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Fashion in the Middle Ages

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Fashion
Wordcount: 2618 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Fashion in the Middle Ages: Growing Differences, Impact on social order & use in everyday life.

The fourteenth century is said to be the starting point of fashion. For many historians, the middle of the fourteenth century marks the beginning of fashion as a phenomena; the new way of dressing represented fashion that imposed its taste and its rhythms on a restricted social class. Even though, the iconography surviving for the period before the fourteenth century is not enough to provide a continuous picture of developments in fashion and costume; but the detailed description left by some of the chroniclers imply that extraordinary innovations had taken place beforehand. Far more significantly, the fourteenth century is marked by changes in clothing construction, such as experiments with setting the setting-in armholes, the greater use of gores and centre-front closings; clearer regional differences in appearances, and by the increasing separation of clothing into fashionable dress and formal dress, which means more garments were in use.  This paper explores the time period from thirteeenth to fifteenth centuries. It gives an overview of the growing differences between men’s and women’s clothing. Clothes were initially designed for men and so women wore almost the same piece of clothing as men with hardly any modifications made to it. It was only much later that the society started differentiating between men’s and women’s fashion styles. The paper also explores the relationship between clothing and one’s position in the society and how clothing and fashion style reflected a person’s social status.  Soon after the development of fashion, there were heavy restrictions imposed on who could wear what type of clothes and the use of certain materials was restricted for use by certain classes only. The paper also gives the reader an insight into how the working class adopted various fashion and clothing styles to suit their convenience. They started developing various modifications to their everyday clothes to adjust to the weather changes and make them more comfortable in their place of work.

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Generally speaking, the role played by princessess and queens in fashion and clothing and the development of luxury from thirteenth to fifteenth centuries in medieval Europe was a secondary one.  According to chronicler’s narratives, written documents and royal account books, expenditure by queens and princesses on their clothing was much lower than the menfolk. Their purchases were less frequent and less varied. When the given data makes comparison possible, it is confirmed that a garment or an outfit made for a princess almost always cost less than the equivalent made for man of equal rank.[1]. Women, from the tenth to thirteenth centuries, wore long flowing garments that was alleged to give the men[2]. However, during the fourteenth century differences between men and women’s fashion became more prominent. Initally, both men and women wore ‘houppelande’[3] but women shifted to a much more voluminous headgear- ‘bourrelet’ [4] these were of different shapes and sizes.  Women now had more choices and female versions of various dresses were developed. Gowns with close-fitting sleeves and bodices became popular. The headdress- ‘viel’ which was traditionally used to cover women’s faces completely was now modernised and was reduced to a simple circlet made of jewellery, ribbons or flowers and was just used to frame the face. There were also many modifications made to the female hood, unlike the version of men, were buttoned under the chin or was worn open. However, there were only small distinguised provisions that were made in womens clothing up until the fourteenth century. At the end of the fourteenth century, the choice and kind of materials also helped distinguish between men’s and women’s clothing[5]. So mainly all dark colours were rejected by women and miniver, ermine, Russian weasel remained popular among women’s fashion and clothing. Only very gradually did velvet become popular for accessories. Over time, the differences in both men and women’s fashion grew more prominent. Mens fashion now exaggerated the width of the shoulders and the slenderness of the waist and also showed off the legs. Women wore gowns with narrow shoulders, tight bodices, fullness of their garments extending from the hips. So female fashion offered no competition to the strength expressed in male costumes with broad padded shoulders, nor to the display of legs.

Hence , somewhere between 1480 to 1490 the characteristic features of men and women’s fashion were not only dissimilar but were completely different. However , there were still some queens, princesses or mistresses who liked to compete with the male monarchs in procuring the same amount of jewellery, cloth, silk, and furs.

 Fashion in the fifteenth century now became essential with maintaining a hierarchial social order which was necessiated with sumptuary laws. These laws invoked the necessity of maintaining a strictly hierarchical social order more than they invoked economic necessity. The big kingdoms and independent city states that were ruled by aristocracy were keen to hold on to its social status, so these laws emphasised and reinforced the differences between the categories they defined. The most notable example of this is contained in the Statues of Savoy, laid down in 1430 by Duke Amadeus VIII. Book V, concerning ‘moderation of the superfluous’ [6].  The book tells us about thirty nine categories of people , from reigning duke to the unmarried daughters of peasants and other labourers. More than half of the groups identified belonged to the nobility. However , the sumptuary laws limit themselves to establishing the distinction between nobles and non-nobles. Sometimes , many members of the royal family were also divided into five tiers , of which the duke and duchess usually occupied the first two. Even though nothing is prohibited to them , they were sometimes cautioned to avoid clothing that was considered too luxurious. The sons of the royal family were also recommended to wear garments shorter than their fathers, and were also forbidden to wear gold until they were dubbed as knights. Among the non-nobles , categories twenty to twenty nine relate to doctors, lawyers , university graduates, administrators in the duke’s entrouge and their wives and unmarried daughters. For each of these groups, the cut and ornamentation of clothing and the value of the fabrics were all regulated. Like , the duke had to decide the length of his secretaries’ robes. (is this statement necessary). The use of fabrics was strictly hierarchical: woollen cloth depended on price per ell, and colour. The employment of silk was also regulated in German countries, France, and Italy. The regulations for using cloth and fabric for garments were very stringent to last ten categories. Scarlet was forbidden to the bourgeoisie and to tradesmen and to those living on unearned income. Similarly, vein artisans were forbidden to wear long, pointed shoes or high heeled boots, while peasants and manual labourers were prohibited from wearing clothes made from two different fabrics, slashed garments and their robes were made of cheap fabric, but they were allowed to buy something of a slightly better quality for the hood.  Combining hierarchical and economic issues with the regulation of expenditure, statues developed in the late thirteenth century in Italy and near the Mediteranean coastline. The principal reason for their emergence was economic growth in textile and cloth. Hence, all the documents confirm the distinctions based on the type of cloth chosen, its value, its colour and the yardage granted to each person. Wealthy people also lined their clothes with fur. It was only the novelty and the upperclass people who could afford fur and jewellery so soon the sumptuary laws were also made to control who could wear such ornaments.

