Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.
Fashion and Cultural Change
Medieval Social Structure
In order to understand the history of Western Europe’s costume from 800 to 1450 C.E., it is important to recognize the basic social structures and the dynamic changes that took place during this era. In the years leading up to this period, the fall of the Roman Empire had left much of Europe populated by the Germanic tribal peoples who had invaded from the east, pushing the formerly Romanized Celtic tribes westward, so that the society itself might be characterized by its emphasis on warfare and geographic mobility. Under these conditions, costume tended to vary little between that of the local chiefs or kings and that of their subjects, except by its quality of materials and decoration. The most stable institution of society was the system of Roman Catholic monasteries where much of the wealth and learning that had arrived with the Romans was concentrated, but these were not yet organized into the numerous orders that would later lead to formalized distinctions in religious costume. It is only with the solidification of the power of the Frankish king Charlemagne and the establishment, in 800, of his empire over an area that includes what is now France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, that medieval society began to stabilize, creating the conditions under which the aristocracy, now spending more time in the royal court than on the battlefield, would wish to distinguish itself by costume. By the eleventh century, a change in the economic and political system had created a hierarchy of lords, elite landholders, and land-working peasants, while in the centuries that followed, increased trade and economic development created a rising class of artisans, merchants, and financiers. At each stage, the impulse to distinguish one class of people from another through clothing became more intense, at the same time that the means of creating distinctive costume—through access to materials, craftsmanship, and wealth—were enhanced. Thus fashion in the Middle Ages reflects the complexity of a particular society in transition, as well as certain processes common to the development of fashion in general.
The Three Estates
Although the period from the twelfth century forward saw a rise in what would now be recognized as a “middle class,” the traditional way of describing medieval society was in terms of the “three estates”: those who fight (the nobility or aristocracy), those who pray (monks, friars, secular clergy, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy), and those who labor (peasants and serfs). There was also an important division between laity and clergy. This sense of how society was organized is basic to any discussion of fashion, since it is to the interests and concerns of the aristocracy that one must always look for the origin of fashion trends. Because the nobility of Europe originated as a warrior class, the males in this society continued to prefer a style of clothing that was designed for vigorous movement both in walking and in riding until the eleventh century. They wore brief garments called tunics that were cut close to the flanks and hips. Belted at the waist, these tunics were made of wool or linen, and were worn over braies—a sort of loose bloomer or shapeless trouser-like undergarment for men that was knee-length or slightly longer. The bottoms of the braies were usually tucked into full-length hose or bound close to the leg, and the large cloak worn over top could double as a blanket. This very practical garment reflected the functional role of the aristocratic male, but at the same time it took on certain decorative elements more characteristic of a system of “style.” During the Carolingian period, the hems of tunics were edged with woolen or silken braid, and the cloak, which was large and square, was fastened at the right shoulder in a style reminiscent of a Roman toga. Both of these touches suggest that costume was being used not only to provide an appropriate garment for work, but also to make a symbolic statement about the relationship between Charlemagne’s new empire and the Roman empire that it replaced. The women in this empire wore longer versions of the male tunic. The clothing of the peasant, which often consisted of only a single smock or long shirt, worn over leggings and under a hooded cape in cold weather, would not be marked by decorative elements, nor, as long as a land-based economic system persisted, would it be subject to periodic change. Likewise, clerical garb for daily wear remained static because it was subject to ecclesiastical regulation and, in keeping with the imagined simplicity of Jesus and his disciples, consisted of the plainest of styles, while church vestments for the celebration of the Mass were determined not by fashion, but by their specific symbolic character.
The Historical Process
Throughout the Middle Ages, aristocratic costume evolved in a manner characteristic of all fashion change, illustrating the basic principle of periodic shifts and reversals of extremes. The era from the ninth century to the fifteenth saw major changes in social roles, political leadership, economic well-being, foreign influence, and the visual arts, all of which had some direct or indirect influence on styles of clothing. Such influences, however, do not provide the complete explanation for all the shifts that occurred sporadically from the ninth century—when T-shaped styles (cut from a single piece of fabric with a hole for the head, seams down the sides, and sleeves draped over the arms and sewn underneath) and relatively simple fabrics and ornamentation were the norm—to the late fifteenth century when excesses in luxurious, closely fitted, and fanciful dress were commonplace in the upper and middle classes. In this complex historical process, there were periods during which one or more aspects of current dress were carried to such an extreme—for example, the practices of vastly lengthening gowns, widening shoulder proportions, using excessive amounts of fabric in a gown, or tightening a garment to fit the body that had formerly been hidden among folds of fabric—that excesses were followed by a swing or return to conservative, opposite styles in dress. Such reversals in fashion, then, resulted from a variety of factors and contributed to the development of a system of fashion as a powerful force in the dress of Europe. Regardless of their causes, of course, once the swings had occurred, the movement toward excess in dress would inevitably begin again and build toward another peak. The end of the fifteenth century was one such excessive period in the dress of the nobility and the commercial class that, by this time, also had the money to dress lavishly.
Men and the Age of Fashion
Although in recent centuries society has been accustomed to thinking of fashion as an area of greater interest to women than to men, during the Middle Ages it was the clothing of men that underwent the most radical transformations. Female aristocratic costume retained a uniform set of basic elements, including a minimum skirt length at the top of the shoes, throughout the entire period; changes in fashion mostly concerned the tightness of fit, exposure of neck, chest, and shoulders, amount of fabric utilized, decorative elements, and the addition of such accessories as sewn-in sleeves, girdles (belts), and headdress. The clothing of men, on the other hand, underwent more profound alterations in garment type and especially length. These alterations reflect the change from an almost exclusively warrior image to a developing role as both warrior and courtier, and, finally, around 1350-1400, to a status in which the former military role was mainly symbolic. This last shift in male fashion, characterized by a major transformation from long to short costume, took place during a period when other economic and social factors encouraged interest in clothing as a reflection of status, and, as a result, led to an accelerated pace of imitation and alteration. Thus, the period from 1350 onward can be identified as The Age of Fashion.
Images of Labor
The costume of the nobility is fairly familiar to modern historians thanks to its frequent depiction in manuscript miniatures, wall paintings, and tomb art. While such evidence is not as available for the more humble costume of peasants, there is still a considerable body of evidence to offer a rather precise idea of a costume which remained fairly fixed from about 800 to about 1375. Such sources include manuscript illumination, textual sources (including literature), and numerous French wills and inventories of garments in the possession of agricultural laborers. Moreover, some details of female agricultural costume were preserved in poems called pastourelles (from the French word for “shepherdess”), a type of song popular in both northern and southern France during the thirteenth century. These poems told the story of how a knight passing through a rural area tries to seduce or overpower a pretty shepherdess. Since the knight coming upon a shepherdess guarding her flock often describes her clothing as part of her charm, these poems also serve as a source of information about rustic female dress. A variant of the pastourelle called the bergerie (meaning “shepherd” in French) features an aristocratic observer of a group of shepherds in conversation or playing games. Information about their clothing or discussions of clothing sometimes form part of these poems.
Regardless of class, women’s costume had certain elements in common, although costume for peasants was drab in color and used far coarser materials and less ornamentation than did the clothes of the aristocracy. All classes of women apparently wore a white linen or hemp chemise or underdress with full-length sleeves, fitted at the wrists. There is no evidence that women in the Middle Ages wore underpants under the chemise, though men did. Women seem to have worn hose, though they were only calf or knee high. The chemise’s neckline sometimes plunged to show the tops of the breasts, and its bodice was often laced horizontally or criss-cross. The chemise could be pleated on occasion. Over the chemise peasant women wore a long, tightly fitting dress similar to that worn by upper-class women. This dress was called a cote or cotte. The word robe in the earlier Middle Ages referred to an entire female costume made up of a chemise, a cote, and a cloak-like over-garment called surcote (literally, “overcoat”), or sometimes a mantel. For working outside, they wore a kerchief-like headcover or a cap with a stiff brim and mittens. In some cases the cote was tucked up into the waistband of a white linen or hemp apron to keep its hem clean while the woman engaged in “dirty work.” By the mid-thirteenth century it became fashionable for women to have the cote and a protective outer garment of a matching fabric called burel, which is both a coarse wool and a grayish-brown color. In some cases, as noted in death inventories of possessions of late fourteenth-century Burgundian peasants, the cote is most commonly described as a shade of blue or, next most popular, a shade of red. Against the cold, the rustic woman would often have a cloak or sometimes a hooded surcote; this was apparently a very desirable garment, since in one anonymous thirteenth-century French pastourelle the practical shepherdess tells the narrator that he must give her a “sorcote” before she will make love with him. Somewhat wealthier female peasants wore cloaks trimmed with rabbit or cat fur. In fair weather female agricultural workers wore neither surcote nor cloak. They are often depicted in medieval manuscripts such as the Très Riches Heures of Jean de Berry (1415), sowing in the fields while wearing a special apron or overdress with a fold to hold the seed with the simplest of smocks underneath. Rustic women are easily recognizable in medieval manuscript painting by the presence of a large brimmed, rather flat straw hat, very like that worn today by farm workers in Asia.
Male Agricultural Costume
Throughout the period, male peasant clothing was largely similar to the costume that upper-class men had worn in the Carolingian period (eighth to tenth century), when the main concern of the warrior class was to have freedom of movement. Even when male aristocratic costume lengthened, peasant costume remained at the knee or just slightly below. Beginning with the feet, typical male peasant costume consisted of hose of a sturdy white fabric (in good weather) worn inside low patchwork shoes with leather soles and heels. In winter, the peasant wore gaiters or leggings, usually made of canvas or leather, over his hose. His undergarments were the chemise, similar to that worn by women but with long split tails in which he often wrapped any coins he might have, and linen braies (underwear). Over the chemise he wore a sleeveless cote, often with double facings—broad strips added on the chest and shoulders for warmth and resistance to wear. This was sometimes called in Old French the jupeau or jupel and could be made of the coarse grayish brown wool called burel if undyed, or perhaps dyed dark gray-blue with woad, a pigment-producing plant. The jupeau could also be made of heavy canvas. For many tasks, the peasant would wear a linen or leather apron over the cote. An example of a male laborer with such an apron for seeding occurs in a calendar for a book of hours (daily devotions and prayers) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. The full peasant costume is illustrated in a manuscript miniature from the Maciejowski Bible in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which shows a peasant at work in a cote, tucked up into his braies. On top of his chemise and mantel against inclement weather was worn the surcote, also of white linen or of matching wool with bib-like extensions at front and rear. This was usually cut large and had no buttons. A girdle or belt on which pouches could be hung to hold sharpening stones, sewing implements, or, for shepherds, salves or even dog food, completed this outfit. Peasant men usually wore a large round felt hat and fingerless woolen mittens, in contrast to the fancier gloves worn by aristocrats.
