The different tribes of nomads who defeated the Roman Empire and populated Europe had developed their clothing amid a very different climate than ancient Rome’s. Cool weather and sheep herding traditions led them to rely on wool as their primary fabric, and most of their garments were made from wool. The tunic, made of a long rectangle of wool with a hole in the center for the head and crude stitching at the sides, was the basic garment for both men and women throughout the middle Ages. People would typically wear a thin under tunic and a heavier overtunic. These varied in length, with women’s tunics falling all the way to the ground throughout the period, and men’s tunics gradually rising so that by the end of the period they looked much like a modern shirt. Both sexes wore a belt around their tunics. Men typically wore leg coverings, ranging from simple trousers early in the period to a combination of hose and breeches, or short pants, later in the period. Both sexes also wore a tunic made of fur when the weather was cold. Fur was widely used by people of all classes, with the richer people being able to afford softer furs such as ermine, or weasels, and mink.
Clothes are far more than a physical covering to protect the body from the elements; they can reveal much about a person. An evening gown, a doctor’s white coat, cowboy boots—today these can all be clues to social status, profession, or geographic origin.
In the Middle Ages, clothing was integral to identifying one’s place in the world. Medieval people were highly skilled at reading the meaning of fashion, which is reflected throughout the painted pages of illuminated manuscripts.
Planché explains that in the 11th century, shortened tunics became popular as did shorter hair styles and beard lengths. Piercings also became fashionable for men as did golden bracelets. During this era men continued to wear tunics, cloaks, and trousers which did not vary much from their previous counterparts. Coifs became popular head-coverings and appeared to be “flat round cap[s]”. Long stockings, with feet attached, were in style, and leg bandages and shoes continued to be worn. Short boots, those only extending to the ankle, were introduced in the latter part of the century.
Military attire was simply regular clothing with the addition of adornments depending on the number of “marks” a soldier had. These additions consisted of a spear, axe, sword, bow, shield, steel cap, helmet, an iron coat, or a linen or cloth tunic. During this era, soldiers carried either round or crescent shaped shields usually painted red. Higher-ranking officials decorated their swords with various colors and insignias. In the middle half of the century, armor began to be made of leather and weapons were made light-weight. Previous mail tunics, found to be too heavy preventing the soldier from properly fighting, were replaced by the new leather armor, which consisted of overlapping flaps, cut like scales or leaves and each dyed a different color. In the latter half of the century, warriors shaved their heads to resemble the clergy in order to confuse foreign spies. The, which was covered in rings, emerged during this time and was worn under the helmet, which also had a new addition, the nose piece. The ringed knee-length tunic was slit in the front and back to allow for more comfortable riding. The length of the trousers became shorter. “Mascled armor” began to replace the traditional ringed armory. These new iron pieces were assembled to look like mesh or nets but a combination of the two patterns have been found to be used. Another variation included covering the body in rings and removing the sleeves from the tunic. Planché mentions that a “square pectoral” was added to the breast of the armor as added protection and were “quilted or covered with rings”. A yellow border was added to the pectorals, sleeves, and skirts. Shields had two new adjustments: one strap looped around the arm while a second strap circled around the neck, allowing the soldier the use of both his hands.
The clergy of the 11th century had shaved heads and wore bonnets, which, according to Planché, were “slightly sinking in the center, with the pendent ornaments of the mitre attached to the side of it”. Other garments included the chasuble, the outermost liturgical vestment, which retained its shape, and the dalmatics, a tunic like vestment with large, bell shaped sleeves, which tended to be arched on the sides. The pastoral staff was generally found to be plain in color and ornamentation.
The 12th century brought changes in the civil attire for the inhabitants of the British Isles. The tunic was now close fitting with a long skirt. There was, as C. Cunnington describes, a “slit up in front to the thigh level” and the sleeves, now close fitting, were “bell-shaped” at the wrist or, the “lower portion [hung] to form a pendulous cuff which might be rolled up for action”. Peasants wore tunics which were shorter and the sleeves were “tubular…[and] rolled back”. The tunic could be worn with or without the girdle, which now carried the sword. Neck lines were either diagonal, from the neck moving across the chest, or horizontal, from the neck to the shoulder. The super tunic, worn with a girdle, was occasionally worn alone but was never paired with the aforementioned tunic. The sleeves of this super tunic had, as C. Cunnington states, “pendulous cuffs,” which were uncommon, or were “loose and often elbow-length only”. The super tunic was occasionally lined with fur.
