Medieval fashion refers to the clothing worn by Europeans during the Middle Ages, which began in roughly 500 BCE and ended in 1500 CE.
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What is Medieval Fashion?
Medieval fashion is the different clothing styles and trends that were worn by the people of Europe during the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages spans from the time when the Roman Empire collapsed in the west in 410 until roughly 1485 CE when the Renaissance began.
Medieval fashion includes the garments, accessories, and overall aesthetic choices of both men and women during this period. The fashion of the Middle Ages was influenced by several different factors, including a person’s social status in the feudal system that governed Europe during this time.
Medieval clothing was used as a way of identifying one’s place within the strict social hierarchy of Medieval Europe. Styles and trends in Medieval fashion evolved, influenced by things such as economic prosperity, cultural exchanges, the church, and trade routes.
Throughout the period trends came and went, as with any period. During the late Medieval period, for example, clothing became more form-fitting, men’s tunics became shorter, and at one point laces were immensely popular only to be replaced by buttons.
What Was Fashion Like in the Medieval Times?
Fashion during Medieval times was similar for both men and women and the rich and the poor, in that they consisted of similar items of clothing. What distinguished the upper classes from the lower levels of society were the decorations and quality of materials used in their garments, as well as the colors. The clothing worn by peasants was made for practicality.
The wealthy members of Medieval society would add fur, embroidery, jewels, and metal to their clothing. The cut of the upper classes’ clothing was also more sophisticated than that of the lower classes.
Men’s fashion changed far more rapidly than women’s fashion during this period, as they did not face as many societal restrictions.
The tunics people wore were usually one color, but would sometimes have a second color in the lining. The tunics worn by nobility would have intricate embroidery at the neck, hem, or cuffs.
Colored tunics were reserved for the upper class, with peasants wearing undyed wool. The color worn by a person could indicate their role in Medieval society, with scholars wearing red robes that were dyed using expensive crimson dye made from crushed Kermes insects.
Just as scholars and nobles were easily distinguishable thanks to their style of clothing, medieval knights, the clergy, and heralds were equally identifiable. Certain styles and colors were worn by each group, giving Medieval clothes an important function.
What Influenced Medieval Fashion?
In Medieval times what people wore was dictated by their social status and position within the feudal system. Those at the bottom of the system, the peasants, or serfs, were legally not allowed to spend a lot of money on clothing, due to certain laws.
Additionally, Medieval fashion was heavily influenced by the kings and queens of the period. The monarchy of the time is often depicted in bejeweled ceremonial dress, particularly by the Christian Byzantine emperors.
Biblical figures in particular, such as King David are pictured wearing the bejeweled ceremonial dress. Many of the texts available during this time were biblical in nature, and so images of King David’s clothing were a popular fashion inspiration.
What people wore was influenced by their profession, social status, location, and culture.
The medieval clothes worn by the different cultural groups of England such as the Normans, Anglo-Danes, Anglo-Saxons, and Britons varied greatly.
Sumptuary Laws were first imposed in the 13th century to limit the purchase of luxurious items such as certain foods and clothing by the lower classes. These laws also impacted the upper classes, especially in Medieval France.
In France, the amount of clothing someone could buy was directly linked to their income and the amount they spent on rent.
These laws were introduced to ensure the upper crust of Medieval society remained distinguished from ordinary people. Sumptuary Laws also manifested in the forms of fines that were imposed when it was felt that someone spent too much money on a frivolous item.
Later Influences on Medieval Fashion
In later periods, Medieval fashion became heavily influenced by events like the Crusades, as new technology, fabrics, and styles were introduced to Europe from the Middle East.
As technology developed, so did the clothing styles. The invention of the broadloom had the largest impact on Medieval fashion. Once clothing became more accessible, people began wearing more layers. Eventually, the more layers of fabric a person wore, signified their wealth and status.
Additionally, Medieval fashion was influenced by the spiritual beliefs of the time and an extension of that; the church.
The Influence of the Church on Medieval Fashion
The Catholic Church had a significant influence over Medieval fashion. During the Medieval period, the church was an extremely powerful institution with moral authority. The church played a large role in shaping and regulating various aspects of Medieval society, including fashion.
The church emphasized modesty and piety in personal appearance and promoted clothing styles that covered the body modestly, especially for women. Women were encouraged to wear a wimple, which is a headdress that covered the hair and neck. Men were encouraged to keep their hair and beards well-groomed, and in line with modesty standards.