A Change for Men
By the mid-fourteenth century (1350-1375), members of the working class less frequently spent their lives confined to manors where they labored and began to have increased access to consumer goods. This new freedom translated into fashion as the male costume changed somewhat and began to imitate courtier garb, which had by then become shorter and more tightly fitted. In particular, the cote was radically shortened, coming just to the buttocks or slightly below, and the plowmen or urban industrial workers wore hose that were tightly fitted and cut on the bias to give them elasticity. The hose were attached to the hem of the cote by laces, sometimes with metal ends called points. For vigorous work involving bending, these laces were left unfastened.
Academic, Clerical, and Religious Dress
Standardizing For Simplicity
Similar to peasants, members of the second estate—those who led a life associated with the church—wore costumes that were not nearly as subject to changes of fashion as the costumes of the aristocracy. Clothing worn by those who served the Christian church was intended to symbolize the simplicity of life modeled by Jesus. The ruling that required all men and women in cloistered religious orders—that is, monks and nuns who lived apart from the world—to wear habits was established by a consensus of church officials several centuries after the founding of the Benedictine Order of monks in 529. Canon 27 (a rule regulating dress) was initiated as early as the Fourth Council of Constantinople (869-870) and reaffirmed in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. These councils, known as “ecumenical” (that is, intended for creating unity), included cardinals, bishops, and superior abbots throughout the whole Christian world and were convened by the papacy. The influence of these rules extended to university students, a relatively new group in the later Middle Ages, for whom religious costume was adapted according to their stage of education. Another group that imitated the simplicity of the early church in their costume were pilgrims, who were to be found on land and sea throughout Europe and the Middle East as they made their way to sacred shrines for purposes of penance or, sometimes, the simple desire to travel.
Monastic and Secular Religious Costume
The founder of each holy order in the Roman Church of the Middle Ages established a Rule under which his or her members should live, and these rules specified appropriate and uniform clothing that illustrated the religious beliefs of that order and served as its identifying insignia to the public. It was desirable that these members, often withdrawn from the world, should demonstrate this withdrawal by avoiding all display of worldliness, especially in their dress. For example, the Rule of St. Benedict, written for monks and adapted for nuns, specified that only locally produced, inexpensive fabrics might be used for religious dress, and the finished garment was to be without decoration. The standard garments for Benedictine monks included braies, over which was worn a long robe with cowl or hood, a belt or girdle, stockings, and shoes. Similarly, the basic dress of Benedictine nuns was a cotte (a black surcoat with wide sleeves or a mantle), a headdress consisting of a white under-veil and black over-veil, and a white wimple (a cloth covering the neck, sides of the face, and some portion of the forehead still worn by some orders of nuns). A pilch (a cloak made of skins or fur), and/or a fur-lined mantle were allowed in more severe climates. For secular clergy—that is, parish priests who lived in quarters near their churches—there were, however, no hard-and-fast rules about what to wear when they were not officiating at Mass. They were urged to dress soberly.
The four orders of friars (Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Carmelite) differed from members of cloistered religious orders in that they were not removed from the general society. Friars were out and about in the world, begging for their subsistence, hearing confession, sometimes teaching, and sometimes acting as spiritual advisors to wealthy families. Ordinary peasants’ dress was the model for their habits. St. Francis set the standard for his followers to have and wear only one tunic with a rope girdle, one hooded coat, and, if needed, a second unhooded coat, and no shoes. He specified that only the simplest materials might be used to make these garments, and they should be patched with the same kind of fabric. Franciscan friars wore brown hoods, brown loose robes with loose sleeves, cord girdles (belts) with knots showing, and sandals. The brown (or indeterminate gray) associated with Franciscans distinguished them from the Dominicans, who wore black over white (they were thus called the Black Friars), as well as from the black monks (Benedictines) and white monks (Cistercians).
Since universities grew indirectly out of the cathedral schools that first began to be established in the 800s, most students in medieval universities were initially required to take “minor” holy orders, the first step towards becoming priests. Indeed, students were known in English and French as “clerks,” or clercs, a word also meaning “cleric.” Thus, in certain ways academic costume developed from secular religious dress in the later Middle Ages. As the universities became more formally structured in the thirteenth century, university officials began to pay attention to academic dress for scholars of all ranks in the system. Bit by bit, a detailed system of dress developed that indicated each gradation from bachelor to doctor in a university career. In the thirteenth century, the basic garment was a dark-colored vestis talaris, a long tunic. When styles for men were shortened and the pourpoint or short doublet grew popular among younger men in the fourteenth century, student dress retained the “long robe” of sober color, which reached to the ankles. Over this “long robe” students were expected to wear either a formal full-sleeved cope, or cape, which was briefer than the tunic (cappa manicata) or, for normal wear, a larger, sleeveless over-garment, also reaching to the feet, having one slit, mid-front, so that arms and hands could reach out, or having slits on each side (cappa clausa). These slightly modified religious habits, both for students and for teachers, survive as the academic dress that is still worn for graduation ceremonies today.
Violations of Dress Codes
The fact that university dress codes—apparently based closely on the disciplinary decrees regarding clerical dress of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 held under Pope Innocent III—were often violated may be inferred from university records where certain items of clothing were periodically and repeatedly forbidden. The wearers of offending garments could be fined or denied privileges. Among the forbidden items were red or green garments (which were considered vain); “secular” shoes (that is, those with cutout designs); curved or decorative hoods; swords or knives; fancy belts (girdles) enhanced with silver or gold trim; trunkhose, puffed sleeves, red or green hose, or boots that might be seen beneath long garments; and garments that were too short or fitted too tightly to the body (as was increasingly fashionable in late fourteenth-century secular costume). Such attention to color, fabric, and cut showed that the wearer was too worldly and not sufficiently serious for university life. Tailors who made such gowns for academics were subject to imprisonment and non-payment until these tunics were altered to the appropriate dimensions. Certain universities, such as the University of Toulouse, set up systems of dress for scholars of all ranks with economy and seemliness in mind to keep them from spending their fee, book, and subsistence money on clothing. In addition, other rules ensured the plainness of student head coverings: the pileus, a close-fitting skullcap; the biretta, a square cap with three ridges at the top and sometimes a tuft in the middle; and the hood. Over time, these requirements for plainness gave way to color schemes assigned to each field of study to distinguish one faculty from another and to satisfy the desire for pageantry and display. For example, those who became Masters (achieved a Master’s degree) of Civil Law at some time before the late fifteenth century adopted dark blue as the color of their hoods (a practice in color choices retained in the twenty-first century). Similarly, Doctors of Medicine chose red for the color of their robes. The colorful academic hood worn by those who achieve doctoral degrees today is a remnant of this system, as are the black velvet bands sewn to the arms of academic gowns to signify master’s or doctoral status.
The particular garments worn by priests when officiating at divine worship and administering the sacraments are called vestments. Because they symbolized the glory of God and the church, such garments could be constructed of costly fabrics, with much ornamentation, and dyed in colors established by long use. When the priest celebrated Mass, he wore six specialized garments: the amice, alb, girdle, maniple, stole, and chasuble. The amice is a handkerchief-like fabric that covers the shoulders; the alb is a floor-length white gown with full, long sleeves. The girdle of white tasseled cord belts the alb at the waist, while the maniple (from the Latin word for “hand”) is another handkerchief-like cloth that is worn over the left forearm. The stole is a white knee-length scarf around the priest’s neck, very much like a modern dress scarf. The chasuble is worn over all of these garments. Other vestments were the dalmatic, surplice, cope, and pallium. Asurplice was the garment of the choristers or singers in the choir; it was of white linen and knee length. A bishop wore the pallium, a narrow woolen scarf with purple crosses embroidered on it, and a cope or chasuble-like outer garment. He carried a crozier (a staff with a hooked end like a shepherd’s crook) and wore a type of pointed headdress called a mitre.
Pilgrims were sometimes members of religious orders and sometimes lay travelers who were engaged in a religious or penitent voyage to a sacred shrine. They wore a distinctive set of garments and accessories and were treated by others as religious persons. This costume distinguished them from other travelers as proper recipients of wayside charity and helped protect them from thieves. Medieval pilgrims carried a walking staff and a scrip, or bag, with strap that could be worn across the shoulders for the purpose of transporting the pilgrim’s minimal possessions, possibly including a begging bowl, on the journey. Their chief garment was a tunic, normally made of the roughest fabric, sometimes worn or ragged, and a broad-brimmed hat with the brim turned up in the front. Attached to this hat were various insignia in paper, parchment, pewter, or tin that denoted the shrines the pilgrim had visited. The emblem of a scallop shell served as the traditional pilgrim sign of St. James of Compostela. A pilgrim would wear this shell to show that he had made a pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine in Spain. For each new pilgrimage the traveler added an appropriate insignia. Thus, someone who made a pilgrimage to Canterbury might return with a badge in the form of a Canterbury cross or one depicting St. Thomas Becket mounted on a horse, while those who came home from Rome displayed Rome’s signature pilgrim badge—a vernicle, the depiction of Christ’s face on a replica of St. Veronica’s veil. While on pilgrimage, it was also not uncommon in the later medieval period to carry a coral rosary (symbolically significant because of the cross-like branching of the original material) in a convenient manner for ready use—over the arm, or suspended from the belt—both for regular prayers and because it was believed that the rosary itself, as well as prayers, protected the pilgrim from possible dangers of the road and from ill health. No shoes are mentioned among these garments and accessories because the greatest piety was demonstrated by going barefoot. Nevertheless, some pilgrims did wear rough sandals or shoes.
In spite of all this regulation, beneficed priests—that is, parish priests who had the income from a specific church and piece of land in a parish—and even monks and friars often dressed as they liked, and sometimes quite sumptuously. Chaucer’s Friar in The Canterbury Tales, for example, wore a cope which was too short and turned his tippet or hood into a peddler’s bag stuffed full of small items to attract the attentions of parish wives. At the Convocation of the Province of Canterbury in England, held in 1460-1461, a complainant alleges that
in modern times a certain abuse has appeared … that simple priests and other priests over and above their grade and status openly wear their apparel in the manner of doctors or of other worthy men. … They do not wear their top garments closed but the whole of the front part open, so that their private parts can be seen publicly in the manner of laymen, and many such priests have tight hose and hoods with tippets joined to them and have the collars of their doublets made of scarlet or other bright outlandish dress publicly showing above their gowns or tunics … to the great scandal of holy orders.