The cloak and mantle, a cloak resembling a loose cape, were fastened either with a brooch or clasp, or as C. Cunnington describes, “the corner of the neck edge on one side was pulled through a ring sewn to the opposite corner, and then knotted to keep in position”. For the rich, the cloak was lined with fur and for all classes beneath; the cloak was hooded and made of animal hide, with the hair facing out.
For the first half of the 13th century, linen braies were worn and then shortened to the knee in the second half of the century, which then became drawers or undergarments. Short stockings ended just below the knee and the border was occasionally decorated. Longer stockings, mid-thigh length, could also be worn and, as C. Cunnington depicts, were “shaped to fit the leg, widening above the knee so that they could be pulled up over the braies”.The stockings and girdle were tied together at a point in the top front of the stocking by which to keep it in place. Some stockings had stirrups, whole feet, or no feet. For hosiery, made of wool or leather, a “thin leather sole was attached” so that shoes would not need to be worn. Leg wear during the 12th century tended to be brightly coloured and stripes were popular.
All classes of men during the 12th century wore shoes or boots. Shoes, as C. Cunnington describes, were “open over the foot and fastened in front of the ankle with a strap secured by a brooch or buckle”.
Shoes with ankle strap and open instep, 1250
For the wealthy, the bands on shoes were decorated and designs were often found “over the foot or around the heel”. Different styles of shoes began to appear during this era. One such, as C. Cunnington states, was “high around the ankle and slit down the sides or in front” while others were laced or had “short uppers but cut high behind the heel”. Boots were most notably mid-calf or knee length and laced down the front or along the inner side. These boots tended to be brightly colored and had, in C. Cunnington’s words, “turn over tops”. Shorter boots, with pointed toes, were also worn and ended just above the ankle. Boots were made of leather from a cow or ox, cloth, fish skin, or, for those who could afford it, silk.
Separate hoods also made an appearance. They were loose with, as C. Cunnington describes, a “pointed cowl” and were attached to a robe stretching to the shoulders. The cape was usually a single piece of material and thus had to be put on over the head. C. Cunnington states that the “pointed Phrygian cap,” or the “small, round cap with stalk or with a rolled brim and with or without the stalk” or the “stalked soft cap, resembling a beret” were worn. Travelers wore “hats with large brims and low crowns…over the hood” which tied under the chin. Small hats with round crowns and, C. Cunnington says, “turned-down brim, decorated with a knob instead of a stalk” were also worn, as were coifs, which was a “close fitting plain linen bonnet which covered the ears and confined the hair” and tied under the chin. The coif could be worn with other hats or hoods.
Accessories for 12th century English men became more decorated. The girdle, mid century, became more elaborate in its ornamentation and in the latter half of the century, was, “tied like a sash in front with hanging ends” or, if “long and elaborate, was fastened with ornamental buckles” as C. Cunnington depicts. Wallets and purses, in the early half of the century, were hung from the girdle or the breech girdle and in the latter half were placed under the tunic, out of sight. During this era gloves became fashionable for the nobility, although they were seldom worn. Rings, brooches, buckles, clasps, and “ornamental fillets of gold and silver” C. Cunnington says were worn by the ruling classes. Wool, linen, and silk continued to be used, as was leather, which the peasants used for tunics and mantle and left the hair on facing outward. Garments were also embroidered during this era.
