I keep meaning to do a formal debunking of the theory. Finally, I've got around to it. As always, this blog post is based on the evidence I have seen to date and I would very much appreciate any additional evidence you may have.

So... contrasting gores are beloved by a certain segment of the medieval costuming community. I'm not entirely sure why... However, contrasting gores are completely inauthentic, at least if one uses all available evidence and not just the old "well, I'm sure they could have done this". So, to debunk the arguments I've heard one by one:

Argument #1: There are medieval images showing contrasting gores!

This argument is based upon two fundamental misunderstandings. The first is about medieval illustrations. Medieval illustrators (and practitioners of other medieval art forms such as embroidery) loved to use high-contrast shading to indicate folds in textiles. Unfortunately, when these manuscripts are copied as black-and-white images in books, this high-contrast shading can have a tendency to look like two different colours rather than two different shades of the same colour. This problem is exacerbated by the tendency of books, especially older ones, to use re-drawings of manuscript images rather than the original image. E.g.:

Omne Bonum (British Library Royal E 6 VI, f. 137. c. 1360-1375, S.E. England.
B&W from Newton, "Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince". Colour source.

Weltchronik in Versen (BSB Cgm 5, f. 338). c. 1370, Germany.
B&W from Newton, "Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince". Colour source.

Roman de Alexandre (Bodley 264, f. 181v). c. 1338-1344, Flemish.
B&W from Newton, "Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince". Colour source.

Roman de Alexandre (Bodley 264, f. 172v [not 173v!]). c. 1338-1344, Flemish.
B&W from Crowfoot, "Textiles and Clothing, c. 1150-1450: Finds from Medieval Excavations in London".
Colour source #1 and #2.

The second misunderstanding is due to the use of split gores in late 13th C and early 14th C fashion. When the tunics are lined, these can look like contrasting gores if you are unfamiliar with the fashion or if you are only looking at low-resolution images. However, the curlicues at the bottom of the gore where the fabric folds back on itself (and the presence of identically drawn tunics without linings and thus without apparent contrasting gores) debunks this. E.g.:

Luttrell Psalter (British Library Add. MS 42130, f. 1r, 80r and 82r). c. 1325-1340, England.
Sources #1, #2, #3.

Argument #2: I'm just being thrifty! I'm sure they would have made a dress like this if they didn't have enough fabric!

This argument falls flat because it is based on modern notions of convenience and thriftiness. Of course, it is thrifty for the modern costumier to make a medieval dress from stash in their cupboard/spare room/whatever. However, I doubt the sort of medieval person to which "thrift" applied would have masses of spare fabric just lying around. Also, this notion fails to realise that the fabric had to be bought at some point - ultimately, buying 3m of red fabric and 1m of blue is not any thriftier than buying 4m of red!

The other problem with this argument is that it also relies largely upon modern costumiers' inexperience with creating medieval garments. Often, in my experience, dresses with contrasting gores appear when someone mistakenly didn't buy enough fabric to make a dress, went back to the shop, found the fabric was no longer on sale and so bought a different fabric to make up the length. However, the medieval thrifty housewife --who'd been taught to make a very limited repetoire of dresses/tunics by her mother (who was taught by her mother, etc., etc.) and whose every acquaintance made dresses/tunics in a very similar manner-- would be very familiar with exactly how much fabric a dress/tunic takes. If she couldn't afford enough fabric for a dress, it seems far more likely that she just wouldn't make a new dress!

Argument #2a: But I'm just wearing a dress that's made to look mended! I'm sure if they had an old dress and didn't have any of the fabric left, they'd mend it in another colour rather than throw it away!

The problem with this argument is that, quite simply, it doesn't make sense. Why would every single gore in the skirt of a dress wear out, but not the rectangular panels between them? Everyday wear and tear (if it damaged the body of the skirt at all) that would cause wear across multiple gores would also cause wear of the panel in between. Unpredictable damage, e.g. from a huge rip or a huge unremovable stain or perhaps from catching fire (not that wool really catches fire...) would damage one gore, not every gore. 