What Did People Wear in Medieval Times?
Medieval clothes were mostly made from wool, with undergarments made from linen. Silk would be used too, but these items were usually reserved for special occasions. Men and women both wore underclothes and outer clothes.
Medieval dress for men and women was similar at times throughout the centuries but deviated at the beginning of the period and later years. The medieval dress began simply, as the technology of the time was limited. As the period progressed and technology with it, medieval dress underwent several transformations.
Despite the various trends and fashions that came and went during the period, medieval dress consisted of the same base items throughout.
Types of Clothing in Medieval Fashion
Underclothes were basic garments made from linen or hemp. Women wore a long-sleeved chemise beneath their clothing, while men wore a similar garment called a braie. These were also long-sleeved, with a hemline that fell just below the knee.
Over their underclothes, men and women wore tunics, with men’s tunics being slightly shorter with wider sleeves. The tunics were fastened around the neck or held together by ring broaches.
The outerwear worn by men and women was similar and consisted of another tunic. This second tunic had either much looser sleeves or none at all and was more fitted at the waist. There were different types of outer clothes, with fur-lined tunics for winter called pelisson’s, and the poncho-like tabard.
A belt was worn over the second tunic, tied at the waist. The belt was used as a fashion statement and was adorned with jewels and had a metal buckle. Cloaks and mantles were worn when leaving the home, which were usually fur-lined.
The type of fur worn was a large indicator of status and wealth in Medieval fashion. People lined their cloaks and hats with all types of fur including, squirrel, rabbit, fox, sheep, sheepskin fleece, and even cat. Grey, silver, and white fur were preferred.
Both men and women clad their legs in hose or long stockings, with men’s stockings reaching their knees. Women’s stockings fell slightly lower than men’s, secured with a garter below their knees.
Hats and Headdresses in Medieval Fashion
Hats and head coverings were an important piece of Medieval dress, for the upper classes there were several different styles of hats for different purposes. Headdresses for women showed modesty and values that aligned with the church.
Hats were not only a fashion choice in the Middle Ages, but like other items of clothing, were a symbol of wealth.
The pointed hat was particularly popular later in the period. The lower levels of society wore hats for practical purposes.
Shoes in Medieval Fashion
On their feet, Medieval Europeans wore pointed shoes, usually made from leather. Pointed leather shoes served as an indicator of a person’s social status with really pointy shoes indicating a high rank.
Pointed shoes were a trend that stuck, but at the beginning of the era, shoes were more of a practical necessity rather than a fashion statement. Leather boots and silk slippers were also worn.
What Did Nobles Wear in the Middle Ages?
The nobility wore distinctive clothing that was brightly colored and decorated, made from rich fabrics of the highest quality. Nobles favored crimson, purple, blue, green, and yellow fabrics for their fur-lined cloaks and tunics, embracing lavishness and opulence in their attire.
While visually stunning, the clothing choices often resulted in impractical dresses. The weight and restrictions of fabric layers, embellishments, and fur linings could impede movement and practicality.
Those at the top of the social hierarchy would add decorations to their outfits in the form of feathers, tassels, and fringes to distinguish themselves from the peasants. The nobility could afford expensive fabrics, elaborate decorations, and skilled tailoring, allowing them to display their social standing, wealth, and power through their clothing.
What Did Women Wear in the Middle Ages?
Over the centuries that made up the Medieval Period, women’s dress styles changed and evolved. Women’s clothing was designed with the fact in mind that their bodies would change during pregnancy and child-rearing. Their underclothes had an elongated opening in the front, making it easier to dress, and to nurse infants.
Working and married women would often cover their hair completely, with a wimple, cap, or hat. Women often wore flat-topped or pointed hats during the Middle Ages, which had elegant veils hanging around their faces.
Most of the time the headdresses women wore were veiled, a delicate draping of fabric that hung from the sides of the head to the neck but did not cover their faces.
Medieval Dress at the Start of the Period
Medieval fashion for women during the early middle ages (the fifth and sixth centuries), or the Dark Ages as it is referred to, consisted of a long garment that mirrored the Greek peplos. This early dress style was composed of a piece of long, rectangular cloth that was pulled up to a woman’s armpit.
