Costume History/Medieval

Medieval Costumes




The exact dates of the fall of Rome are heavily debated by historians. Many place it at about 476 A.D. The Empire of Rome had been invaded by many Germanic or northern cultures including, Visigoths, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Huns, Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Franks. During these invasions many shipping and highway networks that had allowed for communication and trade between the eastern and western parts of the Empire where destroyed, dividing and segregating it. As a result of this division the artistic and cultural life of Rome was wiped out and replaced by the cultures of these waring tribes. The only unity between these provinces existed solely in the Christian church.

This period is known as the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages. Life in the Middle Ages, even for the nobles, was tough. Food was not good, disease spread, there were no efficient and clean ways of heating homes. Towards the beginning of the Middle Ages the feudal system was developed which was a hierarchy of classes that formed a social structure. In the 11th century a cultural revolution began as a result of the Carolingian Dynasty (771-987) beginning with Charlemagne. Communication avenues opened and became more efficient, an emphasis was again placed on art and culture, and national monarchies were forming in France, England, and Spain; a more modern Europe was developing. There was a general increase in prosperity during this time. However it was still not a great time - The black death reigned for two years in this period wiping out a third of the population in western Europe. Also the crusades were underway in this time period and as a result there was a lot of eastern influence that was brought back and integrated into western culture. The church and state were working together. The 13th century witnessed an emergence of a middle class - trades and guilds developed (like modern day unions in some ways).



Gothic style peaked in the period between the 10th - 11th centuries and the 14th century. At the beginning dress was heavily influenced by the Byzantine culture in the east. However, due to the slow communication channels, styles in the west could lag behind by 25 to 30 year. towards the end of the Middle Ages western Europe began to develop their own style. one of the biggest developments of the time as a result of the crusades people began to use buttons to fasten clothing. Another addition to the clothing world that is credited to the Middle Ages is the development of the tailor. Clothing construction, which had previously been a woman's job was becoming more and more dominant by men. The Middle Ages also saw the birth of individual clothing style, the more wealthy began to wear clothing with individualized patterns and crests that represented their family. (WHY) Soldiers in battle would often have their family crest on their helmets or shields so they could be identified in battle ( possibly because the armor shielding them made them anonymous, they wanted their deeds and their bodies to be identifiable, this was also the time of knights who would want to gain respect from valiant battles.) Most people however, it seems did not wear elaborate costumes on a day to day basis. People wore cloths that were functional and protected them from the sometimes harsh climate. in fact, until the 14th century people of all classes tended to wear very similar clothing. Royalty or nobles would have ceremonial garb for special occasions but would not wear this day to day. both men and women of all classes wore pretty much the same thing in summer and in winter. They typically wore long flowing cloths. They were completely covered ( Christian influence no doubt). And as in Bysintine it was the choice of fabric used to make the cloths that distinguished social class. Both sexes wore a long cloak as an outer garment. Both sexes wore an under tunic and a short over tunic that was belted at the waist (believed to be the origin for the modern skirt or blouse)The rich wore cloaks lined with fur, silk, or gold cloth. Peasants and lower class often wore shorter garments or breeches to ease movement while they worked and people who belonged to guilds would sometimes wear garments or emblems that advertised their trade.



Blaiud - long sleeve tunic - at the beginning went to the knees for men and feet for women. Slowly the Blaiud lengthened to the ankles for men and then shortened again by the end of the Middle Ages.

Pallium - A cloak fastened at the front by a large broach(Frodo Baggins style!)

Chainse - under tunic - made of wool, linen, hemp, or silk and fastened at the neck and wrists by buttons ( a result of the crusades) or tied with tassels. Later it became a piece of lingerie - was made sheer and decorated with lace on the colar and neck. Hot right?

Ermine- Type of fur that lined garments. - made from a weasle- type creature.

Miniver or Menu vair - another fur - gray and white - small skins made from a Russian or Siberian squirrel.

Mantle- type of cape or cloak - loose - draped over the head 9 Madonna and child paintings).

Chaperon- hood - always had a point.

Liripipe - the point on the Chaperon. Varied in length.

Men's cloths of the time were defined by class and trade. Typical pieces in the 13th and 14th centuries included a long sleeve tunic that hung to the knees, worn under a loose gown with wide sleeves that could be belted. they also wore over this and ankle length and sleeveless garment that hung loose around the body called a surcote. other garments included the ganache - loosely fitting with a slit in the sides from shoulder to hip. and the berigault which was a cloak-gown.



Women began by wearing the same style clothing as the men gradually manipulating them to suit the female form. Wealthier women wore more elaborate clothing. dresses that were long and dragged on the ground. skirts drug on the floor and were made of heavy fabrics ( probably to show off their wealth like weight and skin color in other periods). Waits became higher and higher and settles right underneath the chest where there would be an elaborate belt that accentuated that area of the body. sleeves were either fitted or would be very large and some would reach all the way to the ground. In the years where the black death threatened western Europe clothing became more flamboyant. one source claims this to be a typical result when faced by a political or social disaster and compares it to the oil crisis and the immersion of disco in the 1970's. Hemlines rose, necklines dropped, and cloths became more fitted and elaborate and would have a jagged edge, a technique called slittering. By the end of the Middle Ages however, women's cloths returned to being more modest and became absolutely about function. Skirts no longer drug on the ground and sleeves only went to the elbow.

Fabric:The most popular fabric for clothing at this time was wool. By the 15th century there were looms created for the sole purpose of weaving wool. Other fabrics that were used depending on class were linen, various types of fur, and sometimes silks. Fun fact: garments and various household items and tools were stored in oak chests - these were very functional and could double as luggage for wealthy people.

Jewelry:My research on this subject was limited - one source devoted a paragraph to it that merely said it was made of gold and could not compare in the slightest to Byzantine jewelry and so was not really worth talking about.

Footwear: The pointed toe was introduced in the medieval period. these shoes were called poulaine. The point of a show was originally seen as a status symbol - The points grew longer and longer until they reached about 18inch in length. Eventually, they assigned lengths based on classes - commoners with the shortest and so on.

Using clothing to distinguish status in this way I think probably had a lot to so with how people of the time viewed the world - the feudal system is part of this. It is easier to label people in a category by looking at them and what they are wearing so having these indicators would help. I feel as though status had a more strict structure in this time and a set code of behavior so in order to achieve this more efficiently - displaying your status in your cloths would be a must (like getting pinned in the 50's)

Head dresses: as the Middle Ages drug on head dresses became more popular and people began experimenting with the shapes and styles. many head dresses would be combined with a hood, veil, mantle or some other adornment that protected the head from the elements or draped in a way that framed the face. in the 13th century women began to wear crespine or hair nets. Shapes of women's hats of the time included heart-shaped, horn shaped, and conical head dressed. These con-like hats grew in length based on the status of the woman who wore it. One source claimed that there is evidence of it having reached four ft. in length.

Good to know: France became the center of fashion in the middle of the Middle Ages - France has a more stable economy and monarchical system in place and were able to devote their time to fashion. As a result, French people of the time wore more elaborate costumes often lined and adorned with expensive furs, silks, and embroidery.

















  • Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The complete history of costume and fashion New York; Octopus publishing group, 2000.