Repeated councils dealt with this problem and addressed numerous details of dress that were forbidden in order that the garments of clerics and laypersons might be visibly different. Later councils even set forth regulations with the aim of distinguishing so-called “simple” priests from those who were elevated in status and/or education.
Armor and Heraldry
Costume for Military Identity
Throughout the medieval period, the upper-class male maintained his sense of aristocratic identity in part through wearing the specialized clothing and insignia of military life. This clothing was connected to both military combat itself and the peacetime military exercises known as tournaments, which served not only to provide practice for knights in training but also spectacle for members of the aristocracy. Defensive clothing changed radically during the period from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, and these changes were largely in response to the evolution of new methods of combat and military organization. While early medieval warriors (before the year 1000) fought in tribes and encountered each other mainly on foot, the development of a system of lordship usually referred to as “feudalism”—based on the idea of an exchange of land for part-time military service as an obligation to an overlord—created a class of mounted soldiers (knights) who were obligated to present themselves, their weapons, and their horses for a certain number of days a year to satisfy the requirements of their contract with the overlord. These knights, known as vassals, formed small troupes accompanied by younger noblemen called squires who acted both militarily as supporters and also as servants. Owing to the cost of their equipment, as well as of the horses for both traveling and combat, only quite wealthy persons could muster such a group and own the armor and weapons that the new style of mounted combat required. The connection between wealth and military costume in this strongly hierarchical social system was further reinforced when decorative elements were added to serve as a way of identifying the individual knight, who was anonymous once clad in his armor. Not only did these decorative elements, in the form of coats of arms, provide a way of distinguishing one knight from another, but they also contributed to the visual stimulation of tournaments and indicated the family lineage that set the aristocrat apart from the other classes.
Leather and Cloth
The military costume of the Germanic peoples, including the Vikings who conducted raids throughout northern Europe well into the eleventh century, was largely like that of the workers on the land. From about the first century C.E. until about 1150, the warrior’s costume was short enough to allow for freedom of movement, and used layers of animal skins or padded fabric to protect the wearer from hacking swords and spear thrusts in close quarters. It was not intended to stop projectile weapons, which were not then in common use. Though this defensive costume had bosses (circular metal plates covering critical areas on the body) and fastening pins of iron or precious metals, only the head covering was of solid metal; this helmet was in the form of a pointed cylinder, often surmounted by an ornament such as the boar’s head mentioned in the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, which details battles and military life in Scandinavia during the seventh to ninth centuries. Some forms of the helmet during the Carolingian period (eighth to tenth centuries) had a protective bar or “nasal” which came over the nose and sometimes flaps which served as cheek protectors.
Chain Mail and Plate Armor
Military costume changed markedly with the rise of lordship in the eleventh century. The knight who served as a vassal to an overlord held a well-defined place in the social hierarchy and soon had a costume intended both to distinguish his social class and to protect him in the new style of combat, in which mounted knights charged at each other with lances in an effort to unhorse their opponents. Once the knight was dismounted, he fought with sword, axe, or mace—weapons requiring a defensive costume that protected against piercing and blows. This costume evolved rather quickly between the eleventh and twelfth centuries and differed in a number of ways from the older Germanic or the even earlier Roman style of military dress. Over the knight’s outer robe known as the bliaut or later the cote, he wore a vest, often called agambeson, made of cuir bouillée (leather boiled to make it tough) or of padded linen, a garment often worn alone as soft armor by non-aristocratic warriors. It was slit at the sides and in the middle of the lower portion, which allowed its lower panel to drape protectively over each thigh as the knight sat on a horse. Over this vest was another waist-length garment called the brogne or burney from German and French words meaning “bright,” which was made of many tiny rings of iron linked together like chains into a sort of metal “fabric” that allowed movement. Up to the eighth century or so the early version of this garment had not protected the neck, but a caped hood of mail soon developed, called in Old French ahauberc. Some armor historians use the term “hauberc” to refer to the whole mail garment, but haubergeon is the correct term. This chain-mail garment could be sleeved or sleeveless, but it came up over the head and neck in a characteristic hood-like fashion and was supplemented by an iron skull-cap-like conical helmet for further protection. At the end of the eleventh century, through contact with the great metal-working centers of Damascus in Syria and Toledo in Spain, French knights obtained the finest quality haubergeons of mail, in which each ring was welded for strength and had sleeve-like extensions to protect the lower arms. Matching chain-mail-covered leather gauntlets (forearm-high gloves) and cloth or leather leggings with chain mail came into use about 1150 and continued to about 1330, completing this relatively light and flexible defensive costume, especially suitable for close hand-to-hand combat. From about 1350 onward, armor responding to the technology of archery developed; now key areas of the haubergeon would be reinforced with plates of iron, flattened cow horn, or boiled leather to protect the wearer from the bolts or shafts of the crossbow, which appeared in France as early as the mid-tenth century, and the long bow, in use by 1290 or so. Gunpowder weapons appeared around 1350. From 1330 to about 1450, knights attempted to protect the entire body against these projectile weapons by the addition of plates of iron, eventually linked together by leather straps, and cylindrical helmets with eye and breathing holes. But this standing suit of armor, which is so familiar in modern depictions of castles and medieval life, was unwieldy and eventually became mainly ceremonial.
The Coat of Arms
On top of chain mail, as early as around 1100, knights began to wear a long thin fabric garment. It could be sleeveless and open under the arms, or it could have short sleeves. Beginning around 1130, this shirt, which buttoned down the front, often had painted or embroidered on it a shield-shaped insignia called a cote a armer, or coat of arms, which identified the disguised knight at a distance. This technique apparently developed during the period of the Crusades in imitation of an Islamic custom of painting an image (a blazon) on the knight’s shield to identify him to his own troops, who could then recognize and defend him. The cote remained in use until 1410, and its ensign or design contained elements such as bars, stars and stripes, flowers, animals, crosses, and other images that enabled the knowledgeable viewer to know the whole lineage of its wearer. Such insignia were also painted on the outside of the knight’s shield where they could easily serve to identify him when his cote might be obscured. In addition to these two forms of insignia, knights also often carried banners, wore scarves around the helmet (again probably in imitation of their Islamic rivals), and decorated their horses with cloth trappings. These markings and patterns soon became hereditary so that a knight bore the insignia, with small identifying changes, that had been worn by his father and grandfather. Since the possibilities for deception existed, heralds—persons knowledgeable in family history—were trained as early as the 1130s to recognize and validate the knight’s right to display the coat of arms.
The Influence of Heraldic Decoration
Over time, displays of arms provided a popular motif for the decoration of civilian costume, as, for example, in the use of the fleur de lis (the symbol of the French royal family) as an appliqué on royal robes and dresses. Such designs also began to move from costume to architecture, in the stained glass window of a chapel donated by a certain local family or carved on the façade of a building. The coat of arms might also be inscribed on jewelry (still common on the modern signet ring) or painted on the title page of an illuminated manuscript to indicate ownership. Arms were placed on tombs of knights in churches as early as 1135 where the sculpture of a knight in lifelike armor, often with his dog at his feet, was displayed atop the tomb chest with armorial shields at the sides of the chest. When members of noble households married, the symbols of the two families were often combined to form a new heraldic device in which the arms are said to be “impaled” or divided down the middle, with those of each family occupying half of the shield. This “impalement” brought the influence of the coat of arms back to fashion as it gave rise to “parti-colored” costume in which one leg of hose might be red and the other green. With the gradual coming to power of a civic elite through trade or administrative service, a person’s arms could often include elements of the occupation his preeminence was founded on; in the north of England, for example, the family called Bowes, from their original trade as makers of bows and arrows, showed a pattern of bows presented vertically in panels on the shield. Eventually corporate entities such as cities, universities, and even colleges within universities all came to have arms which were displayed on plates, draperies, in stained glass, and the like.
The Rise of Courtly Costume
Courtly Dress and Christianity
With the relative calm and stability of the empire established under Charlemagne and his Ottonian successors, a renaissance of court costume—that is, costume to be worn at times when freedom of movement was not required for fighting—arose in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was characterized by both splendor of fabric and cut and a Roman solemnity or soberness in style. This costume was a reaction to the older pagan Germanic or “Barbarian” dress styles, which were chiefly military and short. This newer courtly costume was considered “Christianized” because it was modeled on the long robes supposedly worn by the Evangelists. It also showed marked Byzantine influence, for costume in the Eastern Christian capital of Constantinople had long been floor length. It appears, then, that long costume in a Roman style was absorbed by the spread of Christianity and became the garb of Christians of both high and middle station, above the peasant class. Thus, when St. Bernard preached the first Crusade in 1095 and complained about the excessively long skirts and rich ornamentation of Western aristocratic costume, he showed that elaboration of cut in the standard long costume was already a fashion element by the end of the eleventh century. Indeed, the fact that so many bishops commented in sermons on this lengthening and ornamenting of long costume indicates that it was the norm for both men and women above the level of the laboring classes and that it was primarily the excessive lengthening and the fashion for dragging trains and rather pointed shoes with curved toes for men and women that was seen as foppery and extravagance by those preaching against the sins of pride and luxury. That people sought to elaborate costume to this degree and that such trends disturbed moralists certainly suggests that a strong desire to imitate the clothing of the elite existed already at the end of the eleventh and through the middle of the twelfth centuries.
The courtly fashions of the eleventh century made use of silks and patterns of ornamentation that were popular in the Byzantine Empire, the eastern Christian realm centered in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). The question of when such styles were introduced to the West is, however, complex. It has for many years been believed by costume historians that long and highly ornamented robes and other garments employing silks came from the East only in the aftermath of the First Crusade at the end of the eleventh century. More recent opinion, however, suggests that such garments had been native to the Carolingian empire for several centuries, largely because of continuing trade between the Byzantine Empire and the West, especially trade in silks that entered Europe by way of Venetian merchants. And after the Moorish conquest of much of what is now Spain, silks from Andalusia also moved eastward along trading routes. Probably, then, the Crusades introduced a variety of highly ornamented fabrics to the West in the luggage of returning warriors and their retinues, rather more than specifically Eastern garments like turbans and slippers. Beginning with the return of crusaders at the end of the First Crusade in 1099 and terminating with the fall of Constantinople in 1204, both male and female bliauts displayed Byzantine influence that included voluminous amounts of fabric arranged in linear drapery (that is, uninterrupted lines extending from the T-shaped shoulder to the floor). An example of these linear styles can be seen in the sixth-century C.E. mosaic of the Empress Theodora on a wall in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. Other elements of this influence were the Byzantine fashions for purple and for broad bands of bead embroidery, giving the fabric a geometric and dotted or studded look. This quality is still seen in modern Greek icon paintings where gold raised dots outline the nimbus or halo of a holy person. Though there is an element of fancy in the idealized descriptions of aristocratic male costume in the thirteenth-century French Arthurian romances, it is not far wrong to believe that Erec in Chrétien de Troyes’ romance of that name “wore a tunic of noble patterned silk that had been made in Constantinople” (56). Some of the bliauts had long fitted sleeves and others fairly wide ones. Accessories included fancy embroidered silk belts and a brooch used as a fastening at the neck.
