The Middle Ages (600 - 1500)

Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV, Queen of England (flickr, picture by Lisby). Medieval fashion, Middle Ages, dress
Elizabeth Woodville, wife of King Edward IV (flickr, picture by Lisby)

The medieval period, commonly called the Middle Ages, is the time between the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the modern age. There is still a discourse when to date the beginning and end but all in all the Middle Ages date roughly from 600AD to 1450AD. In the north of Europe, however, the Renaissance did not arrive before the end of the 15th century.

 

Generally, the clothing of medieval women was floor-long or ankle-long. Likewise, the sleeves reached until the wrist.

Fabrics available were linen, blended fabrics, wool, early forms of brocade, cloth of silver and gold and silk. The latter needed to be imported and hence was incredibly precious. Linen was usually the material of the undergarments and light clothes, while wool was worn above. Women wore a shirt underneath their cloths but besides that not much is known about underwear. The shirt had many names: smock, shift, shirt, chemise (French) or Hemd (German).

Silk, velvet, cloth of silver and gold and early types of brocade were very precious fabrics; but the medieval form of silk and velvet cannot really be compared to ours today (upholstery fabric is best). And please, please don't ever use Velveteen or any kind of cheap looking, polyester fibre Halloween or Carnival fabric! These fabrics look so artificial and ungenuine, it is not worth using them for a dress where you invest work into the making! Cloth of gold or silver was an absolutly lavish material – a fabric woven with a gold-wrapped weft. These fabrics were most popular with a pomegranate-pattern which can be seen in many paintings of the medieval royalty. Fur was usually worn as lining to keep warm. Popular kinds of fur were rabbit, cat (more expensive), squirrel, sable and marten and ermine (for the nobility).

 

Nearly every shade of colour could be achieved, from pastel shades to radiant dyes. Strong blue, like scarlet very expensive colour, was the result of using indigo, which needed to be imported. Colours had symbolic significance. They were connected to different social ranks, regulated by laws.

In the early Middle Ages (approximately 600 to 1000), clothing was still much inspired by the Byzantine fashion, that was based on ancient Roman tunics. Women's clothes consisted of a linen shift and a likewise ankle-long and lose-cut dress with wide or tight and sometimes pointed-hemmed sleeves. Tunics were cut of two rectangular pieces with inset sleeves and were worn with a belt. In the 12th century, gowns became more and more figure-hugging. After 1380, the dresses could not longer be pulled over the head but had to be closed with buttons or lacing. As metal buttons were expensive, buttons made of fabric used to be worn by the less prosperous.

 

The 15th century fashion in Europe (end of the Middle-Ages, already towards Renaissance) was dominated by the prosperous Burgundian court. The whole of Europe was growing more wealthy but the Burgundian court outshone all other courts. The clothing of this century was extremely extravagant and luxurious. Wool was still a popular fabric (dyed in bright colours like green and red) but silk-weaving around the Mediterranean Sea was established and therefore silk was easier to get. Not only plain and patterned silk (e.g. with the so popular pomegranate-pattern) was woven, but the silk was mixed with other materials. As a consequence silk with silver and gold threat and rich silk velvets were available. The wearing of fine furs was furthermore a sign of prosperity. The fashion of slashing, so beloved in the Renaissance, began in the late Middle Ages: through slashes in the exterior garment's fabric the linen of the undergarment was pulled so that is formed a contrast to the colourful outer layer.

The garments became more voluminous (voluminous = takes a lot of fabric = wearer prosperous), often worn belted to give them shape. They were high-waisted with a full, fluent skirt and the neckline dropped. Popular was a very low V-neckline ending under the bust with a round-cut underdress beneath to bare not too much. Gown and underdress, worn over a chemise or shift, are frequently of different colour or the outer garment was patterned while the underdress was plain (or the gown was plain and the dress underneath was beautifully embroidered). Sometimes, the gown's neckline was trimmed with fur or braid/embroidery.

Wedding dresses were not white until the 19th century, but as prosperous as the family wealth made possible - generally made of colourful fabrics with symbolic meanings (e.g. blue for loyalty and red for love) and embroidery. The only restriction besides the financial aspect was to remain within the clothing rules for the own rank.

The cotte was worn by both women and men, a floor- or ankle-long tunic with long sleeves. The pattern was very simple as it consisted only of the front and back piece and the sleeves and sometimes of godets at both sides to offer more width. It was worn over the shift and the seams of the sleeves, the hem and the neckline were often embroidered either with stitching or braid. From the 12th century onwards the cotte became increasingly close-fitting at the waist.

