Medieval Clothing: A Primer
 

Medieval Dress for the Beginner:
Tunics

CONTENTS:

Introduction
- Tunics
    -Dark Ages
    -The High Middle Ages
    -The Late Middle Ages
Cloaks
Leg coverings (under construction)
Footwear
Glossary
Resources

 

Throughout the majority of the Middle Ages, the tunic was the standard piece of clothing worn by men and women. As times changed, the styles of tunic changed with them but the basic concept of the tunic remained as a theme throughout the middle ages, eventually becoming more and more tailored and finally giving way to different fashions as the Renaissance emerged.

There are several key points that must be considered when making a tunic that is both historically accurate and pleasing to the wearer. For the purposes of simplicity, this article will discuss tunics as they relate to time periods within the scope of the MMCG and will focus mainly on Northern and Western European fashions of the Dark Ages (circa 800-1050), the High Middle Ages (circa 1050-1300) and the Late Middle Ages (circa 1300-1500). Each section will discuss material choices, color availability and style.

This article is not meant to be an exhaustive study and it should be understood that, as the Middle Ages progressed, regional styles became more and more pronounced and general statements about style are not as easily made.

The Dark Ages: (circa 800-1050)

Material:

With the fall of the Roman Empire beginning around the year 450, many of the former Roman provinces reverted from a focus on urban centers to rural living. While Roman towns remained occupied and, in many cases, Roman customs were carried on by former subject peoples, many people returned to the countryside and re-inhabited the old, pre-Roman, hill-forts. Without the unifying and stabilizing affect of a strong centralized government and standing army, trade with neighboring nations fell off and technological knowledge, which had been maintained by Roman economic and social practices, was all but lost. However, a strong trade did still exist with neighboring rulers and even with far off lands but was not the flourishing cultural exchange that was seen under the protection of the Roman gladius.

The result of this reduction in trade and urban lifestyle was that the production of goods, which was largely done by highly skilled tradesmen under the Romans, reverted to a more cottage industry-type affair in all areas of production. This means that the fabric most often found in a given location would have been produced locally. This does not mean that the fabrics produced were of lower quality than those available under the Roman Empire ~ weavers of the Early Middle Ages could produce fabrics that were every bit as fine as anything produced during Roman times. It means simply that fabric was more costly to produce and that exotic materials such as silk were more difficult to come by and, thus, used only by the wealthy.

So what was the fabric of choice for the Dark Ages? Wool. English wool was sought after for its quality. The cooler climate and extended grazing season meant that English sheep produced a quality of wool that surpassed anything produced on the continent. Sheep were selected by skilled shepherds for their ability to produce a long hair that was preferred for spinning, a soft fleece that maximized comfort and a light hue that was easily dyed. The quality of wool cloth available in the Dark Ages varied from coarse to very fine. It is a common misconception of the modern mind to believe that peasants walked around in only the roughest, most poorly constructed fabric available, but this is not the case. It was the peasants who had the skill to weave fabric and they certainly would have provided themselves with quality material, although the finest wools which required a great deal of time invested in the weaving would certainly be reserved for those who could afford to pay for it.

Wool was also not exactly the scratchy sweaters we think of today. Sheep were selected for their ability to produce a soft fleece and, while some lower grade wools certainly came with a discomfort factor, much of the wool was more akin to the fine Marino wools of today. Fragmentary evidence even suggests that the finest of wool fabrics even resembled silk in its appearance ~ the finest weaves of extant material are up to 60 threads per centimeter.

An example of a herringbone weave done in two different shades of brown.
A herringbone weave

The weavers of the Dark Ages were able to do more than just simple tabby (plain) weaves. In addition to these weaves the warp-weighted looms they used were capable of weaving in geometric designs in the material; herringbone, diamond and chevron twills were all typical weave patterns and were often done in different hues to accent the pattern ~ although this certainly wasn't always true. Scandanavian fabrics were most often dyed after the weaving process and therefore, a Viking would most likely be found wearing only solid colors.

While wool was certainly the most widely used material of the Dark Ages, evidence suggests that linen was also widely used. Although archaeological evidence is lacking ~ vegetable fibers don't survive well underground ~ most historians agree that since flax could be cultivated in a large area and was easily processed into fabric, that linen was a common material choice. Silk was also available to the very wealthy and cotton, although little like modern cotton, was used for industrial purposes.

Although leather and fur were dealt with in the introduction it is important to further stress the case against leather and fur garments. While leather garments were employed by people who used it for its protective properties in their line of work ~ leather aprons were worn by blacksmiths and there are recorded instances of princes wearing leather leggings for riding. Fur was used on occasion as a lining for some garments but it was not common. Since Christianity was introduced by the Romans fur and leather garments were seen as uncivilized ~ heathen barbarians wore leather and fur. Anyone who expected to be accepted in polite society would not have worn fur garments. Leather was used almost exclusively for shoes, belts, armor and other accessories and fur mostly for blankets.

