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, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_Ages (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.

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