Clothing in Medieval Times and Social Status
Written by Tim Nash
History - Middle Ages
It should come as no surprise that during medieval times, a big indicator of where you stood on the social hierarchy was your clothing. Even today, clothes tell us much about where a person is in society. A bricklayer dresses much differently from a policeman and both dress very differently from entertainers or the wealthy or people in politics. The lines of distinction are not as strict now as they were in medieval times. But using clothing as a measure of social rank is just as valid now as then.
Of course, then and now, affordability was also a factor in the differences between how peasants and kings would dress. The poorer classes of medieval society wore clothing that was made of rough and often uncomfortable fabrics. Often peasants wore clothes that were home made. Clothing has to be tough to stand up to the hard work that went into just staying alive at the bottom of medieval society. Many times peasants only owned one outfit and they rarely got chances to bathe so what they did wear had to serve hard duty every day.
The differences between peasant clothing in medieval society from merchants or landowners could not have been more drastic. This “middle class” could afford expensive and luxurious fabrics that were shipped in from as far away as Egypt. These more moneyed citizens had enough wealth to dress well but they had little else they could spend their extra money on. So they invested in fine clothing which they wore with great flair to make sure everyone could see that they had money and didn’t mind showing it off.
You only have to go to a medieval faire to see clearly that the differences between what men and women of medieval times wore was striking. Men did wear ornate and colorful outfits but the tunic was the base of their outfits. Hose were worn under the tunic and that served as the “trousers” of a medieval gentleman. Belts and hats were added for flair and to make each outfit practical for what the gentleman was doing that day.
Medieval women also built their outfits up from a type of a tunic that was called a “kirtle”. This provided comfort and warmth and then ladies of the time used undershirts and skirts to cover their legs. Hair was worn loose or in braids that adorned the outfit down the back. For practicality purposes, the long hair was sometimes held in by a net that still allowed the style to be seen but kept their hair out of the way for an active day.
For medieval royalty, extravagant, flamboyant, expensive and very colorful outfits were worn to make sure all who were witness of them were very ware of their high rank. Long house jackets were worn by noblemen and the length of the jacket often was an indicator of the wealth of the individual. Women in royalty wore long flowing gowns and very fancy hats or headpieces that were often so ornate that they hindered the wearer from doing anything practical at all.
It was only the very wealthy and people of the highest ranks that wore jewelry. For women, a ring brooch was a popular jewelry choice. There were also very particular kind of garb for specialty classes in society such as the military, knights and the clergy. High ranking members of the church often dressed in such a fancy way that their garb could rival kings and princes both in expense and ornateness.
Its fun to look back on the dress of the medieval time of history. Those that enjoy medieval fairs go to the second level of researching and putting together outfits that fit the times. One can also see examples of medieval clothing in museums who have put scholarly historical research into every aspect of what people wore during the middle ages. While little clothing has survived to our times, the ability of historians to recreate medieval clothing is amazing. It helps us all can get a good feel for what it was like to live during that time