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History of Fashion in the Middle Ages

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will learn about fashion during the Middle Ages. We will identify what types of clothing were popular, and we will understand the role of fashion in the context of the period.

Fashion and Its Role

Most of you probably have some idea of what takes place at a fashion show. Maybe a few of you have even been to some sort of fashion show. Typically models strut up and down the 'catwalk' showcasing the season's latest (often outrageous) styles. It's easy to be cynical of fashion shows and high-fashion culture, but we should remind ourselves that at its basic level, fashion plays an important role in society. Fashion serves a means of expressing who we really are. Fashion is an outward manifestation of who we are on the inside. It's a way to tell the world what we are all about. For example, if you see someone dressed in black leather you might assume they like to ride motorcycles. You might infer that someone who wears a lot of athletic clothing likes to work out. Granted, there are levels of stereotyping involved here, but the bottom line is that the way we dress says a lot about who we are.

Fashion has played a similar role throughout history. In this lesson, we will be looking at fashion in the Middle Ages. Just so we are clear, the Middle Ages refers to the period of time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Protestant Reformation, which was basically the 1,000 year period between 500 to 1500 A.D. Let's take a look at see what kind of clothing people wore during this time.

Feudalism and Middle Ages Society

One thing we need to understand about the Middle Ages society is that it did not contain a vibrant middle class as is common today. There was an extreme discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. The majority of people were poor peasants who struggled just to survive, while a select few had extraordinary wealth and privilege. Remember, Middle Ages society was based on feudalism, a social structure in which most land was owned by the the nobility. Peasants were allowed to live on their land in return for their labor. Basically peasants harvested crops for the nobility and worked their land, and only received what little was necessary for survival. Feudal society prevented upward mobility; it prevented peasants from bettering themselves. If you were born a peasant, you were doomed to a life of hardship. Similarly, wealth was passed down from generation to generation among the nobility. It is important we understand Middle Ages society because the fashion between the peasants and the nobility was dramatically different.

Peasant Clothing During the Middle Ages

Peasant clothing during the Middle Ages was plain. Most peasants made their own clothing or purchased it cheaply from a neighbor who made clothing. There was little color or variety to peasant clothing. Browns, grays, and other undyed bland colors were common. Peasants typically wore a pair of linen undergarments that were washed regularly. Over these they wore their daily working clothes which were rarely washed. Men typically wore a simple wool tunic and a pair of wool breeches. A leather belt was often worn over-top the tunic. Leather boots were customary, and in colder climates many peasants owned a sheepskin or other animal-skin cloak. A woolen cap was also commonly worn in colder weather.

Peasant men wearing fairly plain clothing are depicted in a Medieval tavern.
peasants

Throughout most of the Middle Ages, peasant women wore a simple, long dress. Usually this was white, brown, or grey, as dyes were expensive. Linen was a common material. This type of dress was loose-fitting and utilitarian. Many women also wore a wimple, a veil-like garment that covered the head and neck, but left the face exposed. Wimples served a variety of purposes and were particularly common among young unmarried women. See, under the rigid moral structure perpetuated by the Catholic Church, it was considered inappropriate for virgin women to show their hair. Wimples varied considerably with some being extremely elaborate and others primitive. By the late Middle Ages, women's dresses were becoming more form-fitting and the neck-line began to become lower. Corsets also became popular during this time, but again, many peasant women could not afford these styles and continued to wear loose, utilitarian dresses. Capes, scarves, and other types of accessories were sometimes available for women.

An example of a fairly extravagant wimple.
wimple

The basic idea you need to remember is that peasant clothing was utilitarian. Peasants did not have the luxury of multiple changes of clothes, brightly colored clothing, or the opportunity to be 'fashionable' for the sake of being fashionable.

Clothing of the Nobility During the Middle Ages

For the nobility, fashion was an entirely different story. The nobility had the resources to afford extravagantly dyed clothing. Furthermore, the nobility were the only people legally allowed to wear extravagant clothing. Yes, you heard that right. See, throughout the Medieval Era, Sumptuary Laws were put into place restricting what types of clothing peasants could wear. Many Sumptuary Laws forbade peasants from wearing bright colors. These laws, enacted by the nobility and those in authority, were intended to keep peasants in their place and mark the distinction between the two classes.

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