The Sideless Surcote

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The sideless surcote, known in Spain as the pellote and sometimes referred to as the "gates of Hell" as it allowed glimpses of a shapely female figure, first appeared as a unisex garment in 12th century Spain. Within a few generations it had spread to England and France and, as illuminations in the Belle Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry indicate, were still being worn well into in the 14th century.

No one questions whether men wore heraldic clothing in the Middle Ages. There has been some debate as to whether surcotes displaying heraldry were actually worn by women or whether they are an artistic convention that allowed the artist to identify the wearer. One of the most often cited examples is the portrait of Sir Geoffrey Luttrell with the ladies of his family, both of whom wear heraldic surcotes. Rather than rehash this at length here, there are links to articles and artwork at the end of this page that may be of interest. Whatever one believes, there is no denying that a surcote with a colorful blazon adds to the pageantry of our Current Middle Ages. 

In 2003 when I webbed the original version of this article, I had found little in the way of how-to information on this easy and elegant garment during my time in the SCA. When a lady who doesn't hesitate to construct Elizabethan garments asked me how to make one, I threw together a sketch and instructions which resulted in this article.

From the Luttrell Psalter, Sir Geoffrey Luttrell and his fashonably dressed ladies.  14th c., English, British Library. 

The author in her sideless surcote

The Museo de Telas Medievales (Burgos, Spain) has in its collection a surviving pellote from the tomb of Leonor de Castille (died 1244), made of blue-green “Arabian brocade” with woven bands of decoration circling the skirt. Visit Mistress Cynthia du Pre Argent's website to see a photo from her collection of extant period garments. An excellent reconstruction drawing by I. Marc Carlson can be found here. It shows a garment pieced together from large side gores sewn to central vertical panels. I am going to make a guess and say this construction method may have had to do with the loom width of the fabric. Modern technology allows us to buy fabrics in a variety of widths and an average sized woman can get a perfectly adequate surcote without gores out of three to four yards of fabric 60” wide. However, piecing is an excellent way to build a garment from narrower fabric widths and gores allow for a fuller skirt.

Shown at right is a detail from the Book of Games, a Spanish manuscript from the late 13th century. The lady at the left wears a pellote with a very narrow plastron and striped trim around the armholes. The basic shape of the garment is an "A" with the legs of the "A" angling out from the top of the shoulder to the selvedge of your 60" wide fabric. It should be worn over an under-gown with long, close fitting sleeves.

Kass McGann provides excellent instructions for the 13th century tunic of St. Louis at her Reconstructing History Website. With a little adjustment (make it gown length and taper the sleeves a little bit), it makes a suitable gown to wear beneath your surcote.

The more fitted “cotehardie” gowns of the 14th century are appropriate with the revealing styles of that period.

Mobirise

Fabric selection:

Wool, linen, and silk are period-appropriate fabric choices. Cotton velveteen is a rich looking alternative to silk velvet and easier to work with than rayon acetates. Avoid panne (crushed velvet) and stretch velvets. Just because you saw Sophie Marceau in it doesn't mean the costume designer for Braveheart got it right. Besides, they're harder to work with than a non-stretch velvet. A word about silks: medieval esthetics are not modern ones. Slubby or irregular weaves, such as silk noil or even dupioni, would've been considered imperfect and coarse.

Leonor of Castille was buried in Saracen silks.The Crusades brought us silk damask, which means that damasks and jacquards are an option. You can sometimes find these in the home decorating section of your local fabric merchant. However, if you think you're going to look like a sofa, pass it by and choose something with a subtler pattern. 

Budget is often an issue for people, but if there is any way you can, try to use the better fabrics. Most cotton broadcloth is too flimsy to drape properly, it doesn't wear well, and it’s not at all rich looking. Remember, this is a sexy (by medieval standards) court garment! It should look elegant. 

Don't be afraid of bright colors. While paint pigments and fabric dyes do not produce identical results, you can still find clues in manuscript art of fashionable colors: vivid blues and reds and greens. I personally love the look of cobalt blue with a bright red.

Click through on the links below to see some examples. 

St. Jerome, tempted by dancing girls, Belles Heures of Jean de France, duc de Berry, 1405–1408/9. Herman, Paul, and Jean de Limbourg (Franco-Netherlandish, active in France by 1399–1416). French; Made in Paris. Ink, tempera, and gold leaf on vellum; 9 3/8 x 6 5/8 in. (23.8 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1954 (54.1.1).