A compelling source of information on early medieval dress is the tomb of Arnegunde, or Aregund. This Merovingian queen, wife of Chlotar I, died around 580 and was buried in St. Denis in Paris. Her remains remained untouched and allow, by the surviving textiles and metal ornaments, a reconstruction of her attire. Queen Arnegunde is identified by her signet ring. Over a linen shift she wore a knee-length sleeveless lilac tunic and on top a reddish-brown silken coat. The tunic is belted with a broad girdle of metal with animal ornaments. Her silk coat has long sleeves, embellished with gold braid, and reaches down to the ankles. At the neck and at waist-height it is held together by round fibulae, made of gold and inlayed with Almandine. Her stockinged feet were in soft pointed shoes made of red leather. Leather straps with silver ends around the soles of the shoes and wound cross-wise up to the calves fixed them to the foot. This fashion was new and shows the wearer to be dressed up to date. Her head was covered with a white cloth and a red stole on top, pinned together left and right to the forehead.

 

Dark sideless surcot trimmed with white fur, worn over a blue BLIAUT. After Rogier van der Weyden, Altarpiece of St John the Baptist, Städel, Frankfurt. picture taken by Nina Möller - Middle Ages dress
Dark Sideless Surcot trimmed with white fur, worn over a blue BLIAUT. After Rogier van der Weyden, Altarpiece of St John the Baptist, c. 1510, Städel, Frankfurt. picture taken by Nina Möller

The bliaut was cut tightly until the waist where many pleats created a voluminous skirt. The sleeves likewise fell in many pleats. The neckline was close to the neck and round, with a slit in the front that was sometimes held together by a brooch. A girdle (e.g. made of bronze or golden elements) was worn to the bliaut. Noblewomen wore bliauts made of expensive textiles imported from the Orient. Sometimes the fabrics were interwoven with metal threats and embroidered.

The bliaut was worn over a plain under-gown.

The Surcot is cut in the style of the cotte, floor-long and with wrist-long, relatively tight sleeves. Moreover, it had a train. The Surcot developed into the Sideless Surcot, a sleeveless garment with very large sleeve holes baring the cotte beneath. As one could see the shape of the body beneath the close-fitting under-dress the Church considered this fashion immoral. Those cut-outs were usually trimmed with fur or braid and the gown was embroidered.

 

Woman wearing a Houppelande, ca. 1449 late middle-ages (flickr, picture by Sacheverelle), fashion, dress, medieval
Woman wearing a 'Houppelande', ca. 1449 late middle-ages (flickr, picture by Sacheverelle)

The houppelande is another gorgeous medieval outer garment. It was fashionable in the later medieval period (14th and 15th century) and was worn in different forms by both males and females. The houppelande is a very voluminous gown with long, flaring sleeves and usually belted with a decorative belt or sash. Both the hem and the sleeves could be floor-long or even longer. The commonly V-shaped neckline, the sleeves and the hem were usually trimmed lavishly with fur. Portraits often show rich, heavy velvets in strong colours or brightly patterned Brocade. The lining material often was satin, fur or wool. The edges of the sleeves were sometimes cut into patterns like scallops, waves or leaf patterns.

 

The heuke (German) or huque (French) was a bell-shaped cloak (less material needed than a circular one) which came up in the 14th century and was an inherent part of female clothing. The heuke was, when worn by women, generally floor-long and could have a train; a hood and collar were also common.

Accessories:

For a period of time it was popular to wear small bells attached to the garments which tinkled at every step. Brooches and clasps were important accessories, too. They held capes and cloaks together and offered a space for symbolic images. Girdles could be made of leather, band/ribbon or connected metal elements.

 

The Arnolfini Marriage by Jan van Eyck, 1434 (flickr, picture by Benedikte Vanderweeen)
The Lady's shoes are hidden under her voluminous gown but the protective patten can be seen in the lower left corner. The Arnolfini Marriage, Jan van Eyck, 1434 (flickr, picture by Benedikte Vanderweeen)

Shoes:

This is rather a “dark” chapter in fashion history as only a small knowledge survived. The long gowns and cloaks of the painted women generally covered their feet and it is too long ago to have more than a few surviving shoes. Wooden shoes or simpler leather boots were the footwork of the common folk if they did not walk barefoot. Between the 9th and 11th century women wore thin leather boots which reached to the calf or a kind of slippers that derived from oriental models. In the 12th and 13th century “slip-on boots” fastened with clasps or band over the ankle were worn.

Then, a most amusing and the most famous footwear of the Middle Ages came up: the crakowes or poulaines. Both men and women wore this fashion. They were crafted of leather and the shoe tapered. Women's poulaines remained more or less acceptable but the men's toe–caps came along in most fantastic lengths. The longer the pointed shoe the higher the wearer – and the more funny he looked and scuffing he went. Towards the end of the 15th century the poulaines were replaced by the cow-mouth-shoe, a flat leather shoe with a very broad and short toe–caps. It was a demonstrative turning away from the former fashion. Small and slender women's feet did not benefit from this style, however...