Color:

Due to lack of physical evidence, it is difficult to determine exactly what colors were employed by people living at the end of the first millennium but there is some fragmentary evidence and through the research of living history groups, one can get a fairly good idea of what colors were likely. What is clear, however, is that brighter colors tend to be more expensive, due to the limited availability of dyes and the need for multiple application of dye to create vibrant colors. Therefore, bold colors were only within the means of well-to-do people ~ included in this category would be bleached whites and jet black.

Colors available to the masses included shades of grey, light to dark brown, pale pink, yellow, pale blue and brick red, along with off-white. Since yellow is a color that occurs commonly in many plants, it was one color that could have appeared fairly vibrant in Dark Age clothing of any class but over time would fade.

There are some living-historians who say that linen is difficult to dye with natural methods and that most linen used was likely to have been undyed and used mainly as a under-garments. However, others who are involved in the same pursuit say that they have had great success dyeing linen with natural dyes such as woad and weld. For the purposes of the MMCG, it is perfectly acceptable to use dyed linen, or linen look-alikes, for any garment.

Style:

During the Early Middle Ages, most people wore two tunics at once ~ the under-tunic, which was usually made from wool or linen, and was most often undyed, and the over-tunic,
Expensive materials like silk could be more affordably employed in clothing by using silk to make tablet woven trim like this.
Tablet-woven trim
which was usually of wool but sometimes linen and occasionally silk, was where the wearer displayed his or her wealth. Over-tunics of the rich were made with bright colors and were sometimes decorated with fine embroidery in contrasting colors, precious metals and possibly jewels. For more everyday wear, tunics of the wealthy might be decorated with tablet-woven trim around the neck and cuffs. Those who could not afford expensive embroidery often would liven up their clothing with either tablet-woven trim, or simply by trimming the neck, sleeves and, less often, the hem in a contrasting color fabric.

The style was the same, no matter what class you were. The chief indicators of wealth were color, length and fullness of a garment. Color has already been discussed in this article and length and fullness will be dealt with simultaneously. The most common length for a tunic of the Dark Ages was about knee length and belted at the waist. The under-tunic was sometimes longer than the over-tunic so that the bottom of it was exposed below the hem of the over-tunic. The tunics would be draped over the belt in the summer to shorten the skirt and, in the winter, would be lowered to provide warmth. Because making a garment with more cloth would cost more money, a fuller skirt or a longer skirt were indicators of higher status, however, there isn't much evidence for anything longer than mid-calf worn by males on an every-day basis, although kings and emperors, along with their courtiers, are depicted wearing ankle length tunics for court and on special occasions.

The coronation of Harold, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. Most of the men are depicted wearing knee-length over-tunics. The king wears an ankle-length under-tunic covered by a calf-length over-tunic of another color. The bishop is wearing floor length vestements. Note the bands of contrasting color on some of the tunics of the men outside the building, this could signify tablet-woven trim, embroidery or contrasting fabric.
Dark Age style tunic

The body of both the under and over-tunics were cut close to the body to provide warmth, but were not overly tight. The skirts were full to allow movement. Since weaving technology of the time only allowed fabric of a relatively narrow width, cuts were straight and geometric and were made in a manner that allowed for minimal waste.
This knee-length tunic is typical of the style of tunics from the end of the Dark Ages. Notice the trim around the neck and sleeves ~ short sleeves are not likely to have been found on Dark Age tunics.
A late Dark Age style tunic
Gussets were commonly inserted into the skirts of over-tunics to add to the fullness and sometimes would be slit up the sides. The sleeves on tunics were most commonly full length, often long enough to cover the wearer's entire hand and then pushed back to the wrist. Tapered sleeves were the most common for males and were often slit at the wrist to allow the hand to pass through and then fastened with clasps. Although there are many groups who recreate this period of history who do not allow anything other than full length sleeves, there is certainly evidence that sleeves of varying lengths were employed on occasion, no one in the MMCG will cast a sideways glance at you for varied sleeve length, although fancy belled sleeves and dagged edges certainly aren't early period.
Another example of tablet weaving ~ this time woven in wool. The wrist clasp is an accurate recreation of an actual Anglo-Saxon piece.
An Anglo-Saxon style wrist closure method
However, the under-tunic always had a long, close fitting sleeve. Round and key-hole openings were employed to allow the head to pass through and, in the key-hole style, ties or a small decorative brooch would often have been employed to close the flaps.

Females wore about the same arrangement of tunics but of mid-calf to ankle length rather than knee length ~ sometimes they were long enough to trail on the ground. Women's over-tunics were sometimes knee-length but often the over-tunic would be as long as the under-tunic and would often be tucked into the belt off to one side to show the under-tunic. The sleeves on women's clothes varied greatly, from short to long, some with straight, some tapered and some triangular or with a long piece of fabric hanging down from the wrist. Decorations on both male and female clothes were basically the same.

 

   
 
 
     
   
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