Medieval Clothing & Dress Accessories
Medieval clothing is an immensely broad term, covering the basic tunics of the 10th century, the cottes and bliants of the 12th and 13th centuries, the fitted kirtles, gowns and cotes of the 14th and 15th centuries to the massive houppelands and Burgundian gowns of the later 15th century.
What I will be primarily dealing with in this website is the 14th century woman’s garments- what they looked like and how they were put together. There is a little general information either side as the lower classes clothing did not differ greatly during a few hundred years. There is a little about the clothing of other clothing.
The 14th century outfit comprised of many layers. The chemise or smock of fine linen was worn next to the skin along with any undergarments. The kirtle or gown, a fitted dress, was worn over that. A surcote of some kind was usually worn by women who could afford to do so as a fashion statement or by other women if it was cooler. This garment could have sleeves and be almost identical to the dress which was under it or be sideless to show off the garment underneath. For traveling, another more voluminous surcote might be added as well as a cloak.
As fabric was handmade and very expensive, clothing was seen as a status symbol- the richer the wearer, the better quality and more costly the fabric and the more voluminous the garments. Wealthier persons wore more layers, often lined with expensive furs in winter, while those with a more moderate income wore less layers which were often unlined. Sumptuary Laws concerned themselves with expensive dress and attempted to limit the fabrics and furs which were permitted to each class of person. The laws of 1363 condemned ‘outrageous and excessive apparel of diverse people, contrary to their estate and degree’ and were exceedingly specific as to what fabrics and furs were permitted to whom.
A noblewomen would not make her own clothing, although she would have a good knowledge of how clothes were made and what was fashionable. Her clothing would be made by a tailor who was hired specifically to make custom-fitted garments for the social elite. If a noble family was wealthy enough and had an extensive staff, they might hire a tailor exclusively.
Her fabrics would be of the finest wools, silks, silk velvets and brocades. Linens would have been fine.
In the case of Royal households, a tailor might be employed full-time along with other laundresses and clothing specialists. Not only did it ensure that the tailor was always available to that family, it prevented other families from hiring him or her. A tailor who worked in a shop in town was available to anyone with the money to pay for his services.
Rich Merchant Class women’s clothes
Rich townswomen may have engaged in their husband’s trade, worked the shop front while he worked producing goods or have been solely in charge of her own household and staff. Her work was neither hard nor grubby. Her fabrics would include fine linens and wools of a high quality. Brocades of some quality would be worn, but not those that equalled the nobility.
Her clothing was also made by hand, whether by herself or bought off the rack from a mercer’s store. Ready-made clothing was available to the rich townswoman, but many women may have still preferred to make their own in order to get a better fit. By sewing her clothing herself, the townswoman was able to have a good-fitting garment without the expense of hiring a professional tailor to make it. Many, of course, did get their clothes tailor-made. Most of these women were very well off and strove to emulate their noblewomen icons in dress.
Although second hand clothes were available to the wealthy townswomen, the thought of being caught in another woman’s hand-me-down would most likely have seemed appalling.
Working Class women’s clothes
Women who worked often carried out their husband’s trade and therefore wore specialised clothes specific to their employment. Other women who worked also had clothing suitable to work in rather than regular clothes with which they might tend the front of a shop. Working class clothes were also made by hand, whether by herself or bought off the rack from a mercer’s store. The fabric available was more varied and of a better quality than that of peasant women, but usually it was of a sturdy nature in order to stand up to the rigors of labour and be durable.
Ready-made clothing was available, but many women may have still preferred to make their own or buy second-hand from a fripperer’s shop. Working class women had less money to spend on clothing but still valued good cloth, and were the class most likely to have purchsed second hand clothes.
A clever lady could remodel or cut down one style of gown into another using the good fabric which she may not have been able to afford normally. Sumptuary laws dictated whether these garments could be lined with furs and what kind of furs were permitted to the lower classes, but in all liklihood, valuable furs were probably stripped from garments before on-selling.
Peasant women’s clothes
Peasant women usually made their own clothing at home. This in now way implies that the quality of their clothing was poor or shoddy. A woman who did all her sewing by hand would be able to produce a high standard of workmanship. The main difference between the clothing worn by a peasant woman and a townwoman would be the quality of the fabric itself and the colours available.
A peasant woman would need to make sure her clothing was strong and durable and since she made it herself- it was all custom made to fit. It needed to be roomy enough to work in around the shoulders but this does not mean her clothes hung like a sack or were not well made.
For the very poor or at special times of the year, clothing might be given to the poor by the wealthy as part of celebrations or as gifts by the church or wealthy patrons who made gifts of clothing to the poor. A peasant woman who worked for a well-off family in town could expect to recieve a new gown as part of her yearly upkeep. Not only was this a form of charity from the part of the employer, in also ensured that the staff they employed were reasonably dresses and fit to be seen as part of their retinue.
