brown surcote

Sleeveless surcote, 2015

A few years ago my mother-in-law wanted to support our medievalist hobby with a piece of lovely, thick high quality wool. It took me a while to figure out what to do with it - there was not enough for a tunic or gown, yet a hood would only take up half of it.

I found my answer in the Bladelin Triptych (1445-50). In the left-hand wing is depicted the "Ruler of the West", or Emperor Augustus, to whom prophetess Sibyl of Tibur is showing a vision of the Christ and his Mother.

The model for the Emperor was the contemporary Duke of Burgundy, who is wearing a fashionable short fur trimmed brocade gown with a full length sleeveless over garment. I love the color combination of deep dark chocolate brown, warm brick red and gold. The top garment fascinated me, and my piece of wool might just be enough for creating something similar. The material in the painting looks like velvet, but a heavy wool might give a similar enough effect.

It goes without saying that I took a conscious risk in using a biblical painting as a source of inspiration for a medieval garment. Other figures in the triptych, especially that depicting the donor wear mostly clothing typical for the era, if paired with some more fanciful pieces. The sleeveless velvet gown remind me also of earlier sleeveless surcotes, though the v-shaped neckline follows the 15th century cut of doublets and gowns. Perhaps the Emperor of olden days was depicted wearing an old fashioned garment? That being said, I also think I must have seen a similar garment later on other some other clearly historical / allegorical figure somewhere (though I can't remember where right now), so it might be just a standard visual device for the audience of the time to recognize your standard ancient ruler.

So, whether the sleeveless over garment in the painting was a reliable source or not, I was obsessed about replicating it. To mess up things even more I planned it to pass for a 14th century sleeveless surcote to be worn with Jarno's more modest garb, mainly because worn over a linen tunic it would not be unbearably warm. Sadly period correct layers upon layers of wool and Jarno just don't get along very well.

The painting garment is edged with a decorative border decorated with metal studs or some kind of beads. I pondered different options for replicating it for a time, but in the end chose the quick and easy option of a brocaded tape. Albeit being more than a bit "costumey" it combines the notes of red and gold I love in the original painting.

I cut the garment from one fabric length, the front piece from the middle and the back piece halves from the edges. I flared the pieces from the shoulder to the hem, and cut the front neckline in similar shape as the back neckline showing in the painting. My inspiration garment of course had a much wider hem, but with the limited amount of material I had this would suffice. The long side slits would allow movement anyway.

I combined the leftover scraps from the top of the shoulder and neckline to the small side pieces that turned the garment from a tabard to a surcote. The joining seam allowances are either bound by hand or covered with ribbon. The side seam allowances are on the right side, covered with the brocade tape.

All edges are turned narrowly on the right side and then covered with the hand-sewn tape. I tried to get the tape pattern symmetrical on the neckline etc, the silly perfectionist that I am, though I think on the period they would not have wasted any tiny bit of a ridiculously expensive gold brocade tape for the sake of symmetry.
The finished garment looks, well, interesting. Yes, the hem could use some more width for instance. Regardless of the original 15th century source image it definitely has a feeling of an earlier era, which also inspired the down-to-earth aesthetics of the photoshoot.

Whether this garment really fits any real period or not, I'm nevertheless happy with the visual outcome, and Jarno likes to wear it. It's just the thing to pull over your more modest and practical line tunic and hose when it's time for Court or it gets chilly on the evening. And the lovely fabric got to get used for something - pretty much every square centimeter of it.

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brown surcote