Men continued to wear both short and long tunics with a girdle; however the slit up the front was removed. A new style was introduced in this era in which the sleeves and body were cut from one piece of material. A wide armhole, which extended to the waist, was left open and the sleeves were cut in order to, as C. Cunnington states, “slope off to a narrow tight cuff at the wrist”. The super tunic of the 11th century continued to be worn by the less fashionable, the lower classes of society, and the girdle was optional. Five new styles of the super tunic were introduced in this era. The first consisted of a front and back panel which extended from the shoulders to the calf level. The two panels were sewn together or clasped together near the waist, where they were met by a slit up the front. The neck opening was large so that the tunic could be put on over the head and a belt was not usually worn with this tunic. The second new style was more “voluminous” as C. Cunnington describes, and hung in folds to a length between the knees and the ankles. The sleeves gathered at the shoulders and extended beyond the hands. A vertical slit was cut in the upper arm of the sleeve to allow unrestrained movement. This garment, like the previous, was put on over the head and a hood was often attached. The third style was much looser than the previous ones. The sleeves could extend to just below the elbow or could be worn short and wide. A buckled belt was optional. The fourth super tunic, or garnache, was knee length and the material was cut wide at the shoulders to allow the material to “fall down on each side, predicting cape-like sleeves,” as C. Cunnington describes. The sides of this tunic could be clasped at the waist, sewn from the waist to the hem, or left open and was traditionally beltless. The last style was simply sleeveless and worn with a belt
1300 – 1500
Around the year 1300 there was a change in well-off women’s clothing, to tighter-fitting garments, lower necklines, and more curvaceous silhouettes; “very tight lacing was used on women’s clothes to create a form-fitting shape which, girdled at the hips, created a long-waisted appearance”. Clothing was over-lapped and tightly bound; “The female chest was frequently exposed, yet the true structure of the female body was visually distorted…” The open surcoat, a garment with an open bodice and a skirt that trailed to the ground, became “one of the most elegant inventions of the Middle Ages…” In fact, by the end of the 14th century, the gown had replaced all garment items aside from the surcoat.
The basic garments for women consisted of the smock, hose, kirtle, gown, surcoat, girdle, cape, hood, and bonnet. Each piece had designated colors and fabrics, for example “Materials used in the middle ages were woolen cloth, fur, linen, cambric, silk, and the cloth of silver or gold…the richer Middle Age women would wear more expensive materials such as silk, or linen”. The development of the skirt was significant for women’s medieval clothing, “The more fashionable would wear very large or wide skirts”. The petticoat made way for the skirt, which quickly became a popular garment because it “wraps rather than enclosing, touches without grasping, brushes without clasping, coasts, caresses, skims, strokes”.
The headdress, in various forms culminating in the hennin was an important element in women’s dress, often complicated arrangements of hair and fabric, sometimes including veils over the face or hanging behind the head. The importation of luxurious fabrics increased over the period, and their use widened somewhat spread from the top of the elite downwards, but clothing remained very expensive and relatively few items were owned except by very wealthy people. Medieval clothes provided information about the status of the person wearing them.
Jewelry of the Middle Ages
Jewelry was similar to clothing when it came to portraying rank and wealth. At the beginning of the Medieval era, the only people wealthy enough to afford jewels and fine metals were the nobility. However, with the expansion of trade and commerce and therefore a more developed and larger middle class, more people could afford jewelry. By the fourteenth century, the wearing of it became so common that, like with clothing, sumptuary laws were passed restricting the amount of people allowed to wear jewelry, based on amount of land owned and social ranking. Of course, these laws were largely ignored and many people of the middle class wore jewelry anyway. This caused the nobility to have to boost the extravagance of their jewelry in order to further distinguish themselves from the middle class. And, of course, the middle class caught on and did the same. So the cycle continued and jewelry became more and more lavish and embellished. The interesting thing is that jewel-cutting was still underdeveloped, so jewels then would have been much duller and less colorful than they are now, and yet they were still extremely valuable. The main items of jewelry were brooches, belts/girdles, coronets, and necklaces/rings.
Brooches. Brooches were at first used for necessity, for pinning on cloaks or
Fastening belts. They were usually rounded, solid, and fairly small. However, they soon became much more decorative, at first having intricate reliefs worked in them with silver or gold. During the fourteenth century, many were shaped as hearts.
Belts/Girdles. The girdle was used by women for the majority of this period.
It was often made of leather or silk and set with jewels or ornamented with gold and silver. The buckle would also be well-decorated. During the 14th century, girdles began to be replaced by hip belts, which were usually made of metal and worn straight around the hips over the cotehardie. These were much more embellished with jewels and such since they could carry more weight.
Coronets. Crowns were perhaps the strongest signifiers of nobility, especially royalty, and so they were extremely lavish and intricate and were made of the most precious metals and jewels. Coronets, however, were smaller and plainer circlets. These could be worn by the nobility and were first worn around lords’ helmets. Women soon adopted them to wear over their veils. They were made of thin gold bands or small jewels linked. During the 14th century women began wearing them much larger, similar to the hip belts
Necklaces and Rings. Rings were worn to signify betrothal, royalty, or high nobility. They were the only piece of jewelry to decrease in size over the years. By the 14th century they had become smaller and less unwieldy, and were usually just bands of gold or silver with an inscription or a few small jewels.