Monday, January 26, 2009

Medieval Clothing in Europe During the Late 800s

Today’s post looks at medieval clothing in Western Europe in the 800s. One of the earliest artwork examples I have found are illuminated Bibles from the 800s. Around 870 to 875, Ingobertus illuminated the Bible of San Paolo in Rheims, France for Charles the Bald. The scene depicting the story of King Solomon’s judgment shows an example of the clothing worn during that time. (1)

All of the men in the picture, including the guards are wearing the same type of knee-length tunic. Only the king and saints, with their golden halos, wear longer clothes. In the picture, there is little to distinguish between peasants and nobles. Only spears, shields or swords distinguish the guards. This matches with what I have learned about medieval clothing so far. Clothing in Europe in the 800s was not as much of a status symbol as it became during the late medieval and during the Renaissance, so there was less distinction between the clothing of nobles and peasants. However, upper class people wore better quality materials.

During this time, men, both peasants and nobles, wore knee-length tunics girded about the waist and breeches. Longer robes and tunics were worn in royal courts and by churchmen.(2) In the upper right corner, there is a man wearing a knee-length tunic made of the same material as the king’s robe, so I think he is a noble, if not royalty. Except for the material, he is dressed in the same style as every other man in the picture. I have tried, without success, to find an interpretation telling more about the roles of the people depicted in this illumination.

For the type of material used for clothing, please see the previous post about medieval clothing in Western Europe. The pictures are my interpretation of what the clothing looked like based on details from the illumination.

Medieval Men’s Clothing:

1. A calf-length cloak attached at the right shoulder with a brooch. In general, the right arm and hand is free with the cloak covering the left arm. The left hand is hidden beneath the cloak and gathering up the material. The colors of the cloaks are red, dark red and light blue. The brooches are round and appear to be gold or bronze (?). They appear to have various designs, which are difficult to distinguish in the picture. Views from behind show extra material, like a hood, hanging down the back as part of the cloak. The king’s cloak goes to his feet and his rectangular brooch is much larger.

2. A loose knee-length tunic belted around the waist. The tunic material hangs down over the belt. The tunic colors are dark red, yellow, white and brown. The yellow and white tunics have brownish-red vertical strips. The stripes are widely spaced, with one going down the center of each leg. The king’s tunic is mostly covered by his cloak. Only the right arm shows. However, I hypothesize that his tunic goes to his feet. Its color is purplish-white with large, gold dots placed in groups of three.

3. Presumably (although not seen) a lighter, linen tunic is worn beneath.

4. Breeches covering the legs and cinched tight right below the knee with leg bands. Some of the men are wearing breeches that clearly cover all of their legs, on others it looks like the breeches end where tied right below the knee. A few look as if they are not wearing any breeches at all, yet they still have the leg bands right below the knee. Breech colors are yellow, red and white. The material of the breech is tight around the calf but on some men, it looks looser above the leg bands. Based on Ingobertus’ picture it is difficult to tell whether the leg band ties hang down on the front, back or side of the leg. In the picture, the ties always appear off the side of the leg, regardless of how the person is facing. It is not possible to tell from the picture whether the legs of the breeches are separate pieces of material on each leg or if they are sewn together like pants.

5. Boots go up to mid-calf and appear to have ties at the top, matching the style of leg bands just below the knees. Boot colors are red, white, blue and brown. It is not clear from the picture what material the boots are made with: dyed leather, wool, or linen? One man wears boots that are laced across the front from the toe all the way up to the top.

6. None of the men wear hats or head coverings. The king wears a large gold crown. One man, whom I believe to be part of royalty, rides a white donkey, wears a foot-length tunic of the same material as the king, and has a gold circlet on his head. Their hair is short coming only to the nape of the neck. No beards or mustaches except on the king and saints.

Medieval Women’s Clothing:

There are two women depicted in the illumination. I do not know whether the women are wearing peasant or upper class clothing.

1. The women are wearing a loose piece of material that drapes over the head, across the shoulders and around the body. It does not appear to be fastened with any brooches or ties. I am not sure if this is realistic or if it is just showing clothing commonly assigned to women in biblical settings. The color is yellow/white. The drapery conceals the length and styling of their hair, although it appears to be long and hanging down the back.

