The Surcoat in Medieval Times: A Journey through Fashion, Function, and Symbolism

The Surcoat in Medieval Times: A Journey through Fashion, Function, and Symbolism

The Middle Ages, a time of knights, castles, and a rapid evolution of clothing styles, was a period that bore witness to the rise and fall of various garments. Among these was the surcoat, a simple yet significant garment that held both practical and symbolic importance. This article delves into the origins, evolution, and significance of the surcoat, examining its multifaceted role in the medieval world.

Origins of the Surcoat

The surcoat initially made its appearance in the late 12th century, having its roots in both European and possibly Middle Eastern cultures. Soldiers returning from the Crusades might have been influenced by the clothing styles they encountered in the Middle East, especially those designed to provide protection against the harsh sun.

The term ‘surcoat’ is derived from the Old French’ surcote’, which translates to ‘over-garment’. In its most basic form, it was a loose garment worn over armor or another dress, primarily to shield the wearer from direct sunlight and the elements.

Design and Evolution

Early Designs: The earliest surcoats were simple in design, often sleeveless and reaching down to about mid-calf. They were worn over chainmail, with the primary function being to reduce the heat absorbed by the metal armor underneath.

13th and 14th Centuries: The design evolved, and by the 13th and 14th centuries, surcoats had taken on decorative features. They now bore the coat of arms or heraldic symbols of the wearer, especially for knights. This not only made identification easier in battles but also added an element of prestige.

Later Evolution: By the end of the 14th century, the surcoat underwent another transformation. The sides were cut open, leading to the development of the ‘jupon,’ a tighter-fitting garment that still bore heraldic designs.

What Were Medieval Surcoats Made of?

Medieval surcoats were constructed with consideration for both functionality and appearance, using materials that were readily available at the time and suitable for various needs.

The most common fabric for surcoats was wool. Wool provided insulation against cold weather and was relatively inexpensive, making it a practical choice. Linen was often used as a lining for the woolen surcoats, adding comfort and absorbing sweat. Linen surcoats were also worn during warmer seasons as they were lighter and allowed more breathability.

For those in higher social ranks, such as nobles or knights, silk and velvet surcoats became popular. These luxurious fabrics were expensive and were often adorned with elaborate embroidery or heraldic symbols, reflecting the wearer’s status and wealth.

Additionally, leather was sometimes used in the construction of surcoats, especially for soldiers. Leather offered an extra layer of protection against weather conditions and the wear and tear of battle.

In terms of color, medieval dyes were derived from natural sources, such as plants, insects, and minerals. The color of a surcoat could also carry significance, with particular hues representing different virtues or being associated with specific noble houses.

The choice of materials in a surcoat was not just about aesthetics. Still, it was closely tied to its function, whether protecting a knight’s armor, reflecting a person’s social status, or adapting to various climatic conditions. The materials used in the construction of surcoats provide insight into the ingenuity and adaptability of medieval textile crafts and the integral role of clothing in medieval life.

What Was Worn Under a Surcoat?

Under a surcoat, various layers of clothing or armor were worn, depending on the occasion and the social status of the wearer.

For a knight or soldier, the surcoat was typically worn over a chain mail hauberk or a coat of plates, providing additional protection against the elements and reducing the heat absorbed by the metal armor. Underneath these layers, a padded garment called a gambeson would be worn, adding comfort and additional protection against blunt force.

In more civilian or formal contexts, the surcoat could be worn over tunics or gowns, especially by women or nobility. These garments would be made from simple wool or linen fabrics to more luxurious silks, reflecting the individual’s status and the occasion.

The surcoat was thus a versatile garment, adapting to various contexts and functions, and the layers worn beneath it would change accordingly, ranging from practical battle armor to elegant court attire.

Symbolism and Heraldry

With the surcoat being a blank canvas of sorts, it became an essential medium for heraldic expression. Knights would proudly display their lineage, loyalties, and accomplishments through intricate designs and symbols on their surcoats.

Families and allegiances were identified through these designs. For instance, during a joust or in the chaos of battle, a knight’s surcoat would quickly communicate to a friend or foe who he was and where his loyalties lay. Over time, these designs became more regulated, giving rise to the heraldic rules that we recognize today.

Practical Uses Beyond Armor

While the surcoat’s initial design aimed to protect armor from the elements, it also had other practical applications:

  • Identification: As previously mentioned, recognizing friend from foes was crucial in the chaos of battle. The heraldic symbols on a knight’s surcoat provided a means of quick identification.
  • Protection from Elements: Apart from protecting the armor, the surcoat also shielded the knight from direct sunlight, rain, and even mud.
  • Insulation: Worn over metal armor, the surcoat provided an additional layer that could insulate the knight from the cold. Conversely, its light color and the fact that it was usually made from breathable fabric could offer some relief from heat.

Surcoat and Coat of Arms

The surcoat and coat of arms are two intimately connected elements of medieval culture, embodying a unique blend of fashion, symbolism, and identity.

In the medieval era, the surcoat was a functional garment, often worn over a knight’s chain mail to protect against the weather and to reduce the heat absorbed by the metal armor. Yet, it was more than just a practical piece of clothing; it became a canvas for displaying the coat of arms, a collection of heraldic symbols representing a family’s lineage, honor, and achievements.