The other problem is that clothes just don't wear that way. As Elina has blogged, medieval clothes (and good reproductions) show a characteristic wear pattern. The places that wear out first are: the hem (from rubbing on the floor), the armpits and sides of the torso (from rubbing as you move your arms), the belt line (from the belt rubbing), the stalks of the buttons (from rubbing the buttonholes), the inner corners of the buttonholes (from rubbing the button stalks) and the inner sides of the lacing holes (from rubbing as the lace is tightened). Oh, and the very tips of the gores (I'm not sure why that happens -- perhaps because the weight of the gore hangs from there moreso than from the seams that hold it in?). In any case, worn gore tips are repaired by putting a small patch over them (as is seen in the Moy Gown) not by replacing the entire gore!

Argument #3: I'm showing off that I can have nice fabrics! It's a form of conspicuous consumption!

This argument is based on flawed modern notions of medieval fashion. Think about modern fashion, lets say men's formal wear. How is conspicuous consumption shown within that type of modern clothing? If you only consider the use of contrasting fabrics the possibilities are: 1) use of contrasting linings in the jacket and waistcoat, 2) use of contrasting waistcoat, 3) use of contrasting colour on the placket, cuffs or underside of the collar of the shirt. Now, imagine what a modern men's formal suit would look like if it had, say, a jacket with a slate-grey body and navy sleeves. Would that look like a super-fancy, super-high-quality men's suit? Would it impress you? Would you consider the wearer to be suave, sophisticated and exceedingly well-dressed? Or would you consider them to be ... just plain odd.

Now, apply that notion to medieval costume where all evidence (every manuscript image, every painted effigy, every stained glass window ... basically every colour depiction of medieval costume that we have) shows that the use of multiple fabrics in a single garment was restricted to facings, linings and (for men) particolour. Yeah, you're that guy at the wedding c. 2014 who's wearing a suit jacket with contrasting sleeves...

So, in conclusion, I think all the common arguments for using contrasting gores in medieval European do not hold up to reasonable scrutiny. I wish this particular reenactorism would make its way out of costume worn by anyone purporting to be "authentic".

Do you agree? Have you heard of any other arguments for the use of contrasting gores? Let me know your opinions!


  1. This is good to know. I'm just beginning to get out of the Anglo-Saxon tunic/overgown combo & wasn't to make what I thought was a cotehardie, but which Sarah Thursfeld calls a kirtle. Whatever it is.called, I like it & wasn't to make one in broadcloth wool . Sigh. W cotton practice garments first. :-). Good luck with your thesis. Jenn

    1. Thanks for the comment. Good luck with your cotehardie/kirtle!

  2. There is a very odd exception to argument 2a -- there is a miner's coat in the Leicestershire Museum: http://www.leics.gov.uk/revealed_objects_tudorminingcoat.htm
    Not only does it seem that the gores were blue, in contrast to the yellow garment(!), but they were made of bast fibre. At least, that's what their website used to say: https://web.archive.org/web/20071213063610/http://museums.leics.gov.uk/collections-on-line/GetObjectAction.do?objectKey=274148 as well as pp. 93-94 here: http://ww.coleorton.org.uk/TudorMinersofColeorton.pdf

    But, given that is a single example out of hundreds of garment finds throughout Europe, I don't think it can be used as "proof" this was a commonly done alteration.

    1. How interesting! Unfortunately, the images on the Leicester Museum website aren't working for me. However, even from just the description it sounds very intriguing.

      Personally, a dating of 1550-1600 doesn't count as "medieval" to me, and yes, as you said it is but a single garment. However, it's a very good example of "never say never"!

  3. I took a look at the links. I don't think the miner's doublet remains are an example of a multi-color pieced garment. I'm more inclined to believe the two colors (and fiber types) might represent the fashion fabric and lining. There's also a possibility that the warp and weft were two differently dyed fibers, to make one solid color piece of fabric.

    I think there is one exception where contrasting color gores may have merit; a court jester's costume. The purpose would be to make them look the part of a fool. Which further supports what was said in the last paragraph of point three.

    Thank you for posting this!

    1. Fashion fabric vs. lining -- oh, my! That's an excellent suggestion. Now why didn't I think of that! I agree, that would make most sense.

      Re. jesters. I'm not familiar with their costume but my vague memories of medieval images are of parti-coloured clothes, but not gores-only. I agree, though, that even if jesters were found to have clothes with contrasting gores that it would be supportive of the notion that contrasting gores were considered non-normative - unusual, odd, something not done by normal society.