Status Through Fashion in the Middle Ages
The ingenuity of the poor and the excesses of the wealthy dually contribute to the story of clothing. Status symbols, possessions by which ones social or economic prestige is measured, are in every crevice of our culture. They are so numerous that society can hardly keep track of what is in or out. In Medieval Europe status symbols were much easier to decipher. The story of clothing was new and uncomplicated and is a story of the haves and the have-nots.
When the Roman empire fell, the only large power left in Europe was the Church. This was reflected in the modest dress of the age. During this time barbarian tribes such as the Goths, the Vikings, and the Huns dominated Europe. Fear and ignorance governed the Western world. Europeans were concerned with survival and clothing had to be functional. But by the year 1000 AD, people began to concentrate on things other than the afterworld. The first Crusade successfully captured Jerusalem in 1099 AD. This brought new fabrics and construction techniques to all of Europe. By the 13th century cities were being settled and a prosperous merchant class was rising. For the first time in Medieval history, a disposable income was possible. Because cloth was such a highly prized commodity, wealth was best showcased through clothing.
The Middle Ages can be defined in three parts. The Dark Ages lasted from 500 to 1000 AD. This portion was characterized by the Christianization of Europe. It was the time of Charlemagnes rule and the Viking raids. The Middle Period covers 1000 AD to 1300 AD and begins with the Battle of Hastings and the Crusades. Clothing began to change in this time because of the increase in trade routes. The high Middle Ages, from 1300 AD to 1500 AD, encompass the black death. The black plague killed one third of Europes population, make people a more valuable commodity. The Middle Ages end with the fall of Constantinople and the beginning of a time of discovery, the Renaissance.
Historians must rely on paintings, manuscripts, and sculpture for accurate descriptions of Medieval clothing because very few garments survive prior to the 16th century. During the Middle Ages, very detailed images of both commoners and nobles were rendered. The Bayeux tapestry, which tells the events that lead up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, is the oldest source for clothing of the everyday man of the Middle Ages. From these items, one can gage what was worn and how it was worn.
Representations of European dress before 900 AD are rare. It is difficult to actually tell what was worn in the Dark Ages, but we do know that the clothing worn around 500 AD was very basic. The bliaut, a long overgarment, was worn by both sexes. It was loose enough to be put on over the head and had bell sleeves for women and was straight to the wrist for men.
As technology progressed women began lacing the bliaut up the back and sides to achieve an hourglass shape but this mainly appeared after the crusades. Men wore leather belts and leg warming fabric wraps. A mantle, or cloak, was worn by both sexes. It was a basic rectangle of fabric that was pinned at one shoulder. There is no evidence to suggest that women wore underwear at all during the Middle Ages, but both sexes wore a basic long sleeved linen undershirt or chemise that was knee length for men and ankle length for women. It was in the style of the basic, no-frills modern poet shirt. This garment became longer as women eventually began tucking the bliaut into a high belt. This was followed by the ladies of the court who wanted to show off their wealth in the undergarment. Mens underwear was a folded garment that wrapped between their legs and belted or tied at the waist. Women were expected to cover her hair after marriage with a veil. This sign of Christian chastity and modesty lasted for all of the Middle Ages and is still seen in some parts of Europe today. A young woman would either fashion two plaits on either side of her head or wear her hair loose.
Fabrics were hand woven by most peasant women from scratch. If a women was good at it, she could use these fabrics for barter and sale. In this time period cloth items were naturally colored and often not very comfortable. Linen was used for undergarments because it was more comfortable than wool and it was easily washed. Contrary to popular belief, Medieval people washed these linen garments on a regular basis. Whether people took regular baths or not is questionable. The very wealthy could afford imported silk from Asia. Heavily embroidered or richly patterned fabrics were prized. Card weaving and group finger weaving were popular all over Europe. Women would use long strands of this weaving for belts and trimming garments. English women were considered the best Medieval embroiders and these items were traded all across the continent.
During the Dark Ages, wealth was shown with jewelry. The broach used to hold the mantle together was the main decorative item. Gold, pearls, and uncut stones were incorporated in the designs. Fine fabrics, good weapons, and armor all indicated wealth. Fur pelts of ermine and gray squirrel were used as lining and trim for garments. Rabbit and sheepskin lined the garments of the less affluent. Throughout much of Western history pale skin has been an indicator of wealth. Peasants working outside could not avoid the sun. It is only in the 20th century that tan skin became popular in the Western world.
Romanesque and Early Gothic
In the 11th Century, we see the construction of garments improving; shearing scissors had been used in Europe to trim animals as well as cut fabric but they were cumbersome and made for uneven cloth. After the Crusades the soldiers brought back scissors made exclusively for fabric. These smaller scissors made a vast improvement in the construction of garments. Sumptuous fabrics, such as damasks, velvets, and satin, were also brought to Europe along with better weaving techniques.
The French have always been known for setting fashion trends, but around 1000 AD, it was the Italians who added a third garment for women. The surcoat had a long round neck and long wide full sleeves. It was slit up each side to the waist and this was used to accentuate the colors of the cotehardie or under dress. The surcoat replaced the blait, which became the cotehardie, as the outer garment in the 12th Century. The cotehardie began to have tight sleeves for the women and the length was extended into a train. The surcoat was finally made side and sleeveless, with two small strips of fabric in the back and front holding the skirt to the collar, in the 15th century. The surcoat was often completely trimmed in fur.
