Part 1 – Women
When I was only eight, I was delighted to be part of a float in our local town’s Pageant Parade. Our float was entitled St. George and the Dragon. I got to wear a long dress and my mum designed me a gorgeous head-dress made out chicken wire. It was tall, conical and covered in floaty pale primrose voile. I thought I was going to have a wonderful day playing a medieval princess. The truth was, the pointy hat hurt my head and threatened to slip off at any given moment and I was scowling in every single photo. Even at eight I was learning to decide whether to suffer for fashion or not.
The iconic, tall, conical head-dresses might encapsulate all that is romantic in medieval fashion, but in truth they only existed at the end of the 14th Century and into the 15th C, and perhaps, like I experienced, the realities of wearing them gradually reduced them to a passing fashion fad.
At present I write medieval romance and in order to be as accurate as possible I started to research the years I was interested in, namely 1200 – 1400’s. Naively I assumed one-size fit all, and I could get away with liripipes, chainmail (yes I know you don’t call it chainmail), kirtles and off-the shoulder figure hugging gowns. I was wrong. My first novella was set in 1215, and the clothes were not very interesting; they didn’t differ much between men and women, and frankly, they weren’t very sexy at all. That is not to say that styles didn’t change over the period I’m writing about, they did, and sometimes quite radically. So, I’m going to share what I’ve learnt, and places to go online if you need more information.
First things first. Did ladies wear undergarments? No, not if we are thinking in modern terms, such as bras and pants, but they always wore a linen chemise. This item changed very little for many, many years. It might be a little longer, or a little shorter at times, and even wider at the neck to accommodate newer fashions, but basically as an item of clothing it stood the test of time.
However, I recently came upon a site by Rosalie Gilbert on underwear in the Middle Ages. I’m just going to leave it here and let you decide.
Hose (stockings) were worn on the leg and held up by a garter made of fabric or ribbon, tied below the knee. Hose were made from fabric cut on the bias to give a bit more stretch.
Dress – the basic dress was a kirtle. To start with, the kirtle is loose fitting with simple sleeves, and the waist is held in by a girdle or belt. Since it’s loose, there was no need for fastenings. Attached to the belt which could have been knotted or fastened with a buckle, the women hung everyday essentials.
Top-layer – known as a surcote or a surcotte or a surcoat. Spellings were not standardised and there are various spellings of this garment which you may find in books and records. The surcote went over the kirtle and covered the girdle and whatever the lady had attached. This garment could be sleeveless, and it was this that changed more often as new styles came and went. But it is important to note that the surcote pulled on over the head and was loose fitting in general. See images 3 and 4 in the illustration at the start of the post. A kirtle could be worn with or without the surcote. In winter it added an extra layer of warmth. For women undertaking household chores it protected the kirtle, although they still might add an apron. The surcote could be sleeveless or have elbow-length sleeves. The armholes changed drastically over the course of the 200 years, but for this period, they were still fairly simple.
Shoes – simple leather shoes but could be fastened with a buckle or laced up and more fashionable ladies could have patterns on the leather with cutwork. They might also have small boots.
During these years, the overall look was long, the style slim but not fitted, and the waist covered by a surcote, or else pulled in by a belt and the fabric bloused out above it. See image 1 and 2 in the illustration.
Cloaks were also worn for warmth in the colder months and lined in various fabrics depending on the owner’s wealth. Although not seen in the illustrations, they were held in place by a chain or some other kind of fastening that allowed the cloak to sit partly open across the shoulders.
Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II of England, buried in 1204 at Fontevraud Abbey in France where she spent her last years. This is a cast of the original displayed in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Note the tight sleeves on her kirtle, the contrasting colours, and the crown placed over her veil with a barbette (chinstrap). The barbette was made of linen and for practically the whole period of 200 years I only saw plain simple ones, but in one of the books by John Peacock, see below, in one drawing the barbette has scalloped edges which would show the owners wealth and position in society as she had more time and money to spend on it.
Styles changed slowly, filtered down from court when a King married, for example, and the new Queen and her entourage would arrive from another country within Europe.
Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England and wife of Richard I. She died in 1230 having spent most of her years in France in le Mans, a dower property of hers. (V & A museum, London)
This time notice the kirtle, still with the tight sleeves, and the girdle which looks like it was decorated leather. Her hair is long, loose and slightly visible under her crown and simple veil. Berengaria was around 60 years of age when she died and it is interesteing to see her hair loose as I would have expected most women, particularly married women would have kept their hair tied up in some way. Although it is hard to see in this photo, she has a round broach at her throat. Also interesting to note are the enormously long candles and candlesticks on the bible that she’s holding. Long candles were seen in paintings of the time which make sense as they were a necessity of life, but we aren’t used to such large ones; and they could also be imagery as to her devout Christian faith.
Throughout the 1200’s, although the length of the kirtle never changed, what did change, essentially as fashion trends came and went, were the surcote, the fabrics, trimmings and also whether it was tighter, or looser; did it accentuate the waist or not. As the 1200’s moved into the 1300’s there was a subtle change in society too. The 1200’s were very spiritual, but during the 1300’s there was an increase in wealth among the middle classes; tradesmen, guildsmen, merchants and shopkeepers. They wanted to show off their newfound status and wealth and showed that by what clothes they wore. Sumptuary laws were introduced setting out exactly what people in society were allowed to wear according to position and income. For more information see this article by Rosalie Gilbert.
Hair and Headwear
The other style to change through the years was how they dressed their hair and what they wore over it.
Headwear was made up of several different pieces and were worn in a multitude of ways throughout the years.
Barbette – the piece of linen that went below the chin, pinned to the hair, and then over this, other pieces were worn.
Veil – A lightweight piece of fabric, probably linen. The length of the veil changed throughout the century. Early on it was worn long as seen on Eleanor of Aquitaine and Berengaria of Navarre. Sometimes it was worn falling softly around the face, and other times it was secured/folded so that it was held back neatly, and a headpiece was worn over it, like a circlet or a filet. Nuns and women in religious communities would have had a veil that was made of thicker linen and more serviceable.
Gorget – linen which covered the throat area and shoulders of a gown so only the round face was seen, mostly worn with a veil but not exclusively.
Crispinette – net-type covering which went over braids.
Filet or circlet– a band of metal, placed around the head, like a crown only much smaller and thinner. Decorated or plain, also worn by men of a noble standing. It could also be made of fabric and was much deeper, plain or embroidered. The fashion for these deeper circlets came and went over the years. Sometimes they were worn with a veil under them, sometimes not. The top edge could be straight, or it could be scalloped or crenelated. If it was covered across the top then it became a hat, and men also wore this style, also with a barbette strap under the chin. And there were also times when a veil could be pinned over the circlet/hat.
Hairstyles- the fashion for the two plaits curled up over each ear were popular from the early 1300’s. I’ve included a link to a Youtube clip by Janet Stephens – Medieval Italian hairstyle 1328
The style has finally changed from loose fitting to fitted and showing off the woman’s figure. Once the dress was fitted, they needed a means of getting into the kirtle and buttons or lacing would be used to fasten the kirtle. Buttons especially were used on the sleeves, where the fabric still covers the arm to the wrist. Necklines vary, they might be square, or round or much wider from shoulder to shoulder. In the past where a surcote was a garment which was pulled on over the head, they are now wearing a fitted cotehardie. They are long for women, short for men, but getting increasingly shorter for women too. They would have been decorated in numerous styles, edged with fabric and trims like ribbons or embroidered or with an alternative fabric like fur. Fabrics might be striped or patterned. You also see the iconic parti-coloured clothing being used for men and women, made famous by images of court jesters, but it was a much wider fashion style than being restricted to jesters. Ladies wore them to show off their family heraldry.
Also seen through the middle to late 1300’s are the addition of tippets from the elbows. Long pieces of fabric, they might be plain, or dagged, and again as fashions go, these would change as to whomever was most influential at court and the style would filter down through the layers of nobility. It is likely too that younger or more influential women changed to the new fashions quicker, whilst older women, or those further away from the big cities stuck to the style they knew best.
