Our information on medieval clothes is still limited. It is not a topic that we have yet addressed in detail. HBC focuses primarily on the modern era beginning with the 16th century. The medieval period covers a period of about 1,000 years, half of the time since the birth of Christ. One might expect that as a result there were great changes in clothing and fashion over this period.
Surprisingly there was relatively little change in fashion, especially during the early medieval era. The pace of change quickened in the late-medieval era. We have not yet developed information on many specific garments. One distinctive medieval garment was stockings. They were called "haut de chausse" in France, a country which was very influential in fashion during the medieval era. There is a page on medieval stocking supporters. Assessing children's clothing is somewhat of a misnomer as the concept of childhood as we know it today did not exist at the time. Very young boys wore dresses. Once breeched, however, boys were clothed much like their parents. There was no specially designed children's clothing. Another important factor is that clothing was determined by social class. The peasantry for centuries wore essentially the same clothing. Fashion was a phenomenon of the upper classes. At this time we only have limited work on medieval fashion and clothing. We have addressed page boys. They can be considered as basically similar to aristocratic boys in general.
Just as cotton was at the center of the Industrial Revolution, wool was a key commodity in the Medieval era. Wool was the principal raw material used for textiles in Medieval Europe. It was usually woven to produce cloth, but some was used to produce felt. Wool is produced by sheep. Different breeds produce wool of varying quality. Some sheep have fine silky fleece. Other sheep have a very coarse fleece. High quality cloth required a fine yarn. This required the fleece to be carded, meaning combing with a large iron comb-like tool. The other principal fabric used to produce textiles in Medieval Europe was linen. Linen was produced from flax. Yarn was required to produce textiles. Yarn was produced from raw wool or flax fibers by hand. (The spinning wheels did not appear until the late Medieval era. The raw wool or processed flax was placed on a drop spindle. A drop spindle was fashioned from wood or bone and weighted on the bottom with stone or metal. The yarn was produced by drawing the fiber out from the spindle and twisting it in the process. This was a tedious, labor intensive process, but only after the yarn was fashioned could the production of textiles begin. The next step was to dye the yarn. A variety of natural dyes were used, varying somewhat as the kinds of plants available locally. Some made the dyes themselves, but natural dyes could be purchased in village markets. Some of the common dies were: woad or indigo (blue), weld (yellow), madder(orange and red), Brazil tree (reds), alkanet (lilac), and many other roots, berries, barks and lichens. The yarn was then woven into cloth on hand looms. The woven cloth was then ironed by pressing with a whale bone (baleen) plaque, glass, or stone smoother which had been heated for the purpose. The final process was decoration by braided cords, tapestry, or embroidery. The center of the European wool trade was Flanders and the center of wool production was England.
Our information on medieval clothes is still limited. It is not a topic that we have yet addressed in detail. HBC focuses primarily on the modern era beginning with the 16th century. The medieval period covers a period of about 1,000 years, half of the time since the birth of Christ. One might expect that as a result there were great changes in clothing and fashion over this period. Surprisingly there was relatively little change in fashion, especially during the early- and mid-medieval era. The pace of change quickened in the late-medieval era.
With the fall of Rome, European society collapsed. People moved out of the cities into the countryside. The fabulous Roman road system declined. Travel became dangerous. Commerce declined. The population became tightly bound to the land and local communities. Life was very hard for the great bulk of the population who were peasants or serfs on great manors.
People rarely left the manors on which they were born. Peasants had little if no disposable income to devote to clothing which was very basic and utilitarian. Peasants spun thread and made their own clothing at home. They were generally rough and shapeless. Roman clothing gradually disappeared, but so did the trousers and leggings of the conquering Germanic tribes (except in Scandinavia).
Gradually the major garment became a long robe, preserved in the clothing worn by modern monks.
Fashion was the preserve of the aristocracy who held the land and thus wealth.
We do not yet have a lot of chronological details about trends in the late-medieval period. We do have a page on the 14th century. We believe that many of the fashion changes that occurred during the medieval era occurred during the later period. As the pace of commerce quickened so did the concern with fashion and thus innovation and the introduction of new styles and trends.
