The Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500) were a time when people in Europe did less to adorn themselves than at any period in history. The civilizations that developed in Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. inherited their decorative traditions not from the Romans, who had loved jewelry and decoration, but from the crude barbarian groups, or tribes, that had helped bring about the downfall of Rome. The Catholic religion that developed in Europe also frowned on excessive decoration, and people, early in the Middle Ages especially, simply did not have the wealth to purchase jewelry. Jewelry did exist in the period, in the form of bracelets, necklaces, and rings. Although jewelry was commonly made of gold, the standards of jewelry construction were not high. It was only in the late Middle Ages, when the monarchies, or royal families, in France, Britain, Germany, and Spain began to build up real wealth, that jewelry became common in royal courts.
The lack of decorative jewelry did not mean, however, that people did not care about their appearances. Europeans did inherit the tradition of public baths from the Romans, though they did not bathe as frequently. In fact, one king claimed that he only bathed once every three weeks, and his subjects far less.
Well before the development of modern makeup and hair treatments, women used a variety of concoctions to improve their appearance. Blood-sucking leeches were applied to the skin to make it pale, and a caustic powder called quicklime was used to remove unwanted body hair. Women used mixtures of ingredients to lighten their hair, and they perfumed their bodies with dried roses, spices, and vinegar. Women across Europe used makeup to paint their faces, with the preferred colors varying from pink in Germany to white in Britain to red rouge in Spain. The use of eye makeup was seen in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, including different shades of eyeliner and eye shadow. A notable innovation was the shaping of eyebrows through plucking.
Though Europeans in the Middle Ages did not wear much jewelry, they did have several distinctive accessories. Early in the period men began to use small satchels or purses to carry belongings. These were usually tied to or tucked into a belt. The art of tailoring developed rapidly late in the medieval era, allowing for the creation of close-fitting gloves. New techniques allowed gloves to become a fashion accessory by the twelfth or thirteenth century.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Cosgrave, Bronwyn. The Complete History of Costume and Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. New York: Checkmark Books, 2000.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
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