THE PELIÇON

 by Mistress Rosemounde of Mercia

           There is a conflict among costumers about exactly what the peliçon, or pelice, looked like. One school of thought holds that it was a loose overdress, and the other claims that it is a voluminous circular cloak. Before discussing these in more detail, it will be useful to look at the word peliçon and its roots.

Herbert Norris, in Costume & Fashion, vol. II, states that pelice means "fur" in Norman French. This may be true, but I have been unable to verify this. In modern French, pelle means "fur" and pelisse is "a fur lined cloak." This derives from the Latin pellis, "a hide, skin, or pelt." Modern German defines pelz as a "pelt, skin or fur." Since Norman French was a derivation of Latin and germanic languages, these words obviously refer to fur.

Period literature occasionally contains the terms pelice and peliçon, but the exact garment they refer to is not clear. Just as the use of the term bliaut in 12th century literature seems to refer to any garment of the period that was made of silk, pelice and peliçon seem to refer to any woman's garment that was lined in fur. Costume terms were far more general in the middle ages and Renaissance than they are today. For instance, the word kirtle was almost any type of woman's undergarment. It could be an underdress, an underskirt, or a petticoat. I believe the same is true of the pelice. If it is a woman's overgarment, and it is lined in fur, it is properly called a pelice or peliçon. I disagree with those sources that hold that it was a specific cut, and that it was "usually" lined in fur. To be a pelice, it must be lined in fur. That is what the word means.

The debate over the proper pattern breaks down into two camps. Since these are found in some of the most common sources for SCA costumers, I will go over them in some detail. The first is found in Costume & Fashion, vol. II, by Herbert Norris. On pages 97 and 98 he describes the peliçon as a knee to calf length overrobe with full, shorter than full-length sleeves, "generally" lined in fur. There are two very nice drawings, one c. 1200 and one a little later. Because Norris has no footnotes or bibliography, we have no idea where he came up with these. However, fur lined garments on women and men appear in portraiture (such as it was) and manuscripts about this time. Patterns for Theatrical Costumes by Katherine Strand Holkeboer has a very nice pattern for this garment on page 88. She also has a similar one with "manche" type sleeves dated as mid-14th century on page 124. Holkeboer has a bibliography which is made up entirely of secondary sources, and she lists the Norris books, so one can only assume that followed his lead in this. Again, period representations show many fur lined garments that appear to be accurately represented by these patterns.

The second garment described as a peliçon is found in The Evolution of Fashion by Margot Hamilton Hill and Peter Bucknell. They show a full circular (or oval) cloak with holes for the head and arms, but no front opening. It has two huge pleats in the front and is worn with a fur lined hood. It is described as a "full mantle" that was "usually" lined in fur, and it is dated at c. 1300. Frankly, this pattern has little to recommend it (as is unfortunately the case with many of their patterns). It is a very poor interpretation of a tomb brass. This same tomb brass, that of Joan de Northwode, c. 1330, is also described in Medieval Costume in England and France by Mary G. Houston. Houston describes this as a circular fur lined cloak with head and arm slits, with a short fur lined cape worn over it. Her pattern is similar to the Hamilton Hill pattern, but a little less complex, and it can be found on pages 82, 83 and 98.


            The actual tomb brass, is far less clear than these authors suggest. After looking at a good photograph of it, I have come to a totally different conclusion as to the cut. It appears to me to be a very full surcoat with a full-cut woman's hood worn over it. Both are lined in fur--vair to be specific. The hood and the draping of the garment, which is pulled across the body, hide much of the actual cut. Women's hoods frequently buttoned down the front and were worn in a variety of ways. In this case, the edges are folded up over the shoulders. The pattern for the hood in the Houston book is probably very close. The pattern for the garment itself would be similar to the men's garment described as a ganache in Holkeboer pages 104 and 105.

Fur lined cloaks of all types were very common in the medieval periods as well. Numerous representations are found in all types of artwork. Most are cut on the half circle, and many have a short fur cape over them. This can be turned up to form a hood, and is decorative when worn down. Many other garments, such as surcoats, tabards, houppelandes, liripipe sleeves, and all types of coats were sometimes lined in fur. Although life in the SCA in Meridies rarely presents us with the opportunity to wear a garment that is this warm, you may wish to have one for those occasions when the temperature drops below freezing.

I made a peliçon that is c. 1350, and cut similar to the Holkeboer pattern. It also has a fur lined hood. It is made of heavy blue wool and is lined completely in white rabbit fur. It required almost fifty pelts, and I am not a large woman. You may wish to substitute a good quality fake fur, if you don't have the patience for that much hand sewing. Sometimes used clothing stores have old fur coats that can be used to line a garment with minimal alterations. Whatever you decide to use, get a book or pamphlet on sewing with fur/fake fur and follow it. These are not like other fabrics and require special cutting and sewing techniques. Certain furs, like rabbit, should be hand sewn together with a blanket stitch. This binds the edge over, which helps the pelts support each others' weight, and also keeps the stitching holes from forming a perforation line that will tear.

Fur is bulky. It will add several inches to your diameter. This is something you must remember when cutting out the pattern. Also, the fur lining should be cut somewhat smaller than the outer garment because the thickness will make it bigger. This is tricky. I recommend practicing by making some fur lined pouches out of scraps, until you feel comfortable with it. Even so, each pattern is a little different. Remember also that you cannot press fur like you do regular fabrics--heat can damage real fur and will melt fake fur.

Fur is heavy. This means that you must use a substantial fabric like wool or upholstery fabric as an outer fabric. If you use a lighter weight fabric, your garment will stretch out of shape. Stretching is something you must always keep in mind. I cut a standard neckline for my pelice, and after two wearings it had stretched so much that it fell off my shoulders. I had to add a heavy yoke (I used velvet) at the top to compensate. Reinforce necklines, sleeve edges, and hems with something heavy that won't stretch--interfacing with canvas for instance. You will also need to tack the lining to the garment at regular intervals throughout the garment to help support the weight.

The peliçon is a very authentic winter garment for the nobility, and nothing achieves the ambiance of the medieval period like fur. But this is not the kind of garb that can be thrown together at the last minute. A fur lined garment requires careful planning, attention to detail, and most of all, patience. You may want to start with something small, like a fur lined hood, before going on to a larger garment. You may also want to find a furrier who can clean it before you start. (Scotchgard the outside.) If you do undertake a pelice, you will have the satisfaction of having a garment that few others will own. Fur, then as now, was worn by the rich, not only for warmth, but as a status symbol--as ostentatious display. And as it is said, what becomes a legend better?