Fashion in the Middle Ages
Written by Simon Newman
History - Middle Ages
Fashion in the Middle Ages was determined by the social class people were belonging to. Medieval England was influenced and ideas from France, Spain and Italy. During the Middle Ages, the people wore clothes that were influenced by the styles of clothing that was worn by the kings and queens of the kingdom. As with everything else in the Middle Ages, clothing that was worn was depicted by your social stance in the kingdom.
Another great influence on fashion was the crusades as this was how materials such as silks, damask, satins, brocades and velvets were imported on their crusades to the Far East. Also the turbans worn by nomads were mostly reserved for the upper class as it was imported from the Far East. This therefore became the fashion of the nomads. They wore long trousers, sometimes the feet were attached with fine leather shoes. Nomads mostly wore fur, wool and leather garments.
Fashion according to class and status
Fashion worn in royal courts, were restricted by laws across Europe. King Edward III imposed a law that only royalty were allowed to wear clothes made of gold and purple silk.
Clothing of royalty and nobles was significantly different from that of the peasants. The clothes that the upper class and wealthier merchants wore, was very elaborate lavishly adorned with jewellery and the most significant difference was the emphasis on the garment sleeves. Knights were known for wearing “surcoates” which also displayed the coat of arms.
As the eras changed and different periods advanced, so did the styles of the people changed accordingly. The early medieval period fashion were simple shapes with long, wide gowns with embroidered edges. Fitted tunic was the basic item of clothes.
In the early medieval times, men wore loose tunics, togas, trousers and laced sandals. They also wore undershirts with briefs and then covered by a sleeveless jacket. This was followed by an extra tunic. Lastly, they added stockings. Medieval men wore cloaks with round openings that could be slipped easily over the men’s heads. The cloak had the same purpose as a jacket.
Medieval women wore full length tunics that covered to their ankles. This fashion in the Middle Ages was known as “kirtles”, and it was often worn over a shirt. When in public, the women often wore an even shorter kirtle over the tunics. The richer and the more influential the woman was, the more luxurious her clothing was.
Married woman wore tight fighting caps and nets over their hair with a wound up bun on their heads. Veils were also worn by some woman over their heads, and then their hair was usually braided tightly or just hanging loosely under the veil. During the Middle Ages, fashion and social classes were linked, anybody could tell who belongs to the royalty, who belongs to the nobility, who was married or single, etc…
Garments in the Middle Ages were mostly made of wool and the undergarments made of linen.
Again, the wealthier upper class could be distinguished by their brighter clothes and more luxurious materials. Rich people also indicated their wealth by wearing longer jackets.
To the end of the Middle Ages, aristocrat men wore hose, which replaced trousers, and jackets with pleating and a tunic with a surcoat. Women gowns became more flowing and more emphasis was put into headwear with hair dresses and turbans. Lacing of women’s clothes became tighter and more form fitting.
A girdle at the waist was worn to create the appearance of a long waist. Gowns and sleeves were longer and trailed more and tunics were narrowed and later evolved to become the doublet. Men took on a more burgundian style which was characterized by shorter and tighter clothes and more pointed shoes. The length of the points indicated status, with the longer points indicating a higher status.
Religious and holy people wore long woolen habits to adopt the same fashion style of roman clothing. The color of the habit indicated the position of the person in the order. Benedictines wore black habits, while the Cistercians wore habits made of wool that was not dyed or was white. Monks clothes were plain and comfortable and they were allowed to wear linen coifs to keep their heads warm. Nuns were initially not allowed to wear woolen socks, and they had to petition the Pope for permission to wear it.
Fashion for peasants
According to the law, peasants received allowances restricting them to what they spent on clothing.
Therefore it was mostly the rich and noble who could afford the latest trends in fashion. The men mostly wore stockings and tunics, while the women wore long gowns and sleeveless tunics and wimples to cover their head. In the winter they wore sheepskin cloaks and mittens and hats of wool to protect them from cold and rain.
To keep their feet warm and dry, they wore leather boots with wooden patens. They wore the outer garments every day and were almost never washed; only their linen under garments was washed regularly. Their clothes usually smelled of wood smoke due to wool that the woman spun into the threads and woven into the cloth for these garments to help absorb the wood smoke smell into these garments. This may have been their early attempts for deodorant.
Jewellery and fur
Wealthy people often lined their clothes with fur. As with fur, it was mostly the upper class people who could afford and wear jewellery. They wore lavish jewels which was often imported and also used as security towards loans. Rings and brooches where not very lustrous, as gem cutting was only invented in the in the fifteenth century. Diamonds became popular in the fourteenth century in Europe. By the fourteenth century laws were implemented to control who may wear jewellery. Knights were not allowed to wear rings. Fashion in the Middle Ages could not be separated from your social class.