A tabard is a short coat, either sleeveless, or with short sleeves or shoulder pieces, which was a common item of men's clothing in the Middle Ages, usually for outdoors. It might be belted, or not. Tabards might be emblazoned on the front and back with a coat of arms, and in this (livery) form they survive now as the distinctive garment of officers of arms in heraldry.
A tabard (from the French tabarde) was originally a humble outer garment of tunic form, generally without sleeves, worn by peasants, monks and foot-soldiers, including Chaucer's ploughman. In this sense the first OED citation is 1300. See also The Tabard, the inn at which the principals meet in that same Prologue. (Wikisource:The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue) In the late Middle Ages tabards, now open at the sides and so usually belted, were worn by knights over their armour, and usually emblazoned with their arms (though sometimes worn plain). OED first records this use in English in 1450. In this meaning they were apparently distinguished from surcoats by being open at the side, and by being shorter. These became an important means of battlefield identification with the development of plate armor as the use of shields declined.
A very expensive, but plain, garment described as a tabard is worn by Giovanni Arnolfini in the Arnolfini Portrait of 1434 (National Gallery, London). This may be made of silk velvet and is trimmed and fully lined with fur, possibly sable.
Similarly at Queens College, Oxford, the scholars on the foundation were called tabarders, from the tabard, obviously not an emblazoned garment, which they wore.
It can also be the British English word for a cobbler apron.
In the case of Royal officers of arms, the tabard is emblazoned with the coat of arms of the sovereign. Private officers of arms, such as still exist in Scotland, likewise make use of tabards emblazoned with the coat of arms of the person who employs them. In the United Kingdom the different ranks of officers of arms can be distinguished by the fabric from which their tabards are made. The tabard of a king of arms is made of velvet, the tabard of a herald of arms of satin and that of a pursuivant of arms of damask silk. It was once the custom for pursuivants to wear their tabards with the sleeves at the front and back, but this practice was ended during the reign of James II and VII.
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