This fashion was not adopted by peasants, but the newly emerging merchant class embraced them. Only wealthy women could afford all the yards of fabric it took to create this new style. Noble women were not allowed to expose their feet. Working peasant women wore an ankle length dress. The mans tunic became shorter and his underwear became an outer garment. These breeches were knee length and wrapped into the leg warmers. Women in this period wore wimples, cloth veils draped over the head, around the neck and up to the chin. The barbette, a crown type accessory, secured the wimple.
A greater range of color was also coming into play. The brighter the fabric, the more wealthy the owner. It took a lot of expensive herbs as well as large quantities of other items to achieve a bright color. Red was a favorite of the nobles in this period. The cotehardie would be made from a bright colored fabric so it could be seen under the surcoat. Purple fabric was reserved for the extremely wealthy, such as a King and the Pope, because the formula for the dye was a closely guarded Byzantine secret. Only one family in the empire knew how to produce purple fabric so only a small amount was exported each year.
In the 13th century, tailors began to open shops in prosperous cities like London, Munich, Genoa, Florence, Vienna and Paris. The wealthy could have custom made garments and the less fortunate had access to fabric and sewing items. Buttons were brought back to Europe after the Crusades around 1200 AD. They most likely came from China and were used mainly as decoration. The buttons were made of bone, antler, and cast metal. Silver, ivory, and mother of pearl buttons were bought by the wealthy. Large loops with toggle type horn buttons had been in wide use to hold pieces of fabric together but no one in Europe invented the button hole until the Renaissance. Buttons were sewn on to the cotehardie from the elbow to the wrist. They would also be used to embellish the hemlines, collars, and cuffs of the surcoat.
A memorable style of the Middle Ages are the elaborate female headdresses. In the mid 1300s, hair was braided and worn in buns over the ears. Hair nets woven from silk and gold thread held the buns in place. This style gave way to a whole fashion of rolled hair coverings and wildly imaginative headdresses. The best known headdress of this period is the butterfly. This style incorporated a hair cap and wires with sheer fabric draped over it; it was only in style for a short period right before the Renaissance. A steeple shaped hennin and the horned veil were both popular in this period. They both completely covered the hair which gave way to the late 1400s style of plucked eyebrows and shaved foreheads. The hennin is a cone shaped hat that has a long trailing veil that is wound around and left hanging long. These styles could only be maintained by the idle rich. The elaborate preparation time as well as the slow deliberate way a woman needed to carry herself both lead to this conclusion. Many people, including peasants, thought these headdresses were outrageous and chastised and taunted the women who sported the style. Men had elaborate hoods of their own. The basic hood became a separate garment in the Dark Ages but it wasnt until the late Medieval period that it became a turban. The 13th Century liripipe hat was a hood that extended into a long point in the back. At one point the extension became so long that it was draped over the arm. In Italy especially this long tail was wrapped around the head creating a turban in the 1400s.
Life in general was easier by this time. A prosperous merchant class practiced trades all over Europe. Many people became wealthy in a short amount of time. The Black Plague ravaged the continent and left many with a clear path to this wealth. Various ways of displaying the new found money came into play. One obvious way was flamboyant consumption of fabric. Many men, as well as women would be seen in yard upon yard of fabric. Huge cloaked garments, called houppelande, were invented. This outer garment had enormous scalloped sleeves as well as a large train. The houppelande sometimes buttoned from the collar to the hem and it was worn by both sexes. A thigh length version was eventually worn as the male dress. This was worn with a high belt, tight hose, and long pointed leather shoes. At one point the shoe became so long that it was tied up to the ankle. Other garments became much more tailored and fit the body closely.
The better made the garments were the wealthier the person was. This has remained true throughout most of history. Sumptuary laws had to be passed by the government to keep the new merchant class from overstepping their place in society. Everything from the amount of fabric that could be used to the length of the shoes point was regulated. Laws of this nature appear all over Europe during the Middle Ages. Many people ignored these rules and punishment was not very severe.
The tribes of early civilization bartered with each other for what the other did not have. Luxury goods were prized in these primitive societies because wealth was power. These tribes were nomadic and the physical appearance was the easiest was of showing this power. As tribes began settling Europe they became known for the goods they could produce. Having luxury goods from another society made one important. The Scandinavians produced superior wools. The Vikings were known to be quite fashionable in their day. They actively traded to obtain the best in cloth good. The Italians wove fine fabrics. They gained knowledge from the East in weaving techniques and cloth manipulation. The best European cloth came from Florence and Venice. The French were known for setting the trends. In the Medieval period Paris was the center of civilized Europe. Most of Europe was settled by peasants. The basic clothing of these poor people remained simple and functional for all of the Middle Ages . The Nobles and the wealthy were few and far between and the aristocrats were the ones who had the time and money to be excessive. History remembers the winners and the Medieval nobles made sure, through the arts, that they would never be forgotten.
When researching something of this nature, childrens books are often the most concise and a great starting point. The Eyewitness Books series has over 65 books on a plethora of subjects. They are great and I highly recommend you check out Medieval Life and Costume
, ISBN: 0789460386 and ISBN: 0679816801 respectively.
In the childrens section you can also find the pop-up book Fashion through the Ages
by Knight and Dalziel.
The Anatomy of Costume
by Robert Selbie
by Mila Contini
Medieval Life and Costume
by Herbert Norris
How to make Medieval headdresses, including the Butterfly hennin.
More on the theory and construction of 15th Century headdress.
A good place to visit for costuming resources.