Girdles when worn were placed on the hips since the waist was already shaped.
The Medieval Combat Society also have a link to effigies and it is a great place for researching clothing by date. As the 1300’s progress, you can see the veil becoming much more evident. Combined with a wider barbette which fully covers the chin and a gorget which covers the throat area, and all of the woman’s hair.
If you open the link above and scroll down through the page, stop at the year 1354. There are three images from Oxford Christchurch College, the label is Daughter of Elizabeth Montacute. There are three images in colour; a dress with pockets, a fitted dress with large buttons down the front and a dark blue dress with buttons, a pocket, and white tippets, hanging from the elbow.
Necklines get wider and show more skin, but then balanced with a veil.
The other thing to note from the 1350’s and 1360’s onwards, is the development of the padded roll which frames the face, sometimes worn with a gorget and a veil. The hairline could also be plucked to emphasise the large forehead.
1370’s – 1390
If I could choose when to set a book, then the mid-late 1300’s would be ideal as the dresses are now very pretty and attractive (to my eyes). The cotehardie now reduces in length and shortens to the hip-length tunic style. It might be cutaway, to accentuate the curve of the waistline and trimmed with fur, or it might be like a tunic jacket to the hip but still fitted. It could be sleeveless or elbow-length, but still the kirtle sleeves (the underlayer) were full-length.
The biggest change now is the waistline moves up, and the gown becomes more like an empire-style with a wide belt under the bust, a fullness to the skirt, an accentuated shawl collar and the wide neckline of the kirtle seen underneath.
The chemise also had to change its cut to have a wide neckline to accommodate the newer fashions in the late 14th century.
Headwear is the tall, conical hats, henins, and veils, or the double rams head horn-like style, an accentuated development from the padded roll from the previous years.
Then there are the Houppelandes – an overcoat which is like a cotehardie but made with a large amount of fabric and pleated in the front. For women, it was belted in under the bust and it had a high collar. However, it is possible that the Burgundian gowns as seen in the image above, with the V-shaped necklines are houppelandes. The houppelande had a variety of sleeves, long and wide with dagged edges, or like bagpipes (ballooning out but fastened securely at the wrist). They were undeniable a measure of wealth, as the amount of fabric would be of great expense.
Sleeves are either tight fitting to wrists with buttons, or the gown sleeves are loose and cut away, perhaps with a dagged sleeve to show off the inner sleeve.
Effigies and Brasses
The Effigies and Brasses website has a large selection of effigies. You can search by country or by year. If you select one or two countries but leave the dates clear you can view all the effigies through the years. These give a very clear oversight of how the clothing changed over the years. Note that this is only a record of whom history wanted to keep a record. These are women with money and good standing. But it does show us a representation of their clothing close to the year they died.
If you like having a book to look through instead of going online, then I highly recommend two books by John Peacock.
The Chronicle of Western Costume; From the Ancient World to the Late Twentieth Century.
A Complete Guide to English Costume Design and History – 1066-1990’s
Francois Boucher – A History of Costume in the West
Ian Mortimer – A Time Traveller’s Guide to the 14th Century
Stella Mary Newton – Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince
Websites you might find interesting:
Outlaw King on Netflix about Robert The Bruce of Scotland. Starting in 1306 when the Barons are first seen shaking hands with Edward 1, they are dressed in their best clothes. Most of the initial action is on the men, but if you watch out for the ladies in the film, namely his new wife Elizabeth de Burgh and sometimes, especially that very first scene, there are well-dressed women in the background. I’ve tried to look at their hair/headwear and there is a variety, mostly covered but not all. I have seen discussed online that the film is historically accurate.
Knightfall – also on Netflix. The knights wearing mail look accurate enough, but the female costumes do not.
The following are a few places to look if you want to see people getting dressed in Medieval clothing, also making it and other if you delve deeper the people have other clips you might find interesting for further research.