Calvary, c. 1400. 
Oak, 71 x 141 cm. Museum of Sint Salvator Kathedral, Brugge. (Click through on the thumbnail and look at the two female saints framing the crucifixion group. 

Prologo, Cantigas de Santa Maria. 13th c. Spain, E Codex, El Escorial, Madrid. Pellotes appear on male musicians and court ladies. 

Chess players, Book of Games. 13th c. El Escorial, Madrid. 

Sir Gottfried von Neifen and a fashionably dressed lady, Codex Manesse, 14th c. German, University Library of Heidelberg, Germany. Cod. Pal. germ. 848, Bl. 032v. (For more images, search on "Manesse" at https://heidicon.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/search )

Measurements you need to consider

Width of plastron: Spanish pellotes are cut with a straight, narrow plastron. Later period surcotes have an hourglass shaped, narrow plastron cut to show off as much of the under-gown as possible. Depending on your build and how you cut your plastron, this may result in what I refer to as the twin rocket launcher effect, as modeled by St. Jerome's dancing girl in the link above. If you don't care for that look, you may prefer a wider plastron. I usually take the distance between the outer edge of my bra straps plus a half inch seam/hem allowance (Measurement A).

Armhole size: Again, this varies by period and you may want to think about how the proportion will suit your build. The shorter armhole of a Manesse Codex style surcote may be more flattering to a shorter person. St. Jerome's friend has armholes that dip to mid-thigh, but I suspect that real-world applications of this style may look proportionally off - not to mention all the doorknobs you'd catch your gown on! I usually drop a straight line from the plastron edge to about waist height (Measurement B), then start curving outward and down to the level of my hipbone (Measurement C) where it will intersect the legs of the "A" that form the outer side seam.

Shoulder to hem plus hem allowance (Measurement D): Be sure to take this measurement while wearing the shoes you're likely to wear with your surcote so you're sure it's long enough. (Long enough is floor length.) Beginners: remember to cut your hem on a curve, otherwise you'll get boxy little points where your side seams meet.

Optional train: For a train, cut the curve of your hem deeper on the back piece (crosshatched area).

Mobirise

Optional Side Gores: While I have gotten an adequate surcote out of the basic A-line cut, the waste cuts result in four right triangles that are exactly the right length for side gores. If you want a fuller skirt, sew a pair together for each side and insert them between the front and back pieces of your surcote. 

Neckline. Your call: I've done squared necklines, rounded ones, and the Leonor de Castilla pellote has an unusual keyhole shape. Now the EASY part. Sew together the shoulder and side seams (from the bottom of the armhole to the hemline), hem the neckline, armholes and bottom hem and you have a surcote.

Embellishment: There are a number of options. Fur was popular in period and some of the faux stuff these days is pretty nice. I've seen examples where the entire plastron was done in fur or the armholes were edged with it. Edging the armholes with black and white striped trim appears to have been popular in the royal courts of 13th century Spain. For a late period look, go for the narrow hourglass plastron with fur edging and a few large jeweled buttons down the front, like Queen Jeanne de Bourbon. Banded decoration on the skirt can be done with embroidery or even by applying a strip of fancy jacquard fabric to contrast with the ground fabric. Or you can appliqué or embroider your arms on the front. 

Manesse Codex style armholes.

Hourglass "Gates of Hell" armholes. 

Reconstructing my heraldic surcote, Summer 2005:

I am certain Dad believed he was helping when he tossed my surcote into the wash on hot. The red dye ran all over the white appliques. I tried spot treating it with Dylon Run Away, only to drip some on the red and cause a bleach stain near the hem. The pink would not come off the appliques. I finally covered them with fabric paint, which did nothing to improve the look of the split stitch embroidery that was holding the appliques in place. Two years later, my beautiful surcote looked shabby and tragic.

In June, 2005, I was contacted by the organizers of the Known World Costuming Symposium with a request to teach a class on the sideless surcote. Once I made the decision to go, I realized that (a) I really needed to update this web page and (b) I really needed to remake my surcote. The following chronicles how I made the new surcote.

Construction: By hand or machine? I enjoy handwork and love the detailing and finishing it provides. However, if you prefer to work with a machine, there’s no reason you can’t. 

