Known World Spotlight
Allegory of the Dagged Dress
By Mistress Morgan Donner, Kingdom of An Tir
Several years ago, I was taking a class about 14th and 15th century clothing. During the class, the teacher brought out her own dresses and gowns, showing how she made them, including lots of nifty modern shortcuts. One of her dresses was a neat shorter dress, about mid-thigh in length, and meant to be worn over one of the floor length gowns. She mentioned while showing it that it was based off of a period image, but she had a feeling that it wasn’t really all that historically accurate as normal everyday wear. I don’t remember much else about the short dress, but I found it an interesting idea! I have seen it crop up on a couple other medieval reenactors since then, which helped keep it fresh in my mind.
Pinterest has been a handy way to keep track of images I have found with short dresses.
In vaguely chronological order, here are the images I have found of women wearing a short gown over a longer one.
The Taymouth hours have a thirty page section in the middle with nothing but ladies hunting in the illustrations! A good number of them have short gowns with a split on at least one side (presumably both sides), as shown above. I am not sure how often women actually went hunting in dresses in the early-mid 1300’s, but if they did, then perhaps this was a practical over gown that would not get trodden upon and covered in mud about the hem. Some of them look to be fur lined, a practical choice if hunting in cool weather, and a good idea to make them reasonably short to keep the fur from getting soaked or dirtied. I am not sure why they wouldn’t shorten BOTH dresses in that case: perhaps the under gowns not as precious, of lesser quality, and meant to be cleaned often?
If women did not actually go hunting much, then are these meant to be ‘what-if’ representations of hunting ladies? A number of men seem to have split tunics of about this length or slightly shorter in this century, perhaps this is meant to be a masculine garment for ladies doing ‘mens’ work?
The ‘Smithfield Decretals’ show more women hunting! At first, I was very excited about these! Doesn’t it look like their over gowns have a scalloped edge? Upon further inspection, it looks like the over gowns (lined in some light fur based on the pattern) have been pinned up at several points to keep it out of the dirt/water/nature. I think that the small white circles are the pins, and that the ‘scallop’ appearance is just excess skirt hanging between each pin.
This is one of the first images I found that was pretty much what I had in mind. Cute right? This fresco by Andrea has several dancers, all with slightly fanciful dress. There are more than the four in the image above, but with just this small sample, we see a skirt split up the side, a dagged over garment with a curious waist seam, a gown with black trim about the neck and down the front, and a drummer with a wide differently colored hem. From what I have read, these figures are meant to be allegorical representations of earthly vanity and pleasures, not real people.
Above this little band of dancers, there sits a row of musicians:
The left most musician is this woman with a bow and stringed instrument. She wears flowers in her loose hair, and has an interesting yoke on the top of her gown, matching the trim on her sleeve. At her hem, I think I see a line of strips with rounded tips (aka, dagging). She is still part of this allegory of earthly pleasure, and therefore not very trustworthy, but she is a fancy gal isn’t she? I love the wee crosses spotted all around her overgown.
On a different wall of this fresco, Andrea has painted a row of seated figures, which apparently represent the Seven Theological Sciences. After an embarrassingly long time spend googling and asking around, I finally found Amblesideonline.org discussing this whole Triumph of St Thomas imagery, and every figure in the whole thing. For some reason, the right half of this painting with the Seven Liberal Arts is super easy to find, but no one wanted to talk about the science ladies on the left. Turns out, the woman seated on the right with the red short over gown is the “allegorical figure of Preaching, holds a bow and represents Polemic Theology, disputing questions about theology.” Nifty!
Look at all those fierce ladies! In this “Book of Noble Women”, there are lots of women wearing crowns and doing badass things. They wear all sorts of interesting things like selective armor, fanciful sleeves, split overgowns, and of course, dagged hems. If you look at some of the images above, you can see the men in the images also wear short dagged garments, possibly pourpoints, with their armor. This set of images is what first let me to think that maybe these strange dagged garments worn by the women are meant to reference the battle garments of men, or perhaps masculinity in general since this style of cote is also seen on men in casual non-fighting situations.