Trend Towards Layering
The most elaborate ensemble of garments during the Middle Ages would naturally be that of the royal families and their courtiers. Its distinguishing feature was the addition of multiple layers that signified gradations in status and wealth, both because layering required large amounts of the expensive, exotic fabrics now imported from the East and because it allowed display of multiple patterns, textures, and decorations all at once. One of the best examples of this trend would be in the court clothing of the powerful Normans, who, in addition to having conquered Sicily, had also conquered England in 1066. Writers of contemporary chronicles, such as Ordericus Vitalis (1075-1142) and William of Malmesbury (1095-1143), commented on these Norman warriors, describing them as being “particular” about their clothing but not excessively so. During the reign of William I (William the Conqueror, 1066-1087), the king’s clothing of state consisted of a minimum of five garments (from the skin outward). In addition to his braies (male underpants with wide, loose, and short legs and a draw-string waist), hose (Norman French: chausses), and shoes, he wore a white, delicately woven long-sleeved shirt of linen with a neckband and wrists decorated with colored stitching (the chainse or later the “chemise”). This shirt might be only one of several undergarments of this type, including another warm silken or woolen one (French:bliaut) with elbow-length sleeves that might also have decorative edges. The alternate term for the bliaut was “gonelle” that would later become the English word “gown.” By this period, French names for garments were largely replacing the old Roman (Latin) terms. Next, he wore an undertunic of fine fabric, reaching almost to the ankles, and over this a silkendalmatic (originally a loose outer garment with short, wide sleeves and open sides; later the sides were partially closed) with wide sleeves, and hem, neck, and sleeve edges bordered in silk and gold embroidery. Sometimes the silk fabric of this garment exhibited a pattern or design. At his waist, the king wore a narrow belt, embellished with gold and jeweled studs. Over this ensemble, he wore a mantle, shaped either as a semicircle or rectangle (Norman-French: manteau), with edges bordered with embroidery and/or gold. Additional garments also have French names, including the doublet—which, as its name suggests, was a vest made of two layers of linen, often padded—and a peliçon from the word meaning “animal hide”—a sleeveless jacket or vest-like insulating garment. The jupe (or gipon or juperel or jupeau) was a corset-like garment often worn over the chainse, which could serve as soft body armor for men because it was quilted. The jupe, which eventually became the modern English “slip,” had lacings down the side.
Practical and Decorative Accessories
In this period of developing courtly costume, accessories such as cloaks, shoes, belts, and headdresses served both practical and decorative functions. In the interest of warmth, both men and women in northern climes wore a chape, a sort of cloak cut either as a round piece of fabric or as a rectangle, lined or trimmed with fur, and fastened with a cord held in place by the hand. This garment goes back to the Roman pallium and shows the long continuity with Roman styles. The legs were not bare, but were protected by hose, which could be brightly colored or even striped as a decorative touch. Presumably women also wore hose but this element is not shown in representations of female costume. Over the hose men and women wore leather shoes, which gradually took on more shape with curved, pointed toes that reflected a slight Eastern influence, a fashion phenomenon remarked on and criticized at the time. The shoes of various types were made to be open at the top of the foot and closed by long laces, which were wound up around the hose. Headdress for both men and women in the court consisted mainly of circlets made of precious metals, braid, or flowers, though by the thirteenth century both women’s and men’s hair could be pulled back and hidden by a linen cloth called a coif. Also during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the importance of belts increased as an accent to dress and a mark of affluence, since many of them were studded with jewels or embellished with gold and silver wire. Some served a protective function, for noblemen suspended small weapons from them, thus presenting the image of being armed at all times as a reminder of the aristocrat’s warrior origins.
Early Aristocratic Dress for Women
During the period when court costume was evolving, the clothing of aristocratic women mirrored the men’s layered look, although women did not wear braies or underpants. Throughout the entire period treated in this chapter, noblewomen wore a chemise or camise (Anglo-Saxon, “smock”) next to their bodies. The aristocratic version of the chemise was similar to the one worn by peasant women, but in the late eleventh century this basic undergarment became more elaborate; the neckline was gathered with cords within a decorative band of piping that was secured at the front, later replaced with a button and loop fastening. The wrists of the sleeves were similarly decorated, and the embroidery of both the sleeves and the neckbands was allowed to show when the lady was completely dressed. The fabric at the shoulder and upper arm and just above the wrist area of the sleeves was pleated or gathered to ensure a close fit. Such garments were usually made of linen, but fine fabrics such as wool or silk were also used to make a chemise, a variation which, along with the careful fitting and elaborate decoration, emphasized the aristocratic woman’s access to materials and labor, as well as the use of servants to help her with dressing and undressing. While peasant women wore a single dress or cote over the chemise, aristocratic female outerwear consisted of a series of gowns. Directly over the chemise was worn a second long garment known as the undergown. It, too, was made of fine fabric, but was more closely fitted than the outer gown and had tight sleeves. The over-gown was long, reaching at least to the floor, although in periods of costume excess, these gowns sometimes dragged on the ground or extended behind the wearer in trains that also required servants to manage during court appearances. In the second half of the eleventh century, women wore gowns arranged with easy folds of fabric encasing the body; both upper and lower portions of these gowns were generously cut. The outer and most formal garment was a mantle, fastened with cords or a brooch (jeweled pin).
The Shaped Gown
By the late twelfth century, though both men and women wore several layers of gowns, a definite difference between the male and female silhouette began to appear in representations of these garments in works of art. Women’s robes now fitted very tightly at the waist and were made to outline the figure through tight bodices with a row of ornamental buttons, tight sleeves, and the girdle, a wide belt-like accessory that went round the hips several times and then was tied off in front with the ends or tags often elaborated to considerable length, even touching the feet. It was during this period that women’s costume was amply represented, and sometimes exaggerated, in the newly fashionable medieval romances—long episodic narrative poems describing the adventures of knights, both amorous and military, and their rescues of women from oppressors. The romances often detailed what women were wearing and described ornamentation, such as the embroidery on belts and coifs or head coverings. The Romance of the Rose, in its continuation by Jean de Meun (born c. 1237), also discussed the newest styles and fashions for women. Such works showed women how to wear their clothes. They provided instructions on how to make the waist of a gown appear smaller by the way the mantle was held, how to lift the skirts so as to reveal a small foot, and how to swing the hips slightly while walking. Notable among mid-thirteenth-century authorial comments was Jean de Meun’s observation that the contemporary woman “through the streets [should] go/With most seductive motion, not too stiff … / So nobly sway her shoulders and her hips/That men no motion could believe more fair” (Robbins, 282). In this period of increased awareness of the female form, the ease of the older styles disappeared and the waistlines of the gowns themselves were tightened, first by the use of stiffer fabric, and later by means of a laced corset worn under gowns made of more delicate cloth. These robes were called bliaut, a term which could refer either to a knight’s outer tunic, or a lady’s outer dress, both of costly cloth. Sometimes, especially in Middle High German, the term could simply mean rich fabric, such as silk, satin, or velvet imported from the Orient. This cloth was frequently woven with gold thread and embroidered with gems. In its most distinctive use to refer to a woman’s garment, bliaut signifies a gown of the richest fabrics, banded at neck and wrist edges with strips of embroidery, fur-lined, having a tightly-laced (at the sides) elongated bodice, a full, long skirt, and sleeves of various styles. In this manner the upper body silhouette was redefined.
Girdles, Sleeves, and Headdresses
Typically, female fashions in the Middle Ages changed more in the small detail than in the nature of the garments themselves, since vanity in female costume was considered by preachers to be a dangerous vice. Moreover, the major changes in length that characterized male costume were not adopted by women, who never revealed their legs (though their dresses had trains of varying lengths). Thus, it is to matters of silhouette and accent that women generally turned their attention. Belts, called girdles, were introduced into women’s costumes during the century following the Battle of Hastings (1066) and emphasized the fitted styles that gave the female figure more of an outline than in previous centuries. Girdles were constructed as twisted cords, sometimes knotted, made from gold or silver wire and dyed wool or silks. These cords were periodically bound with ornamental brooches or emblematic enameled or jeweled bosses, or convex raised metal engraved or otherwise ornamented and sometimes finished off with tassels. It was customary to pass the doubled decorative cords around the body, to pull the ends through the loop, and to allow them to hang down the front of the gown. Simpler girdles were also constructed from a length of fabric decorated with stitching of a contrasting color. Queen Matilda of England willed one of her two girdles made of gold thread—this one with emblematic ornamentation—to the Abbey of the Holy Trinity to use for hanging a lamp in front of the altar. She left her gold embroidered mantle to this same abbey, to be turned into a cope or religious vestment. By the mid-twelfth century another element of female costume that seems to have been the subject of elaboration was the sleeve. Often sleeves were wide, contributing to the overall bulk of the ensemble, and the cuffs hung so low below the wrists that they touched the ground and were knotted to shorten them. These sleeves were sewn onto the costume with each wearing, so that it was possible to have a number of different variations that could be added to a basic costume. Since the color of these removable sleeves often contrasted with the color of the robe, it was possible for a lady to choose for herself a distinctive sleeve that could be given to a suitor as a token to be worn on his helm or used as a pennon, sometimes at tournaments, reflecting in this way a similarity to the coat of arms or blazon that identified individual knights. A final detail of female fashion was the headdress, which for noble-women from 1066 to 1154 was in the form of a veil made from fine linen or cambric in a variety of shapes; these veils hid the wearer’s hair and sometimes also hid the neck with draped fabric. Called by the Normans a couvrechef, such a veil might also be worn with an end flung across the shoulder. A later variation, in the thirteenth century, was the caul, a fine linen cap fastened under the chin.
