Clothing of the Middle Ages
The Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500) was, as its name implies, a great age of transition. The Roman Empire (27 B.C.E. –476 C.E. ), which had provided the structures of civilization across Europe for nearly five hundred years, collapsed in 476, and bands of nomadic people who the Romans had called barbarians—Goths, Huns, Vandals, Franks, and others—took control of much of western Europe. Roman trading networks, civil administration, and learning disappeared, to be replaced by the cruder social structures of the barbarians. These new Europeans retained the Catholic Church and the Latin language, yet most every other area of culture changed. Nowhere were these cultural changes more apparent than in the area of clothing. The fine linen and silk togas and draped robes of the Romans disappeared and were replaced by crude wool leggings and fur-lined tunics, or shirts. Over the course of the next one thousand years, however, the emerging kingdoms of Europe began to develop more refined costume traditions of their own. Clothing traditions in Europe developed slowly at first, with only minor changes in basic costume until about the eleventh century. After the eleventh century, trade, travel, and wealth increased, and clothing became more sophisticated. By the end of the Middle Ages, Europe was developing distinctive and refined costume traditions of its own.
Simple wool garments of the early Middle Ages
The different tribes of nomads who defeated the Roman Empire and populated Europe had developed their clothing amid a very different climate than ancient Rome's. Cool weather and sheep herding traditions led them to rely on wool as their primary fabric, and most of their garments were made from wool. The tunic, made of a long rectangle of wool with a hole in the center for the head and crude stitching at the sides, was the basic garment for both men and women throughout the Middle Ages. People would typically wear a thin undertunic and a heavier overtunic. These varied in length, with women's tunics falling all the way to the ground throughout the period, and men's tunics gradually rising so that by the end of the period they looked much like a modern shirt. Both sexes wore a belt around their tunics. Men typically wore leg coverings, ranging from simple trousers early in the period to a combination of hose and breeches, or short pants, later in the period. Both sexes also wore a tunic made of fur when the weather was cold. Fur was widely used by people of all classes, with the richer people being able to afford softer furs such as ermine, or weasels, and mink.
One of the real problems historians have in understanding clothing in the early Middle Ages is that so little of it has survived. Unlike ancient Egyptians, who preserved the bodies of the dead and left many items of clothing in their protected tombs, early Europeans simply buried their dead in the ground, where their burial clothes quickly rotted and disintegrated. Early Europeans also did not value paintings that recorded daily life in a realistic way. Most of their art—primarily paintings, tapestries, and sculptures in churches—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. Records for the period improved from about the eleventh century onward.
Medieval fashion and the rise of the tailor
The turning point in medieval fashion came in the eleventh century. Emerging monarchies in France, England, and Spain created courts with real wealth to spend on fashionable clothes. These monarchies sent knights and soldiers on religious crusades to the Middle East beginning in 1090, and the returning crusaders brought with them ideas and clothes from the developed societies of the
One of the real innovations in medieval fashion was that men's and women's clothing began to develop in completely different directions. Women continued to wear long robes, but the robes were now made in separate pieces of fabric, with a snug-fitting top or bodice matched to a flowing, bountiful skirt. Men's tunics, which had once reached to the ankle, got much shorter, until by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they ended at the waist. Men also wore tight-fitting hose that showed off the shape of their legs.
One of the primary causes of this fashion revolution was the emergence of the professional tailor. In the past, people had made their own clothes or, if they were wealthy, they had servants make clothes for them. For most this meant clothes were fairly simple. In the developing kingdoms of Europe, however, skilled craftsmen began to organize themselves into guilds, or organizations of people with similar trades. One such trade was tailoring, making, repairing, and altering garments. These tailors developed their skills and soon made tailoring a job for men instead of women. By 1300 there were seven hundred tailors working in Paris, France. Tailors across Europe developed new methods of cutting and sewing that allowed for closer fitting, more intricately tailored clothing. The impact of professional tailoring can be seen in the clothes of the late Middle Ages but really became pronounced during the Renaissance of the fifteenth century and beyond.
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.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.
Piponnier, Françoise, and Perrine Mane. Dress in the Middle Ages. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.
Wagner, Eduard, Zoroslava Drobná, and Jan Durdík. Medieval Costume, Armour, and Weapons. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2000.