The cloth was fastened with brooches at the back and shoulders as there was no fastening at the time. This garment was worn over another, long-sleeved dress or undergarment.
During the colder months, these garments contained a fur lining to keep the wearer warm.
Early Medieval Fashion
In the seventh and ninth centuries, women’s fashion began to be influenced by the Byzantine Empire and the Frankish Kingdom. It was during this time that linen became more accessible, and undergarments began being made from the fabric.
In the tenth and eleventh centuries, Medieval fashion evolved. During this period women wore a sleeveless garment over their underclothes which had embroidery along the sleeves and borders of the garment.
The long sleeves of the undergarments were straight, with a slight flare at the wrist. By the time the eleventh century began, there were several different sleeve styles worn by women.
On their feet, women wore simple slippers and boots that reached their ankles. The entire outfit was finished with a head covering. The headdress was usually a scarf that was wrapped around the head and neck, or a type of hood that contained an opening for the face.
Historians believe that the hooded style worn by women during the period was influenced by Near Eastern Art.
The Evolution of Medieval Women’s Fashion
Women in later periods wore similar items of clothing to men during the Middle Ages. Wealthy women wore long tunic dresses or kirtles that reached the floor with long sleeves that were made from exquisite fabric. Women belonging to the lower class wore simple dress tunics made from hemp or wool in their natural, undyed form.
The dresses worn by wealthy women were long-sleeved and form-fitting. They were usually one color and had intricate embroidery on the hem, neck, or cuff of the sleeve.
The belts worn by women around their waist usually had delicate chains attached to them, called chatelaine, where decorative pieces were hung. Women belonging to the lower levels of society, used these belts for more practical purposes, hanging the tools needed for their daily activities on them.
Later Medieval Fashion
In the 13th century, clothing was still made up of several layers. women wore dresses that were more tightly fitted and had lower necklines. The surcoat was also introduced during this period. The surcoat was originally worn by men who were knights, but during this period the style was adapted to be worn by normal men and women.
A woman’s surcoat was a floor-length sleeveless garment that had an exaggerated opening for the arms, showing the garment beneath. The new fashion received criticism from some members of Medieval society, who felt that the garment was immodest. The surcoat was also incorporated into the ceremonial dress worn by wealthy women.
The layers of clothing would soon be replaced by the gown, which was introduced towards the end of the 14th century. The skirt was also introduced during this time.
By the end of the 14th century, women’s Medieval fashion included the smok undergarment, hose, and a kirtle (dress), over which a girdle or belt was worn. Other items worn by women were the surcoat, hood, skirt, cape, and bonnet.
Men’s Fashion During the Middle Ages
Men’s Medieval fashion, like women’s, varied based on their social status, occupation, and the region in which they lived. Unlike women’s fashion, men’s Medieval fashion changed often and more dramatically throughout the period. Mostly, their hemlines grew shorter throughout the centuries!
As the Medieval period progressed, the hemlines of men’s tunics became shorter, ending just above the knee in the 14th Century. There was a rather strange trend during the 15th century, where tunics were so short, they revealed men’s buttocks.
Men’s Medieval Fashion in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries
At the dawn of the Medieval era, men wore simple woolen undergarments, ankle-length trousers, tunics, and cloaks with a fur lining. The cloaks, which were woolen for the lower classes, were fastened with a single, round brooch or tied with leather.
Like women, men wore several layers of clothing. The tunics of this time usually stopped at the knee, were long or short-sleeved, and were one garment that did not need to be fashioned or clipped. Men wore a girdle or belt over the tunic that sat on their waist. Along with trousers, men wore leggings made from leather or wool to protect their legs.
Men’s Fashion in the Middle of the Era
From roughly the 7th Century onwards, fashion became a way for a person to distinguish their place in the social hierarchy of the period. The tunics men of the upper classes wore now had embellishments on them, such as gold and silver chains or crosses.
The practical dress of the lower classes remained undecorated and shorter than a nobleman’s.
Collars, hoods, and fur or linen waistcoats were introduced during this period, worn in conjunction with a cloak or a wrap-over coat. The coat was knee-length and had deep sleeves, which for noblemen, were often embroidered.
Men’s trousers transformed during these centuries, falling to the knee instead of the ankle. Leather stockings were worn over the exposed portion of the leg. Socks began to be worn over the leather, which was made from linen and ended at the knee. On their feet, men wore pointed black shoes called pigaches.