Intercultural Influences and Regional Distinctions
The Islamic Influence
The First Crusade (1095-1099), in which a mostly French Christian army traveled to the Holy Land to recover it from Islamic control, had markedly influenced noble dress by the mid-twelfth century, ushering in a new “Eastern” style. At this time there was already evidence of Byzantine influence in outer tunics. As returning crusaders also brought back ideas of Islamic dress cut and fabrics woven in the Mediterranean area and far East, Islamic influence may be found in European dress at least as early as the first part of the twelfth century. These included cloth specific to the East such as damask, brocade, and muslin—thin fabric of silk and gold from Mosul in what is now Iraq and other very fine and thin gauze-like materials; they tended to replace the heavier, stiffer fabrics and garments of Byzantine cut. Other fabrics of this type were those woven of cotton from Egypt and the cloth called in Old French “camlet,” which was believed to be woven with part camel hair in Syria and Asia Minor, the predecessor of modern “camel hair” fabrics for top coats. Eastern silken fabrics, some of which were manufactured in Islamic workshops in Sicily, remained permanently in European costume throughout the Middle Ages. Other features adapted from Islamic dress and merged with customary European styles were the decorative bands on garment edges and top portions of the sleeves, known as tiraz. These bands frequently featured embroidered written characters, often in strange alphabets. Another major change from the old eleventh-century T-shaped garments was the adoption of the dropped shoulder seam in male tunics. In the northern portion of Europe, the long, fuller gown similar to Islamic cut—which had already been accepted in the south—was adopted at the close of the eleventh century by Normans imitating what was called “Saracen” or Islamic dress, understood as quite exotic.
England and Regional Distinction
By 1204, the Crusaders had captured Constantinople, ending the cultural dominance of Byzantine and Islamic styles, and in time this Eastern city ceased to be a major influence on the clothing of the European nobility. Dress in Western Europe was then subject to tastes and trends developing within individual national borders; differences in styles now reflected geography. As an island nation, separated from the rest of Europe by the English Channel, England provides early examples of trends in dress that were unique to the local political and economic conditions. Male dress, for example, became more ornate during King John’s reign (1199-1216), which was known for its extravagant spending on elaborate clothing, but the women of the court did not follow this trend. Instead their dress retained the styles previously instituted by the highly respected former Queen Eleanor (c. 1170), who preferred simplicity. Henry III’s reign, beginning in 1216, ushered in a period of costume featuring unpretentious cut and fabric for both the nobility and moneyed commoners. Indeed, between 1220 and 1270 these plainer garments made it more difficult to distinguish between the nobility and merchants, or between shopkeepers and peasants. Of particular influence in this change from courtly ostentation to simplicity was King Louis IX of France, who reigned from 1226 to 1270. Much revered for his piety during his lifetime, he was canonized as Saint Louis in 1297. Through his marriage to the sister of the English queen Eleanor, his influence spread to both English and French courts, with nobles adopting Louis’s preference for simple clothing. At the same time, the flourishing woolen industries in England and the Netherlands and various technological advances (in carding and spinning wool, and in looms) increased fabric production and availability. Woolens began to be dyed in yardage, and blue, green, and brunette (a dark brownish red color from woad and the ground-up shells of a small Eastern beetle) dyes were particularly popular. Twill weaves of an extreme fineness developed along with heavy felt-like wools used in the manufacture of hats. Thus court dress during this period, while simple in style, was renowned for the fine quality of the fabrics. Draped in various ways, long robes that fit easily upon the body without the use of excessive fabric were a distinguishing feature of this costume. They created an effect of sobriety and dignity while maintaining a quiet magnificence. Such a style also found favor with King Edward I of England (r. 1272-1307), whose personal humility inspired fashions exhibiting even greater simplicity.
Designs from Nature in France
Styles in decoration evolved across the centuries as did fashion itself. In the thirteenth century, for example, Gothic art emphasized the beauty of the natural world in its details of flowers and animal life richly distributed throughout the decorative arts of Europe. Cathedrals both inside and out sported carved and sometimes painted friezes showing real and imagined animal and plant forms. And plant and animal life accurately drawn from nature began to appear in the margins and in the bows of letters like O, B, and D in the script of painted manuscripts across Western Europe. This appreciation of beauty found a parallel in the dress of the nobility, in the textures and patterns of fabrics utilized, the silhouettes developed, the patterns of embroidery, and the increasing amounts of additional metallic and jeweled decoration, often in designs representing the beauties of nature. One of the major literary works reflecting the incorporation of natural motifs into fashion is the Romance of the Rose, begun by Guillaume de Lorris and completed by Jean de Meun. Guillaume’s portion of the poem describes a costume covered in every part with images of geometric shapes (lozenges, escutcheons or small shields), lions, birds, leopards, as well as broom and periwinkle flowers, violets, and other yellow, indigo, or white flowers and rose leaves (ll. 876-98, Robbins, 19). This trend toward naturalistic representation in weaving and embroidery patterns continued into the fourteenth century, by which time it had influenced English fashion as well. The silken band or banner that encircles the hero’s helmet in the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (written about 1370) is decorated in such a way that it resembles a border for an illuminated manuscript. It was “embroidered and bound with the finest gems/on the broad silk fabric/and over the seams were birds such as parrots painted with periwinkles and turtle doves and true love flowers thickly entwined.”
The German Decorative Tradition
German aristocratic fashion differed somewhat from that of other European courts because, owing to lengthy civil wars and a series of dukedoms rather than a more centralized governmental structure, Germany did not develop a single court style which could respond to trends elsewhere in Europe. Unlike the French and English decorative traditions, which tended to emphasize designs from nature, the German tradition leaned more heavily towards geometric shapes, a feature still seen in the so-called “hex” patterns of Pennsylvania “Dutch” (that is, German) barns and quilts. Throughout the history of German costume, the outermost garments are characterized by decorative patterns, either in the weave or pattern of the fabric used, or in decorative woven or embroidered bands. Such bands appear at the mid-calf or mid-thigh level on gowns of the Byzantine style or, later in the twelfth century, as a decorative placket extending downward from ornamental circular yokes or collars, usually ending at mid-chest. Customarily two tunics were worn, with the outermost being made of patterned fabric with a lower border and the one underneath being fuller and longer, made of plain linen; the wealthy sometimes wore a third and plainer tunic overall, with an undecorated lower edge. The preference for decorative patterns may be seen in early thirteenth-century German costumes in stained glass windows in Augsburg Cathedral, which feature patterns of diaper (repeated diamond shapes), foliates (leaf-shapes), and quatrefoils (flowers or leaves with four petals) linked by squares and stripes. Such ornamentation increases in flamboyance throughout the thirteenth century, as can be seen in the painted marble or alabaster effigy of Graf Wiprecht von Groitzsch (1230-1240) at the Klosterkirche of Pegau, near Leipzig. In the effigy he wears a red mantle and a blue tunic, both bejeweled, a fur tippet (a stole with hanging ends), and an elaborate girdle at his waist. By the late thirteenth century, some overcoats featured short sleeves with a slit for the arm that allowed the sleeve to hang empty and free of the body, thus showing the arm dressed only in the tunic’s tight sleeve. In addition, buttons could be both ornamental and functional along the neck placket and side slits. The German preference for colorful, patterned fabrics continued into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The Italian Peninsula and the Manufacture of Silk
As early as the time of the Carolingian Empire, Mediterranean styles and Islamic textiles were arriving in Europe, not only directly, by way of East-West trade routes and the return of Crusaders, but also by way of the Italian peninsula. Sicily, an island off the tip of what is now southern Italy, had been controlled by the Muslims until it was reconquered between 1060 and 1091 by the Norman French, and thus it continued to serve as one of the chief geographical areas of contact with the Islamic world. From an early period, many textiles traveled northward from the island to the Italian city-states and the rest of the continent. This region, moreover, early developed a silk manufacturing industry with imported mulberry worms from China. The development of silk manufacturing in Sicily and also in the city of Lucca—which became known especially for its fabrics made of silk blended with other fibers—combined with the activity of Venetian merchants, who were importing silks from China, to create a strong taste for silk in both men’s and women’s attire at least as early as the twelfth century. Evidence of Eastern influence from this early period of Sicilian fabric manufacture survives in a piece of silk fabric, now preserved in the Fabric Museum in Lyon, France, which shows what appear to be peacocks and dragon-tailed animals surrounding a floral medallion of the sort found on oriental carpets. Though the technology had been acquired from the Far East, the designs were increasingly blended to include Mediterranean patterns of all kinds, especially combinations mixing European designs with Muslim motifs. Merchants distributed these fabrics widely throughout Europe, Britain, and Scandinavia.
The Italian Peninsula As an Exporter of Style
Not only Eastern fabrics, but also fashion itself sometimes moved from south to north during this period. One method of distribution was through aristocratic marriages, as was the case with King Robert II the Pious (972-1031) and Constance of Arles, who were married in 1005; their union brought Mediterranean (in this case, southern French) styles worn by the bride’s courtiers to northern France, and these were important enough to be commented on by writers describing the event. These styles involved fabrics with many pleats, a sort of waffle-like pattern called goffering crimped into robes more fitted than usual. Indeed, fashion from Italian city-states and the Mediterranean was distinctive from an early period and was exported to France, the Netherlands, England, and Germany. These exports include both actual garments and drawings brought back by courtiers and diplomats on their travels and also renditions of costume in illuminated manuscripts from Italian workshops. One of the distinctive features of fourteenth-century female costume in Italy was the headdress and hairstyle, which was arranged in a large ball or “balza” at the back of the head, covered with braided bands of fabric and light gauzes. Men in the late fourteenth century had a rather square profile with wide shoulders accentuated by padding in rolls over the shoulders, with a full-length or thigh-length tunic and most of the weight and value of the garment concentrated in the chest and shoulders through banding, piping, folds, and rolls. One of the most interesting examples of exported Italian fashion was a trend towards black silks, which was developed in Italy to distinguish members of the upper middle classes from true aristocrats, who alone could wear bright colors such as scarlet and blue. Before long, black did not have good social connotations, and the Italians exported their black silk garments and dark furs to go with them to European courts, who found them to be very original and were not attuned to the negative social implications of the color black in Italy. Though black silks were primarily used for male doublets and gowns, women also wore them, and the fashion for damasks, velvets, and brocades of black silk with a mantle or trimming of sable (a very dark fur from the area of what is now Russia) was popular among aristocrats in the fifteenth century. Thus, in the fourteenth century a strong taste for black developed throughout Europe among the aristocracy in marked opposition to the taste for bright colors that had prevailed from about 1330 onward. In this, as in other fashions, Italy seems to have been the source of a major trend.