Next to the cow-mouth-shoe leather boots were worn. The so called peasant's boots were shoes made of leather which had straps and were fitted by lacing. They were worn throughout the whole Middle Ages in heaps of modified versions. You may know them from costume fairs where they are sold on many market stands.

Beauty:

Public bath houses shown in prints prove that the "no hygiene"-trope is fiction. There was, however, no understanding for what transmitted sicknesses and the general hygienic standard was low.

 

The Lady and the Unicorn (flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, picture by Richard Mortel))
The Lady and the Unicorn (flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, picture by Richard Mortel))

Hair:

Fair hair was an ideal and thus the hair was bleached with chamomile. The hair was braided, covered with headpieces or worn loosely in curls. Long blond curls were the beauty ideal for both men and women. In the 12th century it became a custom for girls to only wear their hair open until marriage. A German proverb derived from this: "jemanden unter die Haube bringen"  which means literally to "bring someone under the cap" - meaning to marry off a woman.

The Gebende (German; English: “binding”) is a German medieval headpiece. It consisted of two linen ribbons: one looped from the top of the head around ears and chin and the other from the back of the head around the forehead. The Gebende can be worn with a veil, a Schapel or a medieval Pillbox-hat (often white with a crimped top or colourful and adorned).

 

'Codex Manesse', the woman on the left wears a SCHAPEL over a Gebende (flickr, picture by Widukindus)
'Codex Manesse', the woman on the left wears a SCHAPEL over a Gebende (CC BY-SA 2.0), flickr, picture by Widukindus)

The Schapel is a circular headdress; a circlet of metal (a plain or decorated hoop) or flowers. The flowers could either be real flowers or (metal) imitations. It came up in the 12th century and stayed fashionable until the 16th century. The Schapel was normally worn in combination with hairnets, veils or the Gebende.

Towards the end of the 14th century, a new hairstyle established: the hennin. The new fashion spread from Burgundy all over France. This high, cone-shaped headpiece was made of a wire or bone frame covered with fine fabric. The cone could be pointed or blunt. A long veil floated down from it. The lower edge of the hennin was framed with a cuff of monochromatic or colourful velvet or other cloth. This band could be encrusted with pearls or otherwise embroidered. A noblewomen's hennin could be as high as one metre while burgesses' wives were not allowed to wear theirs higher than a good half a metre. If possibe, the headpiece should cover all hair. Conesquently, it was pinned to the head before putting on the hennin. Adventurous variants of this piece came up: The double or butterfly hennin is a headpiece with two cones; like two big horns. This form of the hennin existed from very high to relatively low. Over the two peaks a sheer veil was laid.

 

A kind of pillbox hat came up - the "Pileus Pannonicus" is a Roman type of hat worn by men, especially soldiers. It found it's way into medieval times and changed allegiance, now to be a female headpiece. It looks quite like a plain modern pillbox hat, just the cut and the materials differed.

Towards the end of the Middle Ages the fashion of the high forehead had arisen which would be at its peak in the Renaissance: a high forehead was thought to host a wise, great mind so the women started to pluck or shave their front hair.

 

Maestro dei Ritratti Baroncelli, ca. 1489, Pierantonio Bandini and his wife Maria Bonciani, Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze. picture by Nina Möller - Medieval fashion dress hat
Maestro dei Ritratti Baroncelli, ca. 1489, Pierantonio Bandini and his wife Maria Bonciani, Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze. picture by Nina Möller

 Jewellery:

Only wealthy women could afford expensive jewellery. Next to brooches, clasps and fibulae, jewelled belts, necklaces, earrings and rings enjoyed great popularity. Earrings were quite rare in the northern territories of Europe until the 16th century. In the southern, mediterranean and Byzantine influenced territories, however, they were however common. Maria Bonciani in the portrait to the right wears such a beautiful necklace. It would have fitted excellently into the Fall/Winter 2012 collection of Dolce & Gabbana...

Jewellery had moreover symbolic and mythological significance. Due to superstitiousness, necklaces with talismans and amulets enjoyed great popularity. These lucky charms were believed to have magical, protective powers from harm or demons.

 

Patterns:

  • Burda 7977 (surcot laced in the back, sideless surcot)
  • Burda 7468 (maid's and noblewomen's clothes)
  • Butterick 4377 (dress and cape)
  • Butterick 4827 (dress, underskirt, fabric belt)
  • McCall's 4490 (dresses, surcot and bliaut with full bell sleeves)
  • McCall's 4491 (dress with 4 different sleeve variations)
  • McCall's 5499 (dresses for women and girls)
  • McCall's 6376 (dresses for women and girls)
  • Simplicity 2573 (dresses with headpiece and veil)

 - Please note that this list claims no completeness and does not operate as advertisement. It was merely composed for informative purposes. Furthermore, no valuation of the patterns is implied or intended -

 


© Nina Möller