Men’s Medieval Fashion in the 12th and 13th Centuries
In the 12th century, men’s tunics changed, becoming shorter and more tightly fitting. Men’s undergarments and the tunics they wore over them had a slit up the front of them to make it easier for noblemen to ride horses.
Later in the period, the slit was removed, and larger armholes were introduced, as were 5 new styles of tunics designed for better movement. Slits in the sides of the tunic, resembling modern-day pockets also appeared during this time.
The necklines of men’s tunics were either diagonal or horizontal. The sleeves of the tunic were now bell-shaped at the wrist and worn rolled up if needed. If men during this time wore a belt or girdle, their sword, wallet, or purse would hang from it.
Over the outfit, men would wear a cloak or a mantle, which was fur-lined for the wealthy and plain for the poor. Men wore brightly colored and patterned legwear during this period, with stripes being particularly popular.
In the 13th century, men wore stockings that ended below the knee and were now decorated. Men wore hoods that were now separate from their cloaks, and hats made from silk, which resembles berets.
Shoes became a fashion piece during this time. They were open on the top of the foot and fashioned by a buckle or broach at the front. The shoes worn by wealthy men were often decorated, while peasants’ shoes were plain.
Brightly colored knee-length or mid-calf boots made from leather, animal skin, or silk, also became fashionable in the 13th century.
A new style of hat was introduced during the 13th century that quickly became popular. The new type of hat had a round brim, which was stylishly turned up at the back. The turn-up could also be worn at the front.
Additionally, hats with round crowns became popular, with some boasting a distinct knob on the crown.
14th-Century Medieval Fashion
The tunics worn by men during the 14th century once again became more form-fitting, and their hemline decreased. The looser styles of tunics continued to be worn by the peasants, while the nobility swapped theirs for the gipon or doublet. The doublet was a knee-length, tightly fitted garment with a low neck and fitted sleeves.
The doublet was a vest worn over the undershirt and had a padded bodice and was laced or buttoned at the front. It was shortened to mid-thigh as the century progressed.
The cotehardie became the outerwear of choice during this century, which was a uni-sex close-fitting, tailored tunic worn with a belt or girdle. The cotehardie had a low neckline, fell to the knees, and was either buttoned or laced from the waist upwards. From the waist down the piece flared into an open-fronted skirt.
The cotehardie boasted intricately designed sleeves that extended to the elbow at the front and elegantly cascaded in tapered and elongated flaps at the back. For the lower classes, the cotehardie was looser and did not fasten up the front, and could be pulled on over the head.
Men continued to wear hoods and hats during the century. Small hats with closely turned-up brims emerged as a stylish trend. As the century drew to a close, men began to decorate their hats with feathers.
What Fancy Clothes Did They Wear in the Middle Ages?
In Medieval times, fancy or luxurious clothing was primarily worn by the nobility. This is because the lower classes as a society either could not afford such clothing or had no reason to own such items.
The clothing typically worn for special occasions or courts were more glamorous versions of the everyday clothing worn by the nobility. Wealthy men wore finely tailored tunics made from silk or brocade for formal occasions.
At royal courts, where many of the nobility spent much of their time, the fashion became more extravagant and ceremonial. The clothing worn at court included ceremonial robes, and mantles (worn over the entire body).
Fancy Clothing Worn by Women
A noblewoman would wear gowns and robes made of luxurious fabrics such as silk and brocade. These gowns were similar in style to the clothing worn during the day but were decorated in a far more extravagant manner. These dresses were often adorned with jewels, and precious stones, and were richly embroidered.
Elaborate belts and girdles were worn to accentuate the waist and were usually made from rope, or metal, studded with gemstones.
Women’s dresses for special occasions usually contained intricate embroidery, used to create beautiful patterns on the sleeves and hems of the garments. The robes worn over these dresses were usually fur lined and fashioned with a beautifully crafted broach.
To complete the outfit, wealthy women wore a headdress known as a hennin. These were cone-shaped hats decorated with jewels and veils.
The fancy clothing styles and the evolution of medieval fashion throughout the period show that it was complex and intricate. Although we may not think of Medieval fashion as being as glamorous as the Victorian Era or as extravagant as the Renaissance, it holds its own unique charm.
The fashion of the Medieval period is a captivating tapestry of artistry and symbolism, reflecting the social, cultural, and religious nuances of the time.