The area now known as Spain is a particularly interesting case for the development of fashion because of its relative geographic isolation. As a peninsula separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees mountains, with a culture that had long been under Islamic influence, Spain developed some fashion trends peculiar to the region, though they could be exported. In the early Middle Ages, dress for the Spanish noble class was modeled on that of ancient Rome, but constructed with exotic fabrics derived from the Islamic presence there. Both male and female Spanish costume resembled that of other Europeans in having as its basic combination a long tunic with tight sleeves worn under a second long tunic with wide sleeves. During the tenth century, however, men wore a mantle with a slit for the left arm, and for their military dress, tunics with striped fabrics. The outer tunic was sometimes sleeveless, and both “keyhole”-shaped neck openings and armholes were decorated with braid. A distinctive cape or mantle, like the surplice a modern Catholic priest would put on to say Mass, was worn over the back and chest, a style adopted by women as well. In the thirteenth century, ladies’ tunics covered their feet, while those for noblemen ended at mid-calf, allowing full visibility of their pointed-toe leather shoes, which were often decorated with gold braid. At this time, noticeable ball-shaped buttons or rosettes ornamented the neck and wrists of the tunics. A distinctively Spanish thirteenth-century fashion trend was the custom of slashing or opening the over-garment under the arms to show the layer below in a contrasting color; lined mantles completed the costume. By the mid-fourteenth century, Spanish nobles had adopted the so-called “short costume” of doublet and hose, worn with long pointed toe shoes, which dominated medieval Europe and Britain from about 1330 onward; it appears that this combination had actually originated in Spain much earlier as a military fashion worn by soldiers in Aragon, after which the concept had taken hold in Naples in Italy, and was later exported from there to France and beyond. The elite retained their semicircular cloak at hip length, decorated with large buttons from neck to breast. In addition to the tighter, shorter fashions, nobles in Spain also continued to wear the two tunics of the older style, but with narrower shoulders, topped with a semicircular flap of fabric reaching to the elbow as a sleeve, and a skirt that gradually flared to the hemline. Though Spanish female costume remained much the same from the early to the late Middle Ages, by the late fifteenth century women did wear a hoop skirt which belled out below the waist through the use of stiffeners, a fashion not yet seen elsewhere. And by the end of the period covered in this chapter, all Spanish garment styles underwent the variety of constant changes in tightness and looseness, and (for men) in lengths of garments and in amount of decoration common in all European courts. Throughout the entire era, cities and regions such as Valencia, Catalonia, Castile, Barcelona, Andalusia, and other places produced fabrics that blended Christian European motifs with Islamic and Far Eastern designs, and Spain retained these patterns long after Moorish control of the country ended in 1492. Catalonian woolens were of the finest quality in the late 1400s and throughout the 1500s, and a thriving silk industry evolved by the late fifteenth century. The peak of such luxury weaving was reached in the production of silk “cloths of gold.” Hence, Spanish costume was marked by a fondness for richly patterned fabrics and bright colors, such as white, red, pale blue, pink, light violet, and sea green. These were deviations from the older primary colors in use in the rest of Europe (red, yellow, and blue), and even from the secondary colors (orange, green, and violet), and suggested a subtle refinement of taste. A favored fabric design was that of a large pomegranate, woven in both damask and velvet, one example having a background highlighted with metallic thread on which the image appears in cut velvet. Many of these Spanish fabrics reached Europe and the British Isles through merchants, and London livery companies—trade and religious fraternal groups wearing the same costume or “livery” as a sort of insignia—used some of them for palls or coverings for the casket during processions at the funerals of their members.
The New Silhouette for Aristocratic Men
Bodies on Display
The period around 1330 saw the beginning of Italianate influence on both English and French fashion styles. At this time noblemen abandoned their long robes and, for public appearances, wore short doublets or padded jackets that fit close to the body with leg-hugging hose revealing and emphasizing the thighs and buttocks. This new style first vied in popularity with the long robes worn at the beginning of the century, but, by its end, had fully replaced the traditional fashion among younger men, especially those with ties to the most fashionable courts. The shorter garments were initially knee-length, but rose throughout the century to mid-thigh and then nearly to the waistline. In the form known as a cotehardie, its distinguishing features were the row of buttons that ran from the neckline to the low waistline, and the elbow-length sleeves from which a long extension of fabric known as a “tippet” hung down. Some costume historians have seen the shortening and exhibitionism of male costume in this period as a reflection of the new interest in the unclothed, partially clothed, or sexualized body becoming evident in late medieval culture. Though there are no literary or philosophical documents that can be cited to support any general consciousness of such an interest, it is certainly present in a variety of medieval artistic manifestations. The rising interest in naturalism (the focus on natural and organic processes and forms) fostered by the study of Aristotle’s works in the medieval university, the practice of dissecting bodies in late medieval medical education, and the growing respectability of Greek and Roman mythology with its attention to unclad nymphs and demigods as a subject for literary and artistic imitation all played a part in the idea of a revealed body, especially at the beginning of the fifteenth century. A good example is the medieval revival of the classical myth of Pygmalion, which was depicted frequently in wall paintings, tapestry, poetry, and manuscript illumination. The story in the Tenth Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses recounts how a bachelor artist, Pygmalion, made a beautiful ivory statue of a woman with whom he fell in love. He spent much of his time clothing and ornamenting the carving, bringing it presents, and speaking to it. He prayed to Venus to animate this statue and his wish was granted. Among other important medieval representations of female and male bodies are the naked “Venus rising from the waves” scenes of mythographic treatises like the Fulgentius Metaforalis in Rome and the famous Zodiac Man in Jean de Berry’s Très Riches Heures.
The last is a miniature showing an unclothed young man, parts of whose body are keyed to the constellations and planets that have astrological influence on them. In a culture where monastic moralism discouraged excessive interest in the flesh, such “distant” or mythological miniatures provided acceptable spaces in which the body, safely dehumanized, could be examined.
Padding and Lacing
In the fourteenth century, it was customary for knights to wear “soft armor” under their mail or plate armor; in keeping with the continuing identity of the nobility with their military origins, one form of the new short tunic—called the doublet or pourpoint (also called gambeson)—came to be padded with various fibers, such as hemp, cotton, or silk, and then quilted. In 1322 the Armourers’ Company in London laid down specifications for this garment: that it be covered insendal (a silken fabric) and that it be padded with only new cloths of silk and cadar (a name for cotton, which was a new and exotic material now being imported from Egypt to the West). To eliminate extra fabric that bunched beneath the arm, this close-fitting doublet had inset sleeves, replacing the older garment that had been cut in a T-shape. The outermost layer of these garments was composed of the costliest of fabrics from the thirteenth century onward; they were often embroidered, and they were worn as ordinary dress before and after a nobleman was armed. Thus, as the new short costume came to be worn independent of the armor it originally had supplemented, this military necessity became high fashion for the courtier. Later, doublets came to be laced to increase their tightness as part of the new silhouette for men. In the fifteenth century, the doublet and hose were the premier garments of male attire, and a variety of over-garments were also worn, such as the paletot (a short-sleeved, short and loose gown for men).
Over the ensemble of doublet (pourpoint), hose, and poulaines (shoes with very long pointed toes), nobles wore a long-sleeved, generally high-collared robe-like garment called the houppelande. The houppelande is sometimes described as a “hybrid garment” because, toward the end of the fourteenth century, it replaced the cote, the surcoat, and mantle that were all parts of the traditional fourteenth-century “robe.” Some historians of costume have felt that the houppelande was fostered by the guilds of tailors, who saw a threat to their economic security as the older style of long costume became obsolete except among older men and those needing ceremonial garments, such as jurists. The style that preceded the houppelande is well described in the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where the hero wears a “bliaut of blue that reached to the ground/his surcote fit him well and was softly furred inside/and its hood that hung from his shoulder/was adorned with ermine.” In any case, the houppelande quickly became very popular. While the formal houppelande was quite long and voluminous, a shorter version, called the courtepie or haincelin, developed as a popular variation. This more abbreviated garment reached halfway between ankle and knee, and an even shorter version hit some inches above the knee. Such a garment appears in miniatures for the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a treatise on health popular at the end of the Middle Ages. Painted about 1390, they show men collecting roses for medicinal use; their haincelins illustrate the fashion for “dagged” (also called “cut-work”) sleeve and hem edges, scalloped in fanciful shapes such as those of leaves, points (known as “vandykes”), or the square indentations on castle rooftops and towers called battlements or crenellations. The longer and more formal version of the houppelande, which was ground length or even trailing, also appears in these manuscripts. A third version, worn by the figure of the sun personified as a stylish young man from John de Foxton’s Liber Cosmographiae (1408), features a high collar that fanned out from the neck and funnel-shaped sleeves that become increasingly wide at the wrist end, billowing out into the shape of medieval bag pipes. Belts were also sometimes worn with houppelandes. The garment’s elaborate ornamentation included fur, fabric appliqués, and slashes showing the linings of complementary colors. The combination of pourpoint, hose, poulaines, and houppelande peaked as the ruling fashion at the courts of the English kings Edward III and Richard II in the second half of the fourteenth century. After 1450, the more usual term for the houppelande was “gown,” and it was gradually replaced by the robe.
Shoes with Pointed Toes
Shoes worn with the tight hose of the new silhouette had long, pointed toes. Before 1350 shoes generally conformed to the shape of the foot, reached to the ankles, and had leather lacings, although there were periods when the toe became more pointed, even exaggeratedly so, and then returned to a more natural shape. Following the mid-fourteenth-century fashion shift in masculine dress, shoes were more visible and therefore more important as an element of fashion. Poulaines, sometimes called crackowes, were a recurring style. These shoes were named after Poland or its capital because they were thought to have originated in the city of Crakow in Poland. Featuring a pointed toe as much as six inches long that had been stuffed with moss, these shoes were an accompaniment to styles that stressed linear proportions. Besides the long toes, shoemakers employed many other decorative techniques appropriate to leather and fabric shoes: embroidery, tooling, paint, dye, cut-out designs, and elaborate buckles. Such highly ornamental shoes were often described in late medieval literature; for example, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, Absolon, the clerk and would-be lover of Alisoun, is a dandy who wears shoes with cut-out designs on his shoes’ insteps that Chaucer likens to the panels in a stained-glass window in St. Paul’s Cathedral, London.
