Clothing of Nomads and Barbarians

Our first records of the groups we know as nomads and barbarians are provided by Romans from as early as about 100 B.C.E. The people who lived in Gaul, present-day France, and the Celts in Britain had a much less developed culture than the Romans, though they had been settled in Europe from as early as about 700 B.C.E. They tended to wear rough garments made of wool, which they gathered from native sheep. These garments included thick wool tunics, crudely sewn at the sides, and heavy wool capes that were draped over the shoulders. The Celts developed some wool garments with a plaid pattern and are known to have liked vivid colors. The garments that seemed strangest to the early Romans were the leg coverings worn by Gauls and Celts: loose leg coverings, called braccae by the Romans, were like modern-day trousers and the snug-fitting, knee-length pants worn by the Gauls were called feminalia. The Romans considered both types of leg covering barbaric, and the garments were even banned for a time in Rome. But Roman soldiers traveling in the colder northern climate soon adopted these clothes as part of Roman costume because of their practicality.

Far stranger than the clothes worn by the Celts and the Gauls were those worn by the bands of Huns, Goths, and other barbarian groups who invaded Roman territory beginning in the fourth century C.E. These and other barbarian groups came out of northern Europe and perhaps central Asia, and they disrupted the patterns of civilization put in place in Europe by the Romans. While Romans wore carefully tended tunics and togas, these barbarians were clad in wildly flapping fragments of fur. The crude dress of the barbarians, along with their fearlessness in battle, terrified the Romans. It is from the Roman descriptions of this clothing that our understanding of barbarian clothing comes from, since the garments worn by barbarians have not survived. Barbarians did not use burial customs that preserved garments, and they left no written records, paintings, or sculptures.

Danish king Canute and his soldiers all wearing detailed armor as Viking ships anchor in the background. Reproduced by permission of the .

The primary material used for barbarian clothing was animal fur. Observers commented that barbarians often wore the skins of a large rodent called a marmot, but deer, ibex (a wild goat), and sheepskin were also mentioned. These furs seemed to have been loosely tied or stitched together to make overcoats, sleeveless shirts, and leggings, which were held to the legs with bands of hide, or animal skin. Huns were reported to have worn a single set of clothes until it fell apart. Some barbarians also had the ability to make clothes out of wool, though it was not the finer woven wool of the Celts and Gauls but a crude form of felt, which was made from wool that had been beaten or pounded into a thick fabric.

Over the several hundred years of their contact with Europeans, barbarian garments became more refined. As they conquered people with more advanced fabric-making techniques, barbarians adopted woven wool and even linen garments. Still, the form of the garments remained quite simple and consisted of trousers, tunic, and overcoat or cloak for men, and a long tunic worn with a belt for women.

The crude garments worn by the early barbarians bear a close resemblance to what is known about the clothing worn by prehistoric humans. In fact, with their dependence on hunting and gathering for food and clothing, the nomads and barbarians resembled prehistoric humans more than they did the advanced peoples of Rome and its empire. Though Europeans in the Middle Ages (c. 500–c. 1500 C.E. ) adopted the woolen clothing of the Gauls and the Celts, the crude clothing of the barbarians largely disappeared from human use. Perhaps all that remains of their clothing customs is the love of fur that has continued in Western dress up to the present day.


Laver, James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. 4th ed. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

[ See also Volume 1, Ancient Rome: Braccae ; Volume 1, Ancient Rome: Feminalia ]

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