Step 1: Choose and acquire fabric. I decided that I would again work in linen. It wears well, drapes well and breathes beautifully, a consideration for summer event wear in Northern California.

Step 2. Choose layout and create pattern for appliques. Way back in 2000 when I first decided I wanted to make a surcote with my device on it, I started looking at anything I could find on heraldic clothing. To my chagrin, I could not find a single example of anything with a per bend field division. (For non-heralds, that means a two color background divided diagonally.) As I recall, I made a number of sketches and decided that the most practical solution was to display my device only on the skirt and leave the plastron section "blank."

If you have a pre-drawn copy of your device, you can blow it up to the size you need on a photocopier or even on your computer. I traced my swan, drew grid lines, scanned it, blew it up on the photo editor on my computer in sections, printed it, used the grid lines to match everything up as I taped it back together, then cut it out.

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Step 3: Launder and dry fabric on hottest settings. If it's going to shrink or the dye is going to run, I want that to happen before I begin cutting. Anyone who has ever pulled pink sweat socks out of the laundry knows that red dyes are particularly prone to running. Don't wash your lights and darks together.

Step 4: Press fabric. Linen loves to hold a crease and I can't cut it out until it's smooth. 

Step 5: Lay out fabric and cut out surcote. I had the advantage of an existing garment that fit me to use as a pattern. If you don't, have someone help you take the measurements listed above. If you're an accomplished sewer, you can probably plot everything out on your fabric using a piece of chalk and a yardstick. If you're not, do it on some cheap, buck-a-yard muslin first, baste it together and try it on to see if you like it. Make your mistakes and corrections on muslin. Once you're sure you've got what you want, use the muslin as a pattern to cut out your good fabric.

The easiest way to cut out your surcote is to cut your fabric on a fold. If you're doing a train, fold your fabric widthwise - one side of the fold should be longer than the other, so you have the length to cut the train curve out of it. Then fold it again lengthwise (seek sketch at left). This helps keep your cuts symmetrical.

Mobirise

At right, the front of my surcote has been cut and laid out, with the red section of the field cut and laid on top of it. . I opted to sew the red section onto the skirt front with a running stitch, then cut away the black linen beneath it once I was certain the seam was straight.

I use a running stitch and finish the seam by folding the raw edges inward and binding them with an overcast stitch. Whether you use a serger, seam binding tape or a felling technique, finishing your seams will make your clothes last longer. (Mistress Tangwystl's article on archaeological evidence of period sewing stitches can be viewed here.

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Step 6: Cut out appliques. I love linen. Linen loves (drum roll) fraying! Fusible backing isn't period, but it's a sanity saver for projects like this. It comes in sheets you can draw or trace your design on. Asymmetrical shapes such as my swan need to be drawn in reverse so that the applique ends up facing the right direction. Iron the backing onto your fabric, draw the shape, cut it out, peel off the backing, lay your shape onto your ground fabric and iron it onto that. Read the instructions for the brand you choose and follow them for the best results. I laid a yardstick onto my ground fabric so I can position the first applique. Given linen's propensity for fraying, I decided that I would iron on one applique, sew it down, then iron on the next, sew it down, and so forth. The less handling the cut appliques receive before attachment, the better

Mobirise
Mobirise
Mobirise
Mobirise

Step 7: Attach appliques. Previous experience taught me that it is a lot easier to applique the front of a surcote before the garment is assembled.

Based on results I got with the surcote I made for Viscount Gaius Auklandus, I decided that I would attach the fleurs using blanket stitch. I expect it to wear much better than the split stitch I used on my first surcote.  

I estimate that each fleur took two hours by hand. I'm not sure how long the swan took as I worked on it in stages over the course of two weekends. 

Step 8: Sew shoulder and side seams. There was enough material left from the waste cuts that I decided to add side gores to this surcote. You can see the surcote front laid out in the above photo. The left side gores are already attached, but it's difficult to see on the black. The right side gores have been sewn together and are ready to attach to the skirt. See Step 5 above for a description of the seam treatment. 

Step 9: Finish neckline, armholes and hem. I've seen surcotes finished with full or partial linings. I've finished earlier surcotes by treating the neckline and armholes as hems. This time, I made bias tape from the leftover linen scraps and bound the neckline and armholes with it. I cut strips about an inch wide, attached them to the right side of the garment with a running stitch, folded the tape over the neckline or armhole edge, then turned the edge of the tape under and secured it to the wrong side of the plastron with a blind stitch. It gives a very neat edge and is easy to do.