2. There are three layers of tunics. The outer tunic has shorter sleeves coming to the middle of the upper arm. The outer layer is floor-length and covers the body from the base of the neck to the toes. One woman’s tunic is light red/pink with dark red trim around the neck and arm. The other woman’s tunic is bright red.

3. The drapery conceals the whether the women are wearing a belt around the waist. However, per secondary sources, it is likely.(3) If there is a belt it is clear from the picture that is around the waist and not higher, like it is during later periods.

4. The only visible part of the second tunic is loose sleeves falling to the middle of the lower arm. The length of the second tunic is unknown, but probably floor length. The color is bluish-white.

5. The only visible part of the third tunic is tight, wrist-length sleeves. The length of the tunic is unknown, but probably floor-length. The color is bluish-white.

6. No feet and thus no shoes are visible.

Reviewing the above pictures, I am startled by how much the men’s clothing resembles Roman clothing as seen in movies. I have not specifically researched the clothing worn by Romans so I do not know how closely they match in details. However, it does make sense for medieval clothing to resemble Roman clothing, even as late as the 800s. Clothing styles did not start changing significantly until around the 1100s. (4)

Thank you for reading this post about medieval clothing!


(1) To view the illumination by Ingobertus go to

(2) Philip Steele The Medieval World: A History of Fashion and Costume (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005), 10.

(3) Philip Steele The Medieval World. . . , 10.

(4) Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, Early Cultures Across the Globe (Vol. 2: Fashion, Costume, and Culture) (New York: The Gale Group, 2004), 297.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Medieval Clothing in Western Europe: A Brief Overview

Medieval clothing in western Europe underwent some very interesting transformations. During the medieval period, it is possible to see how social structures and outside forces influence and change the clothing worn by people. In the first part of the period, medieval clothing was mostly static. By the end of the period, the medieval clothing of Europe was coming into its own, changing rapidly and used more than ever to make social statements.
As Sara and Tom Pendergast note in their book about fashion history, “The Middle Ages was perhaps the last period in European history when clothing was primarily a simple matter of necessity rather than extravagant, ever-changing fashion.”(1)

Medieval Clothing Time Period

The Medieval period is also known as the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. It is roughly the period between the Classical Age of Greece and the Roman Empire and the beginning of the Renaissance, roughly the 400s to the beginning of the 1500s. There is some dissension among historians over what years should be included in the medieval period. The table below shows dates for the medieval period as provided by several sources. Clearly, the end of the medieval period overlapped the beginning of the Renaissance, which was from around mid-1300s to mid-1600s, depending on the country. Therefore, while some clothing is both Medieval and Renaissance, this is not always the case. It is important to note that there is, of course, some carryover from one period to the next. Clothing styles did not just suddenly change from Medieval to Renaissance. Clothing changed over a time as the attitudes and ideas of the medieval period gave way to Renaissance ways of life. Like with Renaissance clothing, medieval clothing styles are numerous and there are many regional differences.

Dates Source
400s to end of 1400s Andrew Langley, Medieval Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996), 6.
400 - 1500 The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval Europe ed. George Holmes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), v.
476 - 1453 Philip Steele, The Medieval World: A History of Fashion and Costume (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005), 5.
Began around 400 to 476 and ended around 1453 to 1517 Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., “Middle Ages,” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, (accessed 17 December 2008).

Researching Medieval Clothing

As I covered in a previous post, one of the best ways to research historical costumes is by looking at artwork completed by artists alive during the historical period. So far, however, I have had some difficulty finding paintings from the medieval period, especially the earliest years. In my experience, artwork dated before the 1300s is not easily accessible (meaning viewable online). Perhaps little medieval artwork survived to this day. Another possibility is the medium of the artwork. Tapestry, mosaic, fresco on buildings, or sculpture and reliefs of various types mean that photographs or visits to actual locations are necessary to view the artwork. Other forms of artwork during the period include illuminated manuscripts and icons. Icons, by the way, were “small wood-panel paintings, believed to possess supernatural powers” and depicted saints and martyrs.(2) Illuminated manuscripts were, during the middle ages, usually religious text illustrated with miniature pictures, initials, and borders. One fashion history book also notes the difficulty in finding examples of medieval clothing, “Early Europeans also did not value paintings that recorded daily life in a realistic way. Most of their art . . . was about religious subjects. Luckily, they depicted religious figures wearing clothing from the Middle Ages, so we do have some record of what people wore.”(3) In researching the medieval period, I have had to resort to more secondary sources.

