Headwear of the Middle Ages

People living in Europe during the long period of history known as the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500) wore a variety of different hairstyles and headwear. As with other elements of medieval costume, these styles were fairly simple up until about the twelfth century, when increasing wealth and changes in social life brought an upsurge in decoration, especially in headwear.

James I, the King of Scotland, displaying common hair trends of the Middle Ages. Courtesy of the .

Less is known about hairstyles in the Middle Ages than in many other eras, in part because of people's fondness for headwear. We do know, mainly from painting and tapestries, that men's hairstyles went from long and shaggy with beards and mustaches in the early medieval period, to short and clean shaven later in the period. The bowl haircut was especially popular after the twelfth century. Perhaps the most distinctive haircut of the Middle Ages was the tonsure, a large round spot that monks and other religious figures shaved on the top of their heads to show their religious devotion. Throughout the Middle Ages women tended to wear their hair quite long, and they either left it natural and flowing or they braided it into two long plaits that hung to either side of the head.

Hats and other forms of headwear were worn throughout the Middle Ages. Culture as a whole was dominated by the Catholic Church, and the church favored modesty and complete coverage of the body in clothing. The two most common everyday forms of headwear were the coif, a light fabric cap held close to the head with a string under the chin, and a wool felt beret, a durable all-purpose cap worn mostly by men. The wimple, a veil that completely covered a woman's neck and chin, was often worn with a veil over the top of the head.

By late in the Middle Ages, especially after the twelfth century, women's headwear became very elaborate. Two of the most dramatic headdresses were the steeple headdress, which was shaped like a tall dunce cap and adorned with a veil, and the ram's horn headdress, which featured two conical horns that stuck off the side of the head. Wealthy women competed with each other to see whose headdress was the most extravagant. Perhaps the most extravagant of all was the butterfly headdress, a steeple headdress that was adorned with starched and ironed linen wings in the shape of a multi-winged butterfly. The size and bulk of these headdresses made any activity difficult, but then little activity was expected of women during this period in history.


Corson, Richard. Fashions in Hair: The First Five Thousand Years. London, England: Peter Owen, 2001.

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.

Trasko, Mary. Daring Do's: A History of Extraordinary Hair. New York: Flammarion, 1994.

Bowl Haircut
Ram's Horn Headdress
Steeple Headdress

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