Hair, Hoods, and Hats
Around 1400 to 1450 it became very fashionable for French, English, and Spanish men to wear an unusual hairstyle in which the hair was cut very short at the sides and nape of the neck, leaving a bowl-like area at the crown and above the ears. It is possible that this style developed in response to the popularity of the “carcaille” collar, very high and fur edged, which was found on the houppelande and other forms of the gown. Joan of Arc adopted this male hairstyle, and this was presented as evidence of her alleged cross-dressing tendencies at her trial. To accompany the new short costume in the fourteenth century, men wore a hood that covered the head and shoulders and revealed more or less of the face according to how it was rolled back. About the end of the twelfth century, the hood had ceased to be attached to the cloak, acquiring a very brief neck cape and becoming a separate piece of male apparel. In the fourteenth century, the hood became a fashion accessory for men, and a tail or band called the “liripipe” developed long enough to be worn as a scarf around the neck, or decoratively arrayed and tied around the head, or hanging down and secured by the girdle. Alternatively, this hood might be folded and tied so as to form a hat. During the fifteenth century, it was arranged over a wicker hoop or roll to give it shape. It competed in popularity with crowned felt hats and sheared or long-furred beaver hats with brims, a fashion exported from Flanders or modern Belgium, which were increasing in size and amount of decoration. These hats took a variety of shapes and some had conical tops, were embroidered and covered with ribbons, or sported peacock or ostrich feathers attached by jeweled pins.
A New Look for Women
Necklines and Upper Body Coverings
The most significant change occurring in feminine styles around the middle of the fourteenth century in France and England was a low neckline revealing shoulders and the upper portions of the breasts. One explanation for this change is geographic since the lowering of women’s necklines in dresses with very tightly laced or buttoned bodices, tight-fitting sleeves, and A-line skirts was perhaps at first a climate-related trend from Italy. But with the new interest in the human body and the belief that the body was a potential source of beauty, the style spread rapidly northward to cooler regions by the fourteenth century. Now visible were areas of the body that had formerly been hidden by a higher neckline and awimple, a portion of the headdress that covered the whole of the neck and even part of the chin. The contrast between the newer, barer style for fashionable women and the older more conservative style was strikingly expressed in the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, where the poet notes of the lady of the house that “her breast and her bright throat were shown bare and gleamed brighter than snow new fallen on hillsides,” in contrast to the witch-like Morgan le Faye who had “a gorger or coverchief over her neck, bound over her black chin with chalk-white veils/her forehead shrouded in silk.” Such low necklines were a stylistic feature that lasted through the following century. At the same time, for reasons not fully understood, no matter how revealing of the bosom these low necklines were, women’s arms still remained covered by sleeves.
Women and the Houppelande
From about 1350 onward, and coinciding with the advent of the new short costume for men, records for expenditures on clothing purchased by various royal courts survive and provide considerable information regarding styles, color, and fabric choices (especially vernacular or non-Latin terms for colors and costume styles), and the particular court occasions, such as weddings or festivals, for which the items were ordered. Since male fashion seems to have been documented more than female, it is harder to say with certainty exactly what was purchased for women, and costume historians are forced to rely more on manuscript miniatures and other depictions in the decorative arts. Nonetheless, it seems clear that during the period from 1340 to 1485, feminine fashion remained relatively stable, though throughout the fifteenth century women’s necks were decidedly bare, with the exception of a brief period from around 1415 to 1425 when it was fashionable to cover them. In the first quarter of the century, the standard garments for women were the cote and the mantle, with the cotehardie (a sort of vest), the sideless gown or surcoat (adopted from Italy), worn by noble-women only for the most important court ceremonies. In the second decade of the fourteenth century, the garment formerly reserved for men, the houppelande, with a variety of fanciful sleeve types, was adopted for feminine wear. This garment’s extravagant decoration, with slashings to show contrasting fabric below and cut-out decoration at very full sleeves and hem, was taken over with slight modification by women in the form of full frontal closure and a train. A variation in the style of the sleeves of the houppelande or robe appeared at the middle of the century when a tight sleeve with a cuff covering the knuckles replaced older sleeve types. The female form of the cotehardie was somewhat less fancy than its male counterpart. It was worn over a “kirtle,” a term originally designating a short linen under-garment, later an overgown, and still later, analogous to the French cote, the outer garment also known as a robe or surcote. Buttons were optional, and no girdle was worn with it.
Hennins and Headdresses
For the whole of the fifteenth century, very fanciful largely vertical headdresses built up on a framework or understructure were in fashion, perhaps because women wanted to participate in the acquisition of ever-changing fashions but were not permitted to make drastic changes to the length of their dress. Continuing the trend of decorative excess, women’s fifteenth-century headgear included heart-shaped and “reticulated” headdresses—that is, headdresses characterized by the enclosure of hair arrangements in a stiff net-like receptacle that replaced the earlier “snoods,” or bags, to hold the hair in place. The hennin, primarily a French headdress of the fifteenth century, was a cone-shaped construction with soft, often pleated veiling attached by pins at the peak that hung behind it in varying lengths, some as long as to the floor. The origin of the word “hennin” is unknown; it possibly reflects a contemptuous slur meaning “to whinny,” which was flung by passersby at women wearing such headdresses on the streets. Another form of such headdresses was that called “cornes” (horns), in which the headcovering branched out like a crescent moon in two horn-like protuberances. Towards the end of the medieval period, perhaps responding to the same taste for “verticality” that appeared in Gothic architecture (and also in men’s clothing), women plucked or shaved their hairlines to increase their expanse of foreheads—a style called “bombé” or “bulged”—and their tall headdresses emphasized this elongated facial effect. A late fifteenth-century panel painting of a young woman with plucked or shaved hairline and a sheer veil and tall headdress from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, now in the National Gallery in London, shows this cosmetic and fashion style.
The Spread of the Age of Fashion
Downward Movement and Upward Pressure
While at first the development of radically new styles for both aristocratic men and aristocratic women in the mid-fourteenth century probably arose from a combination of intellectual and artistic influences, the increased rate of change and the spread of interest in fashion throughout all levels of society were brought about in large part through a new set of economic and social factors that began to appear around the same time. The significant shift in European styles worn by the fourteenth-century nobility re-instituted class markers in costume that had largely been eliminated in the thirteenth century. Because so many family lines were disrupted by mortality from the bubonic plague, which led to the redistribution of lands and opportunities for the upper bourgeoisie to attain property and power, social status came to be determined in part by the possession of wealth rather than merely by family lineage. The commercial class who survived the plague and became wealthy could afford to imitate the opulent dress of the nobility, and the classes beneath these merchants and citizens, as they were able, followed suit. Likewise, in England, during the Hundred Years’ War, the middle and lower classes were able to accomplish such imitation after the English victory over the French at Poitiers (1356) because sumptuous garments flooded the country as a result of booty taken from the defeated French nobility. As the French author Jean Froissart mentions in his Chronicles of the Hundred Years’ War, from this battle, ransoms were collected for captured French prisoners, dishes made of gold and silver were confiscated, and other treasures were gathered, such as jewels, girdles, and ornaments made of precious metals, and richly furred mantles, all of which the English leader, Edward the Black Prince, shared among his followers. Thus, in the fourteenth century, every time the nobility introduced a new style, there were always immediate imitators whose wearing of the garments took away their appeal and made it necessary for the aristocracy to seek even newer, and often more expensive, fabrics and garments. Some costume historians, for example, have argued that women’s headdresses might be used to date costumes with an error factor of only about ten years, presumably because styles in headdresses changed so often and these changes were so well documented that they could be used as dating guidelines. However, this method of dating should be used cautiously since now a given headdress might be worn even when it was out of style by someone not affiliated with the court, or by someone far removed from the centers of style in the major sites of the court or the cities.
Competition Between Courts
After about 1350 European styles in general were heavily influenced by the French court, and became ever more elaborately ostentatious following the death of France’s king Charles V in 1380. In England, earlier in the century, King Edward II’s French consort, Queen Isabella (married 1308, died 1358), had influenced fashion similarities between the two courts. The succeeding two kings of England—Edward III and Richard II—were members of the Plantagenet family, whose claims to the French throne (the cause of the Hundred Years’ War) no doubt contributed to a desire to compete with the French court in matters of opulence and led to a similarly unrestrained attitude towards expensive dress. Indeed, Richard II was reputed the greatest fashion spendthrift of all of the English monarchs to his day, a habit to which some attributed his eventual downfall. Overall, in the fifteenth century expenditures for clothing continued to increase, and the rapidity of fashion changes and excesses of ornamentation contributed to the brilliance of a growing number of European courts, particularly in Burgundy and in the Burgundian Low Countries at Bruges and Ghent. Until 1440, noblemen and women continued to wear the lavish styles, garments, and ornamentation developed in the late fourteenth century, with only minor variations in design. Beginning in 1440, tunics of fashionable European noblemen reached nearly to the knee, but in the following decade tunics were made much shorter. The fourteenth-century fashion known as the courtepie (or short houppelande) returned to favor. From then on, short tunics continued to be in fashion into the sixteenth century. In addition, in France and England, Italian styles and those of the court of Burgundy, which also reflected Flemish and German elements, became popular. Germanic influence included the enlarging of sleeves, chest, and shoulders by means of added padding in a manner that some considered a distortion of the human silhouette.
Tall and Narrow
Perhaps due to a combination of social and economic factors, including the end of the Hundred Years’ War, fashion took a turn to a radical new form in the middle of the fifteenth century. In England, toward the close of King Henry VI’s first reign (1422-1461), fashionable courtiers wore narrow, long robes, with houppelandes and peliçons again in style. The shoulders were padded, but the skirts were narrow, and these robes were worn as outer garments over the short tunics mentioned above, topped by tall hats. The combination produced a silhouette of extreme height. At the same time, ornamental excesses were appearing in all of the other arts of the period, so that the “perpendicular style” in fashion occurred simultaneously with the period when Gothic architecture was reaching its peak of ornamental linear emphasis. In costume this trend toward extremes was best illustrated in the courts of King Charles VI of France (1380-1422) and the dukes of Burgundy, as the nobility wore garments divided into contrasting color areas—such as red and blue, or green and yellow—and the headdresses of both noblemen and ladies grew more varied and exaggerated in shape, especially in height. Indeed, from mid-century forward, women also sought an elongated fashionable look that included a high, plucked hairline, complemented by a swan-like neck, slender shoulders, and skirts that reached to the ground. Breaking the long line of this fashion look was the fashionable lady’s posture, in which her stomach protruded beneath her elevated waistline, an effect often increased by padding.
