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. Garments were not the product of working with a pattern. Consquently, it took experience or another dress of the person to sew a new piece of clothing.
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). In the 14th century the clothing became more and more figure-hugging and therefore the undergarments “shrank” likewise and got a supporting function: the use of a bodice had emerged. The bodice was made of linen and sometimes goatskin, boning did not yet exist. Wool (it is best to use loden cloth for period costumes) was a truly universal fabric for many types of garments. With the crusades, cotton from the orient had early found its way to Europe. Yet, pure cotton fabrics were not used but cotton was mixed with linen (Barchent), silk, wool (e.g. cotton – silk – wool). I would advice against using cotton when making medieval clothing as it tends to give things an obviously unmedieval touch.
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).
Colour was achieved by dyeing with herbs and animal products like the purple dye
murex (for red colours). Nearly every shade of colour could be created, from pastel ones to bright colours. Strong blue, like red the most expensive colour, was the result of using indigo, which
needed to be imported. Colours had symbolic significance. They were connected to different social ranks; purple/red for the clergy and the highest nobility, black for the lower clergy and
magistrates, a sallow shade was categorized as a colour of disgrace used to identify for instance prostitutes. People loved colourful clothing and even the poor ones wore (self dyed) coloured
garments so that we have to imagine the medieval streets very bright. Embroidery was worked with wool, silk or gold threats for the wealthy. Braid and ribbons could be made at home or be bought.
More difficult adornment like fringe, tassels and fabric roses needed to be bought.
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 every other. The clothing of this century was extremely extravagant and luxurious. Wool was still the most 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 was conspicuous. Whether few great slashes or many small ones all over the piece of clothing – slashing was chic!
The garments became more voluminous (voluminous = takes a lot of fabric = wearer prosperous), often girdled 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.
Typical medieval dress styles:
Late Antiquity/Early Middle Ages (ca. 500 – 1000):
*end of the antique world, migration period, Christianization, Otto I the Great
and the Holy Roman Empire, Byzantium's golden age*
The cotte was worn in the (early) middle-ages as an outer garment by both women and men inspired by the Byzantine fashion. It was 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. The cotte was worn girdled and for formal occasions a cotte with a train was used. Form the 12th century onwards there was another version: the cotte was close-fitting at the waist and had tight sleeves – very much to the dislike of the Church.
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.
High Middle Ages (ca. 1000 – 1250):
*age of the troubadours, Richard the Lionheart, Magna Carta,
crusades, the spinning wheeln is brought to Europe*
The bliaut is a garment that was worn by noblewomen from the end of the 11th to the 13th century. Burgess´s wives and women of the lower class wore the bliaut, too, yet of simpler materials and not so voluminously cut. It was cut tightly until the waist where many pleats created a voluminous skirt. The sleeves likewise: tight until the elbow, then widening to create (nearly) floor-long full sleeves. The bliaut was ankle- or floor-long and quite high-cut. 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, normally on the lower waist. 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.
After being worn in the 10th and 11th century as a mere under-dress, the Surcot came to the fore as a regular gown. It is cut in the style of a tunic, floor-long and with wrist-long, relatively tight sleeves. Moreover, it had a train, a common feature in that time for noblewomen's everyday clothing, not only for weddings and balls like today. The Surcot could be worn with and without a girdle. Soon, however, in the 14th and 15th century it faded again into the background (as under-gown).
The Surcot developed into the Sideless Surcot called “Teufelsfensterkleid” or "Höllenfensterkleid" (German; English: “hell's windows gown”). It is a sleeveless Surcot with very large sleeve holes, sometimes even down to the hips. As one could see the shape of the body beneath the close-fitting under-dress the Church considered this fashion immoral and lewd; therefore the German expression. Those cut-outs were usually trimmed with fur or braid and the gown was embroidered.
Late Middle Ages (ca. 1250 – 1500):
*rise of the Medici, beginning development towards Renaissance, frequent Plague epidemics,
invention of the mechanical movable type printing, Dante Alighieri*
The houppelande is another gorgeous medieval outer garment. It was fashionable in the late medieval period (14th and 15th century) after its first appearance in around 1380 and was worn in different forms by both males and females. The houppelande is a gown with long flaring sleeves which is girdled under the bust with a decorative belt and has a long, very wide skirt. Both the hem and the sleeves could be floor-long or even longer. The female form of the houppelande is closed in the front while the male is open like a mantle. The commonly V-shaped neckline, the sleeves and the hem were usually trimmed lavishly with fur. Fabrics were noble, heavy velvet in strong colours or brightly patterned Brocade for example. 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. Normally, this garment was adorned with braid, embroidery stitching or pearls to underline the luxury of it. Other elements of houppelandes for women: open in the front like a mantle, buttoned until bust, no hanging sleeves but relatively tight and cone-shaped, no fur trimming.
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. Usually it was colourful and trimmed with braid and embroidery stitching and lined with fur. Another version of cloaks was a semi-circular one. This style of cloak was worn for special occasions: for coronations (most lavishly; made of silk or brocade and lined with taffeta or velvet, embroidered with gold and colourful silk threats and gemstones, patterns had symbolic meanings) and to attend liturgical acts. Unfortunately, the semi-circular cloak lacked any kind of practicality and comfort: the whole weight (considering the adornment and the fabrics enormous) was held by a short and fine band around the neck and pulled painful. Furthermore, the cut did not provide any protection from cold.
For a period of time it was popular to wear small bells attached to the garments (often to hems) that hence distractingly tinkled and clinked at every step. Brooches and clasps were important accessories, too. They used to hold capes and cloaks together (before the upcoming of the button) and had symbolic significance in form of being a talisman or lucky charm. Who could afford wore brooches and clasps in elaborate shapes made of precious metal and gemmed. Girdles could be made of leather, band/ribbon or connected metal elements.
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.
Paleness was considered beautiful and achieved by arteriotomy/bleeding and early forms of make up. White, clear and perfect skin was the beauty ideal, blue eyes with fine eyebrows, the mouth small and red.
The attitude towards bathing was not quite so bad as generally believed. There were even public bath houses where people used to go. Prosperous people had their water heated and filled in the tub in their rooms. There was, however, no understanding for what transmitted sicknesses and the general hygienic standard was low. Throwing garbage on the streets was surely not helping to fight epidemics.
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.
In Italy though, women were normally allowed to wear their hair uncovered even in matrimony. Many twisted it with ribbons and cords and draped the twists around their heads.
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).
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.
The hairnet became fashionable from the mid of the 13th century onwards: it was a fine net made of silk (later also cotton) and occasionally interwoven with silver and gold threats and even adorned with gems and pearls. The hair bag is alike to the hairnet, it is just made of opaque fabric.
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. This fashion stayed in vogue until the mid of the 15th century.
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.
As travelling was expensive beyond the means of many, the communication between different places was sparse and therefore no frequent interchange of fashion and style existed (apart from the courts).
A vast stylistic pluralism was the consequence. Besides the basic trends, there are dozens of different headdresses to be seen in paintings.
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.
- 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 -
Keywords: dress, medieval, middle ages, fashion, art, gown, robe, costume, women, lady,
cotte, surcot, poulaines, heuke, huque, houppelande, bliaut, slash, byzantine, tunic, fur, pomegranate, barchent, chemise, colour, button, schapel, gebende, pillbox hat, Pileus Pannonicus,
fabric, Elizabeth, Woodville, painting, hennin, butterfly hennin, headgear, medieval, fabric, material, Höllenfensterkleid
© Nina Möller