Friday, May 20, 2011

The Gates of Hell

No, this isn't a post about the impending rapture, but rather about my final project for the week: my new sideless surcoat:


I'd been in a debate about doing a true sideless surcoat (versus the sleeveless dress I just did) for some time. Most evidence suggests that by the 15th century, the "gates of hell", as we so lovingly refer to the sideless gown these days, was primarily a symbolic or ceremonial gown. By the middle of the 15th century, it's almost always shown worn by either queens (or other exceptional women) from the past, or allegorical/saintly figures. I thought I would do an earlier version from the 14th century, but then decided that since my goal is to have more 15th century garb, I should probably delve a little deeper and see what was more appropriate.

I could find enough evidence that in the very beginning of the century simple versions of the sideless surcoat were at the very least an out-of-date style. Since I had no desire to do a fur trimmed gown, the simpler version seemed valid enough.


Image 1 above, from Belles Heures de Duc du Berry, 1408-09, shows my primary inspiration. The top of the gown looks almost like a yoke- wide at the shoulders, then cutting rather dramatically inward. The side opening is also pretty low, showing a fairly good amount of the hip below.

It is very much like Image 3, From
Tristan de Léonoi, first quarter of the 15th century, though the later clearly depicts a queen and is probably one of the allegorical versions. This one does not have as deep of an opening, but the "yoke" effect at the top is enhanced by the fur trim.

I include Image 2 to show a different version of the back. This one is much later, from
Speculum Historiale, 1463, but this woman is a maid to another woman in the image (cropped out) that is wearing an ermine trimmed sideless surcoat. That leads me to believe that her gown is probably not meant to be allegorical and is probably more akin to what had been worn in reality. While the backs on the other two are clearly cut wider, this back is cut in much the same shape as you would expect the front to be cut.

My surcoat is completely symmetrical- the back and front are exactly the same. I decided not to go with as much of a yoke look as the examples for a pretty simple reason- my chest is big and if I went too narrow in the front it wouldn't be flattering. After taking a few measurements of my length and hips, I used the pattern piece for the front of my gray wool to get the neckline and shoulders drawn out, then added what my measurements (and some math) came out to be. The front has a slight angle into the skirt, as do the gores at the sides. There are four gores, so that the pattern for the front and back look like this (though not so "yoke-y"):

I used a dark silver-gray linen that I'd scored when my local JoAnne's had their moving sale. I only had 3 yards, but since there are no sleeves, it was pretty much exactly enough. I also used a nice brown striped linen I had kicking around for the lining in the top. I couldn't really get away from doing a lining- there's a pretty good chance the inside will be visible as I move around, plus it adds something nice to the silvery gray of the outside.

I'm pretty jazzed about how well it turned out. It's also probably the most "done" gown I've ever made, since most of the seam allowances needed to be finished because it's so open. There's no hand-sewing here, though- the seam lengths are all long enough, with very easy curves, that I could do all the sewing on the machine. I think it will look great tomorrow over my black linen dress, and with my lavender hose and fretwork veil!

On a completely different note, this may be of interest to some of you (it is to me):
The Morgan Library & Museum Exhibition:
Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands

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