Here’s another fancy queen with a dagged overgown, but she looks to be leading a band of musicians, rather than soldiers in battle. Again with the music thing.
I really love the red over gown on the left! It reminds me strongly of surcoats worn by men in armor.
More battle babes! Some are queens again, others look to be Joan of Arc representations. I would love to take some armored up pictures like this, just need to get the pieces! I think that getting a chest plate that fits nicely will be the hardest, but the gauntlets, gorget, and sword are all very doable.
That pretty much ends my list of inspiration images, but I am always excited to see new ones, so if you see something related to these, leave me a comment! I would love to see more!
To summarize the pictures above, we see dagged or shortened overgowns on women depicted hunting, dancing, playing music, killing, fighting, and so on. We do not see them cooking, working the fields, spinning, with children or spending their time in other leisurely activities, all of which are very common scenes for women in medieval portraiture. I gather that this dress is NOT a normal garment, and would likely not have been a common sight in every-day medieval life. I get the feeling that it is supposed to be scribal/painter shorthand for unusual circumstances, or even a sort of fairytale otherness to indicate that these are not real women.
Now, all that said, real garment or no, I am still going to make one because it’s cool. I felt like I should really warn folks first that this is basically a fantasy dress, not really all that medieval.
Since I just finished making the red undergown, I already have a pattern that should fit nicely. Usually, I don’t make my kirtle patterns floor length, I just make them long enough to cover my hips, then measure from my waist to my desired length (usually to the floor). For this though, I intend to have a decorative edge that I’d like to have properly planned out before I start cutting, so I added a strip of paper to the original pattern.
I rounded off the bottom edge by using this notepad to get right angles off the side seam.
The bottom edge has been rounded! By lining up the side seam, I can see that the back piece is too long, so I shortened it by 5 ish cm.
I cut both lining and outer fabric, leaving myself with a slightly generous seam allowance. Turns out I was a bit too generous, the dress ended up a bit too big in the end, but I was afraid that it would be to tight over another gown of the same pattern.
I folded the long sleeves a bit above the elbow, and traced a new pattern for the short sleeves I wanted.
I was not quite decided on what dag shape I wanted at this point. Some of my favorite dress examples from above are just simple crenelations or strips, but I wanted something a little more exciting than that. I sewed sample dags, I hemmed and hawed, I asked my friends on the Facebook page, and eventually settled on the ‘club’ dag. It has a good bold shape, and didn’t give me too many problems when I sewed up the sample version.
I eyeballed the spacing, making sure that I could fit whole dags around the hem, and not end up with a half-dag at the end.
I pinned this heavily so the layers would not move around on me when I sewed the dag outline. I used the machine’s free-motion quilting stitch to navigate the curved club shape without constantly turning the entire garment around in different directions.
This just sounds like a sewing machine, so sound isn’t particularly important for the video. Just showing that nifty free-motion action!
Sew, trim, and flip! A bunch more pinning to give the clubs a nice shape as I ironed them down.
The sleeves could only fit three dags, and that’s even after I make them a little smaller than the skirt dags!
A bit of sewing to attach the sleeves to the dress, and adding buttons and buttonholes (I didn’t get pictures of any of that, sorry folks!), and then it’s done!
I was worried that only three dags on the sleeves would look weird, but I think it works. I also meant for the red neckline of the under dress to peak out, creating some nice contrast between the golden overgown and my skin. It seems that making the neckline half an inch lower all around did not quite accomplish that! Also, the gold gown ended up a tiny bit baggy, so I need to take it in about an inch total.
Morgan Donner is a laurel from the Kingdom of An Tir. This article was originally published on her blog in 2018, and has been adapted for print and republished here with permission. Her newer content can be found in a fantastic video series on YouTube.