The coat of arms, with its intricate patterns, colors, and symbols, conveyed a wealth of information about the person wearing it. Each element within the coat of arms had specific meanings, revealing not only the wearer’s family connections but also personal characteristics, values, and allegiances. In the chaos of battle, these emblems allowed for quick identification, enabling knights to distinguish friends from foes.

As a statement of identity, the coat of arms’ presence on the surcoat helped to elevate this simple garment to a status symbol. The designs were governed by strict heraldic rules, and their use was a privilege often reserved for nobility. Even today, these symbols are regarded as a respected part of family heritage, and the practice of heraldry continues in various forms.

The combination of a surcoat and coat of arms is an enduring symbol of the medieval period, reflecting a time when honor, chivalry, and social standing were paramount. It offers a glimpse into a complex social system where clothing and symbolism were tightly interwoven, serving purposes that went far beyond mere fashion. It stands as a testament to how garments can be imbued with meaning and become a central part of cultural expression and personal identity.

Surcoat and Coat of Plates

The surcoat and coat of plates were essential components in the wardrobe of a medieval knight, each serving a unique yet complementary function.

The surcoat, a loose, sleeveless garment often worn over armor, served several purposes. Its primary function was to shield the wearer from the elements and reduce the heat absorbed by the underlying metal armor. Moreover, it was frequently adorned with heraldic symbols, reflecting a knight’s lineage and affiliations.

Conversely, the coat of plates was a type of armor consisting of metal plates riveted inside a fabric or leather cover. It provided better protection than chain mail and was more flexible than full-plate armor. The plates were typically arranged in rows or a grid pattern, allowing for ease of movement while offering effective protection against slashes and thrusts.

When worn together, the surcoat and coat of plates presented a combination of defense and identification. The surcoat’s vibrant heraldry distinguished a knight on the battlefield, while the underlying coat of plates offered essential physical protection. This pairing symbolizes the balance between aesthetics and functionality that characterized medieval armor and clothing. It reflects a period when warfare, chivalry, and personal expression were intrinsically linked and where the way a warrior was dressed conveyed much about his status, allegiance, and skill.

What Is the Difference Between a Tabard and a Surcoat?

The terms “tabard” and “surcoat” often refer to similar garments used in the medieval period. Still, they have subtle differences, particularly in terms of design, purpose, and historical context.

As discussed earlier, a surcoat is a loose, flowing garment often worn over armor by knights. It was typically sleeveless, had short sleeves, and extended to about mid-calf length. Surcoats were often adorned with the wearer’s coat of arms and were designed to protect armor from weather elements like rain and sunlight.

A tabard, on the other hand, is a more specific type of surcoat. It also featured a simple construction, generally without sleeves, and was designed to be worn over armor. However, the tabard was often shorter in length and typically more boxy in its cut. While various classes might have worn surcoats, tabards were primarily associated with heralds and later with clergy and academic institutions.

Both garments served practical functions but also carried symbolic meaning. The surcoat’s design and decoration often showcased the knight’s family heraldry, symbolizing his lineage and loyalty. The tabard, particularly when worn by a herald, was a clear sign of an official bearer of messages and proclamations.

In essence, while the surcoat and tabard served similar protective purposes and had similar appearances, the differences lie in their specific design, association with particular roles, and the symbolism they carried. Understanding these nuances helps shed light on the complex interplay between clothing, status, and function during the medieval period.

Surcoat in Women’s Fashion

The surcoat was not limited to the battlefields; it also found its place in women’s wardrobes. Women’s surcoats were often longer, sometimes even trailing, and had sleeves. They were adorned with embroidery, lace, or fur, reflecting the status and wealth of the wearer. Worn over gowns or tunics, they added an element of elegance and refinement to medieval women’s attire.

Decline of the Surcoat

By the 15th century, the surcoat’s popularity began to wane. Armor designs changed, becoming more plate-based and less reliant on chain mail. The newer armor styles didn’t heat up in the sun as chain mail did, reducing the need for a protective outer garment. Additionally, newer garments like the doublet and jerkin gained prominence as clothing styles evolved.


Though its heyday was relatively short-lived, the surcoat left an indelible mark on medieval fashion and heraldry. It serves as a testament to how clothing is not just about fashion but also function, culture, and symbolism. The surcoat is a window into the medieval world, reflecting the era’s social structures, allegiances, and aesthetics.

In modern times, the influence of the surcoat can be seen in certain ceremonial garments, theater costumes, and even in popular medieval-themed TV shows and movies. It stands as a reminder of a bygone era filled with chivalry, battles, and a unique sense of style.


The surcoat, a defining garment of the medieval era, embodies a multifaceted history that intertwines fashion, symbolism, and social identity. Its variations and adaptations, from battlefields to noble courts, offer a vivid glimpse into medieval life. The relationships between the surcoat and other elements, such as the coat of arms, coat of plates, and tabard, highlight the complexity of medieval clothing, where form and function were intricately linked. The materials, designs, and accompanying garments tell a story of chivalry, status, and practicality. 

Though the surcoat may seem like a distant relic of the past, its legacy continues to influence modern heraldry and ceremonial attire. It stands as a testament to the creativity and adaptability of human culture, reflecting values and traditions that continue to resonate today. Exploring the surcoat is not just a study of a garment but an intriguing journey into a rich and nuanced historical tapestry.