The clothing worn by men and women in the Middle Ages differed based on social standing, occupation, and climate. In general, medieval clothing was practical above all else, particularly for the peasants and lower classes. The nobility and clergy were able to experiment more with luxurious fabrics and decorations, but practicality was still a significant factor.
Most men and women in the Middle Ages had few items of clothing. It is estimated that many medieval men and women bathed just once a week or a fortnight, and it is likely their clothes were washed on a similar schedule. Clothing needed to be made to stand up to constant use and, in the case of the peasants, of dirty and tiring physical labor.
Throughout Europe, the difference in costuming related to allegiance to the former Roman Empire that had ruled most of Europe until 476 CE or adopting clothing associated with newer European populations, including the Franks, Anglo-Saxons, and the Visigoths. The length of the tunic represented the political persuasion of an individual in terms of the new identity of Europe.
The peasants and townspeople did not have the capital to purchase exotic and refined materials for their clothing so it often consisted of wool, sheepskin, and linen, generally that had been produced locally. These fabrics may not have been very fine, but it was practical for the hard-working lifestyle they led.
The nobility and clergy were able to experiment with local and exotic materials for their clothing. Within the nobility there were strict regulation on colors and furs that were permissible to be worn by each station within this elite hierarchy. For example, royalty could trim their dresses and robes with fine ermine, but the other nobility were only permitted to use fox and otter.
With the expansion of trade throughout Europe and into the Middle East new materials, dyes, and embellishments were introduced. Cotton, lace, velvet, silk and taffeta were new and exotic materials that could only be afforded by the nobility.
The above-mentioned trade expansion brought new dyes to Europe to create richer and more varied colors in the materials. Locally-based dyes were already in use for painting pigments and fabric dye, but the new pigments from abroad added another sense of luxury to the clothing. Examples of new pigments were a scarlet red created from a ground insect, blue made from the Dyerswoad plant, and green from a specific lichen. The new colors were adored by the upper classes to further exhibit their wealth, but many of the peasantry left the raw materials of their clothing undyed.
Clothing for the Peasantry
Peasant men worked long hours at often very physically demanding tasks and needed clothes that could withstand the wear and tear that results from heavy use. Wool or linen tunics were the wardrobe staple for agricultural workers and tradesmen. These tunics were about knee-length and belted around the waist with a fabric or leather belt. It was common for men to wear the tunics without another garment underneath. In the colder months some men may have wrapped their legs in strips of linen or trousers for an extra layer of warmth.
Women also wore tunics as their primary garment; however they were often longer in length. Stockings were worn for warmth in the winter as well as under tunics for added layers. For modesty, women’s tunics frequently had longer sleeves. Whereas male tunics were simply slipped over the head, for women the bodice was laced so women with children could easily breast-feed their babies. It became common in the Middle Ages for women to cover their hair when in public, and different forms of head-coverings evolved to suit women of different stations.
Clothing for the Nobility
Much about peasant clothing is speculated, but the nobility have provided more documentation and evidence on their wardrobe habits. Through paintings and idea of the dress is available, but as many nobles were buried with their treasures, jewellery and accessories have been uncovered. The nobility were eager to show off their wealth acquired through land ownership, inheritance, and favours. Clothing was the best way to demonstrate the superior wealth held over the peasants. Using materials sourced from abroad or the best local material insured the finest base for the garments and exotic dyes added a rich color to the material. The peasants could not generally afford to line their clothing with fur, but the nobles sourced the finest pelts to incorporate visibly.
Perhaps the best method of conveying wealth through clothing is with jewellery and accessories made from precious metals and stones. Brooches and ornamental small weapons added interest and perceived wealth to the outfit, which in basic shape, was quite similar to that of the peasantry. Additionally, nobles were able to wear longer tunics, as their lifestyles were not quite as active. The upper classes further distinguished themselves by incorporating embroidery on many items of clothing giving an additional sense of wealth and preciousness.
Clothing for the Clergy
The clergy began to develop throughout the Middle Ages a complex order of clothing to be worn by specific members of the church or monastery. In general, the clothing was derived from that worn by Roman clergymen, including the tonsure hair cut that featured a shaved top of the head.
Monks were to wear plain woolen habits for daily use. The color of the habits was used to distinguish among the different orders: for example, the Benedictines wore all black and the Cistercians wore white. The vestments worn by contemporary priests have evolved from the clothing worn by the clergymen at services. Some clergymen adorned their clothing with fine embroidery to call attention to their wealth and prominence.
Additionally, in most of Europe the winter months can be very cold, particularly in damp and drafty stone castles and poorly headed houses. Because of the changing climate, most individuals in medieval Europe dressed in layers, which also allowed continued use of the summer clothing. The clothing worn by the different social classes differed greatly in appearance, but were unified by the themes of practicality.