We have not yet developed information on many specific garments. The standard item of dress was a long robe. These robes and the dresses worn by women were in many ways similar. Children wore the same robes, often cut somewhat shorter than the robes adults wore. Some authors refer to these robes as a tunic, but this seems a less accurate description than robe. In part because tunic seems a better description as to what was worn under the robe. We note the better off wearing a short-sleeved tunic underneath their robes. In the late-medieval period we see younger men dispensing with the long robes and wearing the tunic as a main garment with long stockings that seem rather like modern tights. This fashion occurred with the during the Renaissance at the end of the medieval era. Thus one distinctive medieval garment was stockings. They were called "haut de chausse" in France, a country which was very influential in fashion during the medieval era. We also note the term "hiosen" which in German evolved into the word for pats or trousers. We have a page on medieval stocking supporters. Medieval women also wore wore long, ankle-length robes which gradually evolved into the dress. Unlike men, women never developed shortened forms or adopted short tunics.
Both genders might have white under-tunic, similar in function to our modern underwear. This depended on the affluence of the individuals. These under garments were washed more than the robes and dresses.
There were no real children's clothing in the medieval era. There were two reasons for this. First, Assessing children's clothing is somewhat of a misnomer as the concept of childhood as we know it today did not exist at the time. Second, clothing was less determined by age than social status. Very young boys wore dresses. Once breeched, however, boys were clothed much like their parents. There was no specially designed children's clothing. The great bulk of the population was the peasantry which were serfs. Their status varied regionally and over time. Serf children would wear anything available. Often it was the worn out clothing of their parents or older siblings. The clothing of the peasantry was rough and scratchy. Slowly a small middle class began to develop as cities reappeared in Europe. This was composed of artisans and merchants. They dressed better than the peasantry, but either could not or were not allowed to dress like aristocrats. Their children followed in this pattern. The numerically small elite on the other hands would wear fine clothes. This might include silk robes and damask gowns if they were royalty or rich aristocrats. Again the children of the aristocracy were dressed like their parents.
A central factor in medieval clothing is the degree to which clothing was determined by social class. The clothing worn by peasants during the medieval era was very simple, largely because they had little disposable income and made their own clothing in their cottages. The peasantry for centuries wore essentially the same clothing. Fashion was a phenomenon of the upper classes. At this time we have only begun to work on medieval fashion. We have addressed page boys. They can be can be considered as basically similar to aristocratic boys in general. A HBC reader makes replica page boys outfits for historical reenactments: Historical Clothing Realm. We have constructed an extensive section on royalty with some pages on medieval royals providing some information on medieval fashion among the upper class.
Sumptuary laws were laws controlling personal purchases to prevent extravagance. Commonly in the Medieval era these were laws enacted to prevent commoners such as rich merchants from dressing like the nobility. There was no concern with the nobility dressing extravagantly, although some colors (purple) or furs (ermine) might be reserved to the king or emperor. It was the commoners that were the target of sumptuary laws. These las were designed to perpetuate class and social distinctions and for a variety of economic and political purposes. Thee laws developed especially in the late Medieval era when the economy was expanding and increasing numbers of commoners, especially wealthy merchants, acquired the wealth to purchase fine clothes. With the coming of the Reformation sumptuary Laws with religious motivations appeared.
Our modern nation states began to form during the medieval period. The larger countries and even many of the smaller European countries were in existence by the mid-medieval period in one form or another. Clothing seems, however, remarkably similar throughout Europe. Major national differences in clothing seems to have developed after the medieval period. This is somewhat difficult to assess as our archive and sources of information on the eras are still quite limited. There were some differences imposed by climate, culture, and technology. The Norse were the northern Germanic tribes. They were less in contact with the areas of Europe that had been part of the Roman world. They thus remained pagan and outside the Christian mainstream. They also lived in colder northern Europe. They wore something approaching modern trousers. These primitive trousers were wrapped tightly around the lower leg and secured with fabric bands. This clothing seems similar to that of the Germanic tribes that overwhelmed the Roman Empire to the south.
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