Medieval Clothing: A Primer

Medieval Dress for the Beginner:


- Tunics
    -Dark Ages
    -The High Middle Ages
    -The Late Middle Ages
Leg coverings (under construction)

The Late Middle Ages: (circa 1300-1500)


Around 1250, another major development was introduced into the European textile industry, the spinning wheel. By 1300 it was the standard practice for spinning raw material into thread. The spinning wheel greatly increased the speed at which fibers could be transformed into threads, there-by, further decreasing the cost. However, the guild system was firmly entrenched in the medieval economy and prices likely only saw a small decline due to the development.

It was the Black Death that would play the most major role in breaking the grip of guilds on the textile industry. In the mid 1300's, overpopulation in Europe, coupled with a poor harvest and unsanitary conditions in the cities led to an outbreak of Bubonic Plague across Europe. The disease would devastate the European population, wiping out an estimated 1/4 to 1/2 half of the total population. With this dramatic population decrease, land values plummeted and wealthy merchants were able to grab up large chunks of property. These landowners quickly worked towards a form of vertical integration of the textile industry. They bought up herds of sheep and raised them on their own land. Once they controlled the sources of raw materials, the put together factories, of sorts, where workers were paid a wage for the tasks of spinning, weaving and dyeing. These factories formed the basis for what would eventually become the Industrial Revolution. The merchants then began to compete with the guilds rather than conform to their regulations, thus further driving down the cost of fabric.

Italy was still the largest producer of European-made silk but Lyons,France, rose to challenge Italy as a foreign silk center by the mid-15th century. Strict regulations were imposed on silk producers in Italy and the Italian silks rivaled those available from the Middle East, but Chinese silk remained the ultimate luxury.

Evidence of the availability of fine materials is provided by the extensive sumptuary laws of many locations. Because the bourgeois and the middle-class could afford luxurious fabrics once only attainable to kings, strict laws were put in place to detail what could and could not be worn by whom. These laws were designed as a way of maintaining the social hierarchy and are indicative of the availability of fine fabrics. How strictly these laws were enforced is unknown, but their mere existence suggests that the lower born were regularly dressing themselves in finery once deemed only suitable for royalty.

Although fur lining was used infrequently throughout the middle ages for some garments, it never was used extensively until the 14th century. The connotations associated with fur had been overcome, for a time, by the restrictive cost of fur and the way it was used. Fine furs were used to line almost any garment but was rarely seen as the main material of a garment. Throughout the 14th century, white and light grey furs were favored but by the 15th century darker colors became more popular. Fur lined garments were used austentaciously at court but for merely practical reasons in everyday wear. While middle class people might have one or two fur lines garments, for the lower classes, fur was a luxury they couldn't afford.


In the last two centuries of the Middle Ages, colored fabric became more and more available as dyeing technology advanced more rapidly than ever before. While Kermes, the dye used for the most brilliant reds, was still incredibly expensive, advances in the dying process and many more substances were used for coloring ~ animal, vegetable and mineral, both local and imported. Colors became more diverse and saturation of color improved, making the production of the dark colors that were highly popular in the late Middle Ages ~ dark greens and blues, purples and the extremely popular black.

With these advances, a wider range of colors was now available to a continually expanding list of lesser and lesser important people. Even the most lowly of peasants would possess a colored garment and better-off peasants would have a broad color spectrum available from now on.


A parti-colored cotehardie with dagged hem and tippets on the sleeves.
Maelgrim's cotehardie.

It is in the 14th century when the heretofore ubiquitous under-tunic/over-tunic arrangement of clothing finally began to give way to newer styles. While the earlier style would remain with the lower classes and the unfashionable, the tunic began to take on a new form and developed into styles that were independent of the tunic yet still owed their origins to the tunic of old. Two developments in the design of clothing led to this ~ tailored clothing cut to fit the body and the button.

A cotehardie typical of the 15th century. Buttons are used both down the front and to fasten the sleeves tight around the arms.
A typical cotehardie.

Buttons have been know by man since ancient times and had been used as decoration on clothing but there is no solid evidence of their being used to fasten clothing (some historians believe that buttons may have been used for this purpose by the Romans but evidence is sketchy at best). Whether the use of buttons to fasten clothing facilitated the highly tailored look of late medieval clothing or tailored fashions created the necessity for button as fastening devices is unknown. What is known is that highly tailored clothing is impossible to pull on over the head and requires some method for opening and closing.

Someone, in the last part of the 13th century, discovered that cutting a curved armhole, as opposed to the straight armhole present on previous clothes, allowed for clothing to be much more form fitted and that cutting fabric to the shape of the wearer allowed for the same. These extremely tight-fitting garments took on a new name, the cotehardie. These garments were worn by both men and women and a variety of sleeve styles were employed on cotehardies but a very common sleeve style was close fitting to the elbow and then continued only on the bottom of the arm for a distance and hung down ~ these were called trippets. In Germany and France in the early part of the 1300s a very wide surcoat, often with contrasting trim around the neck and arm holes, was worn over an under-tunic or cotehardie with tight fitting sleeves. Belts were frequently worn with cotehardies but were worn on the hips instead of the waist ~ a belt at the waist was unnecessary with the tailored style. However, the cotehardie was most commonly worn as an over-garment with an under-tunic.

A 15th century feast scene. Most of the people pictured wear houpelandes. Parti-coloring, dagged edging and fur linings can be seen in the picture.
A 15th century feast scene.

Another style that developed out of the tunic was the houpelande, a very full, flowing garment of varying length closely resembling the full tunics of earlier periods. The main difference between a houpelande and a tunic was the curved armhole and the fact that houpelandes frequently opened down the front and were secured with buttons ~ they also often had standing collars. Houpelandes were worn belted over under-tunics or cotehardies.

Two courtiers of Richard II, 1395. Both wear cotehardies the one on the left wears an early form of a hoppelande over his cotehardie. In the original image, on can see that the hoppelande is lined with fur.
Courtiers of Richard II, end 14th cent.

In women's clothing, a new style that emerged around 1330 was the sideless gown. The gown had large arm openings and no sleeves; it covered a tight-fitting under-tunic completely except for the sleeves and sides.

Heraldic designs became more frequent in clothing of the age. The tunic continued to be worn by the peasantry throughout the period but eventually died out, giving way to shirts and chemises. The design of the tunic is still the basis of the most wide-spread article of clothing in the U.S. today, the T-shirt.

Towards the middle of the 15th century, another new style emerged, the doublet ~ sometimes called the gipon. The doublet was similar to the cotehardie but had almost no skirt; the skirt on a doublet commonly didn't even completely cover the groin. Doublets were commonly padded and quilted in horizontal lines and were often worn with a belt at waist level.

It is important to remember that by this late in period, fashion varied widely and was changing much more rapidly than in earlier centuries. Regional difference were far more common in later period and anyone seeking to replicate a late-period costume should thoroughly research the geographic region and styles associated with their particular time period.

Next: Cloaks




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