Finished! Cutting began on June 11, the last stitch was put in on July 8, 2005. 

Mobirise

Online sources for fabric:

Linen
http://www.fabrics-store.com
http://www.graylinelinen.com/

Assorted wool, silk, linen, cotton velveteen, upholstery jacquards and damasks
http://www.fabric.com 

Undyed silk by the yard and a dizzying assortment of fabric dyes to color them with. http://www.dharmatrading.com 

Denver Fabrics comes highly recommended, I just haven't had the opportunity to try them yet. http://www.denverfabrics.com/ 

Istok Enterprises carries fabrics for ecclesiastical vestments. http://www.istok.net/home.php?cat=675 

Sartor carries reproductions of historical textiles as well as an assortment of other fabrics.  https://www.sartor.cz/


Other resources: 

Berry, Robin (Baroness Sabrina de la Bere) (2004) "Sideless Surcoats and Gates of Hell." [Online] Archived. https://web.archive.org/web/20060210030655/http://www.bayrose.org/needlework/Sideless_Surcoat_web.pdf

Jones, Heather Rose (Mistress Tangwystl verch Morgant Glasvryn) (2001) "Archaeological Sewing" [Online] Available. http://www.heatherrosejones.com/archaeologicalsewing/index.html provides a survey of period sewing stitches based on examples found in surviving garments and garment fragments. 

Virtue, Cynthia (Mistress Cynthia du Pre Argent) (2000) "Medieval Clothing Pages" [Online] Available. http://www.virtue.to/articles/ includes relevant information on extant medieval clothing, modern fabrics that look medieval, hats and hairstyles to complete your look, and other useful material. 

The West Kingdom Needleworker's Guild Articles Page includes resources on a variety of techniques, including applique. http://www.wkneedle.org/articles-about-embroidery/

Lady Melodie de lours blanc (2004) "The 'Truth' About The Sideless Surcote" [Online] Archived. https://web.archive.org/web/20040630110244/http://www.pennib.net/FeoragDubh/Nutshell_2004-03/sideless_surcote.htm  


Sideless surcotes in period artwork: 

Lady Sabine du Bourbonnais, "HERALDIC DISPLAY: Women’s Heraldic Frocks Cotehardies, Sideless surcotes, Elizabethans and Mantles" [Online] Archived. https://web.archive.org/web/20070314234017/http://www.sca.org.au/st_florians/university/library/articles-howtos/heraldry/HeraldicFrocksS.htm 

Harris, Karen (Meisterind Karen Larsdatter, Atlantia). "Medieval Sleeveless Surcotes" [Online] Available. http://www.larsdatter.com/surcoats.htm 

Alphonso X's Book of Games [Online] Available. http://games.rengeekcentral.com/ 

Husband, Timothy Bates. The Art of Illumination: The Limbourg Brothers and the Belles Heures of Jen de France, Duc De Berry. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008) Download or read online at https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/The_Art_of_Illumination_The_Limbourg_Brothers_and_the_Belles_Heures_of_Jean_de_France_Duc_de_Berr

Calvary from the Web Gallery of Art [Online] Available. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/m/master/zunk_fl/15_paint/1/04calvar.html

Cantigas de Santa Maria [Online] Available. http://www.pbm.com/~lindahl/cantigas/images

Grandes Chroniques de France [Online] Archived. https://web.archive.org/web/20050207165541/http://www.bnf.fr/enluminures/manuscrits/aman5.htm 

Jeanne de Bourbon sculpture, [Online] Available. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_V_et_Jeanne_de_Bourbon.jpg

Luttrell Psalter detail of Sir Geoffrey and his ladies at CGFA [Online] Available. http://cgfa.sunsite.dk/unknown/p-unknow28.htm 

The British Library's "Turn the Pages" collection includes the Luttrell Psalter.  [Online] Available. http://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/?id=a0f935d0-a678-11db-83e4-0050c2490048&type=book

The Manesse Codex [Online] Available. https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/cpg848?&ui_lang=eng

The Monumental Brass Society [Online] Available. http://www.mbs-brasses.co.uk/ 

Copyright 2003, 2019 Lisa A. Joseph 

Photos of the author by G. Richard Auklandus. All other photos by Lisa A. Joseph