Influences on Medieval Clothing

When the Romans ruled Europe, they provided organized market systems and well-kept roads. After the Roman Empire fell, most of these benefits disappeared as various factions and cultures battled and bargained for dominance. During the early part of the medieval period, about 400 – 900, the population shifted around, especially in Northern Europe as various tribes and groups migrated, invaded, conquered and re-conquered the land. The extensive markets and roads of the Romans disappeared in most of Europe. As a result, the stable outflow and inflow of goods from other regions disappeared. For the first part of the medieval period, Europeans made their clothing with the goods they had at hand, mostly wool, linen, and hemp. Some silk was available from the east. Nobles, of course, wore finer clothing than peasants. With little outside influx of ideas, materials and wealth, clothing styles did not change much.

It was not until societies stabilized in Europe and reaped the benefits of that stabilization, around the 1100s, that clothing began to change. At this time, several things occurred. First, organized governments established themselves, providing focal points for style and the wealth to purchase finer materials.(3) In addition, markets became more organized and travel began to occur more often. Second, the crusades started in the late 1000s, resulting in the introduction of eastern clothing materials and styles to Europe. Third, guilds were organized which specialized in the weaving of cloth and the tailoring of clothes. Due to the guilds, a workforce developed with specialized skills related to clothing.(4) New materials and styles became available. Fourth, cloth became one of the primary products of Europe.(5) With the influx of new clothing styles, ideas, materials and wealth, fashion for the sake of appearance and status really took off. Clothing for nobles and wealthy merchants changed the most while peasant clothing remained mostly stable, though better quality materials were available.(6) During this period, sumptuary laws limiting the amount of money spent on clothing and the purchase of certain materials to nobles began appearing.(7)

Medieval Clothing Material

As mentioned above, medieval people primarily wore clothing made with wool, linen, and hemp. Wool came from sheep, obviously. The linen, a finer and lighter material, was made from the fiber removed from the stems of flax plants. Hemp made a rough cloth for slaves or the poorest. Wealthier people wore fine silk, though during the early years, silk was rare, as was cotton. Both became more common toward the end of the medieval period. Fabric was dyed using plant parts like leaves, roots, or bark. The poorest did not dye their clothing. Wealthier people, like nobles and merchants, trimmed their medieval clothing in fine fur.(8) In colder months, cloaks made of sheepskins, fur, hide and wool provided warmth to all levels of society.

Shoes came in leather made from calf or goat. Upper class women sometimes wore embroidered linen shoes. During muddy times, wooden platforms, called “pattens,” were strapped to the bottom of shoes to protect them from mud. During the early part of the medieval period, hats were rare and made of straw or wool felt. Women wore linen head wraps. Towards the end of the medieval period, around the end of the 1400s, the high headdresses worn by women started becoming fashionable. Jewelry in the form of brooches, necklaces, pins, and earrings was made of gold, silver, and natural materials like deer horn.(9) Both men and women wore girdles or belts over their tunics.

Thanks for reading this post about medieval clothing history!


(1) Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, Early Cultures Across the Globe (Vol. 2: Fashion, Costume, and Culture) (New York: The Gale Group, 2004), 299.

(2) Carol Strickland, Ph.D. and John Boswell, The Annotated Mona Lisa (Kansas City: Andrews and McMeel, 1992), 24.

(3) Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, Early Cultures Across the Globe . . ., 298.

(4) Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast, Early Cultures Across the Globe . . ., 299.

(5) Philip Steele, The Medieval World: A History of Fashion and Costume (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005), 16.

(6) Philip Steele, The Medieval World . . ., 21, 22.

(7) Philip Steele, The Medieval World . . ., 21.

(8) Andrew Langley, Medieval Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996), 51.

(9) Philip Steele, The Medieval World . . ., 12.