Secondhand clothes in wills
Second hand clothing were usually of two kinds. Firstly, clothing that was bought from a second-hand clothing merchant called a fripperer and clothing that was handed down. Often clothing was included in wills and specific beneficiaries were names as to who received what. One example from a private will dated 17 June, 1550 of a man described as a Citizen and Fruiterer of London, England states:
To my sister Magher, the best gown that was my well-beloved wife’s Alice’s, her best kirtle
His own clothing gifts were extremely extensive including fabrics which included velvet, satin and taffeta. The wife’s gown does not specify what the kirtle is made from, so it is to be assumed that it is none of these fabrics or they would have been especially mentioned. This shows that a prosperous merchant could own garments of good enough quality and value that they need to be specified as to who might receive them and not just left for general distribution among family and friends. They were specifically intended to specific persons because of their value.
The will of Joan Buckland, widow, of Edcock who dies in 1462 leaves:\
…all my other gowns and kirtles, that they be given to my women servants dweling with me and my departure. Also to the woman that is by me at the time of my departing… one gown furred with mink.
Clothing was often handed down from a mistress to her ladies-in-waiting. A noblewomen was expected to keep up to date with current fashions and although she might keep an outer garment for a few years the same way we keep a favourite winter jacket, she might look to replace her undergowns which were usualy visible. Undergowns would be handed down, if the fabric was suitable, and re-made or re-fitted to suit the new wearer’s status. Trains might be trimmed and fur removed to make an outfit suitable for a lady-in-waiting.
A 1459 bequest from York from widow Joan Cotyngham, shows that even underwear might be gifted:
I also leave to Joan Day, a poor little woman staying in a certain maison-dieu, my russet gown lined with buckshin and a chemise of linen cloth.
Second hand clothes merchants
Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane in their book Dress in the Middle Ages say that clothing might be bought from sales held in the market square. Buyers might be private persons or secondhand merchants who would re-sell at an increased price. These merchants bought and sold in used clothing much the same as our second-hand clothes shops today with the exception that clothing was by far a more valuable commodity than today and far less disposible. Secondhand clothing dealers were closely monitored and could either have a shop in the town or wander the streets offering their wares.
A person who bought second hand clothes might have it recut to fit the new owner, or have the garment unpicked and remade inside out so that the fabric which was not exposed to the ouside elements became the inside and the fresh side of the fabric became the outer. This process gave a fresh, new look to otherwise faded material.
Hand-me-down clothing was often handed down for the same reason as families do today. Should a growing child outgrow an item of clothing, it would hardly be thrown out; it would be passed down to the next smallest child in the house, especially in households of lower financial standing.
Interpreting Historical Art to Make Medieval Clothing
Great care needs to be taken when interpreting art to make historical clothing. There are a number of issues to consider when collecting information from art, whether it be a painting, manuscript illumination, statue or other representation.
One must be aware that a certain amount of artistic license may have been taken by the painter or illuminator. This can usually be ascertained by looking at the overall style of other objects in the painting for their realism and accurate representation. Where people and animals are elongated, there is a good change that the style has been carried through to household objects and clothing, making objects perhaps seem out of proportion.
Artist representations of religious scenes can be extremely misleading. Often persons are portrayed wearing garments which belong to a much earlier or later time period. In many 15th century paintings, saints and religious figures are painted wearing contemporary clothes. Many pictures of Joan of Arc painted long after she had died, show her wearing contemporary clothing and not clothing of her own time period. This trend is popular amongst religious works particularly.
Many portrait artists, however, faithfully painted in great detail which is of great benefit to recreators of historical clothing today. Many paintings and illuminations when viewed with detail or with magnification, do show a great deal of seam placement, fabric drape and fastenings which are accurate representations of the time period.
The detail from the left panel of the St John Altarpiece painted in 1474-79 by Memling (shown at right) is a good example of one of the more accurate representations from the medieval period. It is those kinds of works I am primarily concerned with here. Paintings like the one at left (top of page) of a young man in the stages of undress show how this particular outfit goes together. The subject is lifelike and the colours, linings, lacings and underwear are all painted similarly so. Details like the wrinkles at the knee where the hose is yet to be stretched upward and attached and the wrinkling on the underpants where the string is lying across the front, give the impression we can accept that a certain standard of accuracy has been observed by the artist.
The 1442 Fouquet at left Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester shows very large buttons on the front of the bodice, but a closer inspection shows that the garment was actually fastened with metal hook-and-eyes which are identical to the ones still in use today. It is to these painters and others like them that we can learn a great deal about medieval clothing.