Dress Codes and Anti-Fashion
The Origins of Sumptuary Law
Sumptuary laws, named from a Latin word that joins the ideas of magnificence and expense, were enacted across Western Europe during the Middle Ages. Such laws had economic, moral, and social foundations. Economically, they regulated personal spending, with the intention of controlling inflation, discouraging the depletion of state resources for purposes of ostentatious display, and limiting the trade deficits that could occur through the import of luxury goods from faraway places. At the same time they regulated behavior, reinforcing the virtues of modesty and moral seriousness that were often thought to be especially lacking among women and young men. Finally, they performed a social function in clarifying the lines between classes through visual signs, slowing the encroachment of the commercial classes on the privileges of the aristocracy. The earliest such laws in the Middle Ages were those decreed by Charlemagne and by Louis the Debonnaire who ruled the Frankish kingdom after Charlemagne’s death in 814. These were, respectively, attempts to control the prices that nobles might pay for their customary garments and attempts to forbid the wearing of silk and ornaments of gold and silver. Later sumptuary laws, with the earliest dated 1157 in Genoa—followed by similar statutes in France, Spain, and the rest of Italy—attempted to regulate economic conditions of a political area such as entire countries and individual city-states. Sometimes their purpose was to restrict trade with an eye to promoting local production at the cost of other states’ profits; for example, in England at certain periods citizens were forbidden to purchase imported cloth and could only wear clothing made of locally produced fabric. When royal coffers were getting depleted, governments attempted to regulate traffic in consumable goods and monies spent on ceremonial occasions, such as weddings, funerals, knightly investitures (the “dubbing” ceremony), and birth celebrations. It should come as no surprise that during a period of lavish and luxurious costume in fourteenth-century England, sumptuary laws were initiated there, as they had been previously in other parts of Europe. From time to time, the king and/or his nobles in Parliament attempted to regulate dress by the two standards of income and birth status. Despite their efforts, these laws—passed, sometimes passed then rescinded (1363), or proposed but rejected (as in the case of Richard II)—were never capable of curbing fourteenth-century fashion excesses. Nonetheless, they serve as valuable indicators of the attitudes of certain portions of the nobility toward costume.
Sumptuary Law and Its Moral Implications
Not only noble wastefulness, but any excess in dress was the target of sumptuary laws. And sometimes a moral point was made—that excessive consumption of these goods, with clothing specifically mentioned, resulted from the sin of pride. Thus, such practices must be moderated or else such sinfulness would draw upon the community natural disasters such as plague, famine, and war as signs of God’s punishments. In many cases, especially in Italy, sumptuary laws were directed at women particularly, the reputed source of all temptation to excess. Indeed, women as temptresses drawing men into sin through pride and lust were a favorite target for medieval moralists. A striking combined attack against prideful exhibition in male and female costume appears in the Book of the Chevalier de la Tour Landry, a late medieval French “courtesy book” intended by the author for the moral education of his daughters. The speaker mentions a sermon against pride—preached to a fashionably dressed crowd of men and women—which presents Noah’s Flood as an exemplum of destruction caused by bad behavior and then goes on to remark on women in the church who wore “horned” headdress. The preacher compares the women to snails who are displaying their “horns” to men who have come to church in such short costume that they are showing their behinds and their underpants and even their genitals. Thus, each outdid the other in foolish pride, the ones in short clothes and those wearing horns.
Opposition to Extravagant Garments
Many of the styles that took hold from the middle of the fourteenth century onward caused especially strong reactions from conservative members of society. Not surprisingly, one of the concerns was the new trend towards emphasis on the body, as expressed both in the men’s short styles just mentioned and women’s low necklines. The arguments against these styles took a number of forms. In a poem by Eustache Deschamps, for example, dated around 1398, the concern mainly seems to be a matter of jealousy, the complaint from older women that they are put at a disadvantage when young women use corsets to push up their breasts: “Because bosoms are being shown about / In all manner of places, generally, /A desire has arisen in many a person/To have them covered again; / For it makes many a heart suddenly fill with sadness / To see them … /For the thing that has put them in this situation/Is youth alone:/ Round, small, firm …” (Ballade 1469). The sideless gown also seems to have disturbed moralists: the resulting openings were called “devil’s windows” since it appeared they made women’s bodies accessible. For men, the revealing pour-point excited a strong backlash across Europe. For example, the Italian city-state of Aquila passed a sumptuary ordinance in 1375 legislating against men who wore very short pourpoints, and the Middle English poem Brut (c. 1346) mentions how the “madness and folly of the foreigners” has brought to England a taste for “short clothes.” The well known Middle English satiric poem “Huff A Gallant” remarks on the fashion for “gowns/Too short their knees to hide,” while a similar poem, “Now is England perished,” mocks those with “short gowns.” One Middle English sermon of about 1380 treats several of these points with an added concern about class transgressivity: “Now are the common people afflicted by the sin of pride. For now a wretched knave, who walks behind a plow and a cart, and has no money but serves from year to year for his livelihood, whom once a white girdle and a russet gown would have served quite well must now have a fancy doublet costing five shillings or even more and over that a costly gown with baggy sleeves hanging down to his knees and pleats under his girdle like those on a bishop’s surplice, and a hood on his head with a thousand little tags on his tippet, and gay hose and shoes as though he were a country squire.” The extravagant cut of the houppelande, though it was not revealing, likewise excited considerable comment at its appearance in the 1360s because it required so much expensive cloth (and often fur and other decorative touches), resulting in a wasteful display of wealth. French chronicler and poet Jean Froissart wrote a pastourelle in which several humble shepherds discuss this garment with awe and a certain ironic lack of understanding of its function as an indicator of social status.
The Battle Over Shoes
As early as 1298, extravagant shoe fashions drew criticism from both monarchs and moralists. An edict issued in France by King Philip the Fair in that year intended to curb excess of fashion among the rising bourgeois by restricting the length of the toes on poulaines. Such shoes were condemned at the Council of Anvers in 1365 and again by royal edict, for King Charles V of France on 9 October 1368 forbade the wearing of poulaines by all classes under a penalty of a fine of twelve florins (a gold coin). An English statute of 1465 decreed a fine of 20 shillings—a very large sum of money at the time—for those with pointed shoe tips over two inches long. As with many shifts in fashion in the later Middle Ages such as the replacement of long with short costume, the taste for poulaines had some significance in the economics of the cordwainers’ (leatherworkers’) guild and the general rise of guild autonomy throughout Europe and the British Isles. According to Gregory’s Chronicles, the pope issued a bull in 1468 excommunicating those who made any shoes with pointed toes exceeding two inches in length: “And some men said that they would wear shoes with long pointed toes whether the Pope approved or disapproved, for they said the Pope’s threat of excommunication was not worth a flea. And a short time later, some members of the Cordwainers guild got privy seals to make such shoes and caused trouble for those fellow guildsmen who heeded the papal edict.”
Backlash against Women’s Hennins
The fashion for the tall dunce-cap-like female headdress called the hennin or cornet soon drew the attention of social critics. Although this headdress is the one most commonly associated with medieval female costume in the modern consciousness, it was in fact a late phenomenon mainly limited to France, Burgundy, and the Low Countries. The hennin could be as much as a yard tall, and it was worn inclined to the rear. On its peak was attached a thin veil, which might be short, so as to flutter in the wind, or long, reaching all the way to the floor. The Carmelite friar Thomas Conecte (died 1433) singled out hennins in a sermon as among the worst expenditures of women on their fashion. His sermons against gambling and extravagance in clothing were enormously popular in northeast France and what is now Belgium, drawing crowds in the thousands.
Guilds and Confraternities
Group Identity and Controlled Commerce
Guilds and confraternities were an essential phenomenon of life in the early thirteenth and later centuries. They played an important role in the development of the cloth trades and in the consequent rise of fashion in all of its social and aesthetic ramifications. For example, although religious confraternities allied to a particular church or shrine were chiefly organized for the purpose of mutual spiritual and social support, they also played a role in the development of fashion. Their rules and charters designated a particular costume to be worn at meetings to identify members and give a feeling of community. Members prayed together and for each other; they provided mutual financial support and comfort in times of illness and death, and they formed and financially supported groups who went on pilgrimages, often wearing the colors and heraldic insignia of the group. The merchant guild was organized in the smaller cities or towns primarily to enforce a monopoly that ensured its membership—craftsmen, traders, and merchants—the control of commerce within the city or town boundaries. They retained economic control within their geographical area by imposing fees and rules that non-residents and non-members had to add to their cost of doing business within this town or city. These guilds also provided aid to their members who were sick or needed burial, in addition to meeting regularly for ceremonial and social dinners. They, too, required members to be appropriately dressed in the costume that identified the guild. At least as early as 1216 there were a notable number of these merchant guilds controlling, for example, the transportation trades of carters, watermen, and the like.
Standards of Craftsmanship
In the larger cities such as London and Paris, however, a different kind of guild—that of artisans—sprang up. There, the numbers of craftsmen were great enough that individual crafts might form a guild of their own, and specialization within a craft provided the opportunity for increasing skills, developing talent, and encouraging innovations in style. Such guild members intermarried and tended to live in the same neighborhoods, which then became identified with those trades. At the same time, the guild developed and maintained standards of craftsmanship and assumed responsibility for punishing any member or apprentice who violated these standards. Like the merchant guilds, artisan guilds also aimed to control commerce, protect it from predatory and innovative non-members or foreigners, and make it work always in their own favor. When towns expanded into cities, these craft guilds supplanted the merchant guilds that had formerly held trade monopolies. Gradually, the number of specialized craft guilds increased. Throughout the Middle Ages, the largest and most powerful of these guilds were those having to do with the cloth trades, but leather crafts were also very important since they supplied shoes, clothes, and belts, as well as other serviceable goods.
The flavor of these cloth trade guilds and their enterprise is encapsulated in certain “trade poems” of the thirteenth century. For example, the essence of a medieval tailors’ guild is portrayed in the “Song Upon the Tailors,” which emphasizes the importance of tailors to society in a time when those who could afford it always ordered their wardrobes from tailors and those who were less affluent had their garments made at home. This poem, written in Latin and dating from about 1260 to 1270, is extremely useful as a glimpse into attitudes towards clothing from relatively early in the Middle Ages. The poem illustrates the thrifty practice of the remaking of old garments into new ones, and, in a subtle play on the religious concept of transubstantiation, the poet elevates the importance of tailors’ work by likening it to that of divinities (gods) active in the lives of humankind. Thus we see commercial hype alive and well in the Middle Ages.