Recently I was asked if the loose gown, or surcoat, in my Elizabethan comfort package was historically accurate. The element in question was the upper back, which some people maintain should be pleated.
Yes, my surcoat pattern is authentic. It's based on the 1570-80 kirtle and loose gown from the collection of the Germanisches National Museum, In Nurnburg, Germany. Detailed drawings and descriptions can be found on pages 109-112 of Janet Arnold's Patterns Of Fashion. The back is, as in my pattern, unpleated and only slightly shaped to the waistline. and then modestly flared.
For many years, Faire costumers made surcoats that looked like the Nurnburg gown, but with the pleated back. I do not believe this is correct. The style was popularized by the book "Elizabethan Costume" by Janet Winter and Carolyn Savoy.
They wrote the book before Patterns of Fashion was published, and I believe that they based their surcoat pattern on photographs from several costume books. The front view was the Nurnburg garment, but the pleated back was based on a photograph of another garment, a loose gown from 1610-15, also to be seen in Patterns Of Fashion, pages 118-119. This surcoat was pleated under the arms and across the back, but cut to be worn completely open in front.
So, a good educated guess, that happened to be incorrect.
This is not to say that some surcoats of the 1570's and 80's didn't have pleated backs, but it does prove that the flat, semifitted back is also correct.