Before the twelfth century , it is noted that people didn’t make many provisions/modifications to their clothes during season change. At that time there were no capes, fur, or headgear; the garments were light and loose. But this changed soon when people after the twelfth century started changing their clothing style according to the climatic conditions. They even made provisions to their clothes depending on their working style and occupation. Even though the common people’s wardrobe consisted of a few garments, they combined their clothes in different ways as required to protect the body. Men and women protected themsleves against the cold in different ways. Sleevless capes and coats with sleeves and hoods were worn only by men. Cloth made from wool that had some of its natural oils povided protection against damp. This resistance was increased by fulling.[7] Archaelogical samples confirm that fulling was now used on cloth of varying quality, and not just on fine wool. Another process of making clothes waterproof was waxing, but it wasn’t very widespread because of the high cost of wax. Women, on the other hand, were less exposed to the vagaries of weather than men because they were less innvolved in agricultural labour, and so their warm clothing did not amount to much. They preferred fine wool in gowns as compared to men’s coarse frieze. In colder regions, like Poland and Scandinavia, the abundance of wild animals and the severity of the climate probably meant that fur would have been worn more regularly. During the rainy season , it is known that women may have used the length and fullness of their gowns to pull part of the train over their head. The dresses were outfitted with a cape atop the thick fabrics that make up the bodice, skirt and stacked sleeves. Beneath these densely layered gowns, the wearer would have also needed to don several tiers of skirts and undergarments. Knit wool caps were perfectly suitable for fending off freezing temperatures, but the wealthy women of the era instead opted for elaborate, pearl-lined headdresses that trailed yards of gauzy veils. Clothes could be made to suit requiremens in other ways too, by being worn in a particular way according to one’s occupation. Like, the haymakers or harvesters needed complete freedom of movement of the arms so they would roll up the sleeves of their tunic or wore a sleeveless tunic. Fisherman and plasterers need to avoid getting their clothes wet. Potters preferred working with wet clay prefer to work with bare arms as do butchers, fishmongers, and bakers. This method of adapting everyday dress to different circumstances was mainly individual. Occasionally, a transformation would catch on and be adopted, in case of many agricultural tasks during summer. In many illustrations, the thresher is shown wearing braies[8]. Labourers wearing loose shifts are frequently depicted in many of these illustrations. This linen garment was usually worn to mid-thigh length, belted or loose. The shift was the garment always worn for haymaking, and sometimes for harvesting. Certain accessories also played an important role in adaption of normal clothing professionally. Like, haymakers or harvesters wore straw hats to protect themselves from the severe heat and sunshine. For dirty tasks, like for the preparation clay and throwing of pots in the pottery, the hair would be covered with a coif or bonnet[9]. Kerchiefs were worn in professions related to foodstuffs, like butchery and bakery, that required a certain degree of hygiene. However, it was observed that the only item of working clothing in widespread use in the Middle Ages was the apron. Its use depended on person to person. Foodsellers would wear an apron when behind the counter to protect their gowns. Peasant women wore aprons almost all the time for all domestic activites, like fetching water, watching the herds, and milking cows. They were also worn for working in the fields. Written texts suggests that the aprons were made of undyed linen, white or reddish.

It is known that the birth of fashion in the middle ages was in ninth century but fourteenth century witnessed some significant developments and innvovations in clothing. It became clear that people started recognising the need for a change in clothing styles and structures. Hence, various provisions were made to these clothes which led to the development of numerous styles and fashion trends. Different categories for men’s and women’s fashion and clothing style were developed. As far as clothing was concerned, the speed and nature of change was based on wealth and social position and hence it varied greatly. The social significance of clothing was made clear by the sumptuary laws towards the end of the period. Economic motives were of less importance than the concern to accord each individual a rightful place in the society. The vast majority of the population were the peasants and the working class whose clothing was essentially utiliarian and changed only very slowly. Even when adaptions were made to accommodate climatic conditions or requirements of labour, these were made with limited resources and solutions were generally simple; a few items of general working clothing began to be developed.




  • Piponnier, Françoise, and Perrine Mane. Dress in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 2007.
  • Heller, Sarah-Grace. Fashion in Medieval France. Boydell & Brewer, 2007.
  • Burns, E. Jane, ed. Medieval Fabrications. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
  • Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, eds. Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Vol. 5. New York: Boydell Press, 2009.
  • Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, eds. Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Vol. 14. New York: Boydell Press, 2018.



[1] Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages, (Paris, 1995) pp. 77-78.

[2] Sarah Grace Heller, Fashion in Medieval France, ( London ,2007) pp. 60

[3] a type of full greatcoat with voluminous sleeves.

[4] padded roll or circlet worn by men to give volume to their hoods in the fifteenth century.

[5] Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages, (Paris, 1995) pp 79.

[6] Margaret Scott, Medieval Dress&Fashion, (London, 2007) pp. 83.

[7] a process of felting woollen fabric to make it almost completely waterproof.

[8] are a type of trouser worn by the Europeans in the antiquity.

[9] a woman’s or child’s hat tied under the chin, typically with a brim framing the face.



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