As any art student knows, a large proportion of early study goes into fabric, texture and drape. To make a modern comparison, a satin formal dress will hang and drape in an altogether different way to a woolen overcoat or cotton skirt. Linen pants will wrinkle in a different way to jeans. It is not enough to look at the seams and design without also putting time and effort into finding out what kind of fabric was likely to have been used for a particular garment being worn by a particular class of person at a particular time of year. Looking at the drape of the fabric will give an indication of the stiffness of the fabric being depicted and may provide some clues.
As you would expect, the quality of fabric would vary for different classes. Silk came in many grades as did wool, which was easily produced by the lower classes themselves. This in no way means that the upper classes did not wear wool. It means that the quality of the wool being worn was of a far superior quality and richness to that being worn by merchants or peasants.
To make a modern comparison, the quality of a wool jumper bought from Kmart for $20 is in no way the same quality as one from Chanel for $400. Both the quality and tailoring would be of a different standard altogether. The image at right from 1410-11 of Christine Presenting Her Manuscript To King Charles VI of France is an example of an illustration which shows gathers and draping of fabric, especially on the men’s garments.
Although I believe the tailoring of home made medieval clothing to be of a better standard than generally supposed- with all sewing done by hand, a relatively high standard of needlework would be achieved by a girl of 12- the clothing produced for the wealthy would still be of far superior tailoring. Many historical re-enactors make the mistake of sewing rough clothing for their portrayal of the lower classes. I believe that even the poor woman would have needed to make clothing as durable and sturdy as possible to make the clothing last, and this would not have been achieved with large uneven stitching or shoddy seams. Even in art, the working class are shown with fabric wearing through, not tearing at the seams.
As our clothing and fabric choices vary with the seasons, it is important to remember that those who lived in the Middle Ages would also have worn lighter fabrics in the summer months and heavier ones in the winter. Not all clothing would have been lined all year round. If decorum dictated that several layers were to be worn by the upper classes, then those layers would have been light. In winter, more clothing would have been lined where the owner could afford it. I t is reasonable to say that some items of clothing may have remained lined at any time of year- similar to the way our jackets are never unlined. I would expect these to be expensive, formal overgarments which make a feature of showing off the linings with large sleeve openings like sideless surcotes. I would expect that surcotes made for the working classes to remain unlined and be of a more practical nature.
Care should also be taken not just to study where the seams do and don’t go, but to ensure that the artwork you are working from is as close to a primary or secondary source as possible. A safe rule of thumb for general wear is to find at least three of the style garment before deciding it was widely worn. A line drawing of a copy of an effigy, for example, may lose detail each time it is redrawn. Black and white images also can be confusing as to which line belongs to which layer, thus sometimes changing the look of a garment entirely.
The statuette at right shows a very common style of men’s clothing which is usually painted one colour like the Gaston Phebus detail at left. It could be supposed from paintings alone, that the curves at the back are joining seams and the armholes are huge to allow for freedom of movement during battle. This colour version seems to indicate that instead of being the Grand Asiette pattern (all sewn in one piece), the garment may have been two garments, similar to the sideless surcote which was popular with ladies. It appears that the cream fabric is stiffer and thicker by far than the fine, draped sleeves, hinting that instead of being one garment, it is in fact two layers of different types of fabric.
The fresco painted by Di Manta in approximately 1411-16, The Fountain Of Youth (detail below) although depicting a mythical event, goes into great detail showing people in various stages of undress. Of the two chemises or smocks shown in this detail, one is a thicker opaque material which drapes less (possibly a linen and cut to a basic smock shape) and another is shown to be very sheer with many pleats (possibly fine silk gathered onto a neckline). These are both undergarments, both long and both white, yet a quick glance will show that they are two very different types of garment.
I do find the laced up kirtle at the right side rather interesting as it seems to have a different coloured bottom to the top yet be sewn together with a joining seam at the waist and laced as one down the front with the spiral style of lacing. As I haven’t noticed that style of dress in any other place, I feel it’s possibly an undergarment with costlier material on the top to show off expensive sleeves under an outer garment and a less expensive fabric on the bottom where it can’t be seen. As this is the only one I’ve seen, I’d not recommend it be used as a style guide.
Among the many things to consider when doing research is the validity of the work. Whilst many old books have fabulous information, it is important to check modern thoughts, current ideas and where the information comes from initially. There are a huge number of books on medieval costuming and it must be remembered that to a large portion of the population, fantasy dresses and fancy dress costumes are one and the same as historical medieval.
Paintings, manuscripts, monuments, effigies, statues and religious icons are all great places to start clothing research and the accessories that go with them. Books from museums and art catalogues are invaluable as long as you take into consideration the reason for the piece being made and the likelihood of it being an item common enough for recreating.