Most people in the Middle Ages wore woollen clothing, with undergarments
(if any) made of linen.
Among the peasantry, wool was generally shorn from the sheep and
spun into the thread for the cloth by the women of the family. Dyes
were common, so even the lower class peasants frequently wore colourful
clothing. Using plants, roots, lichen, tree bark, nuts, crushed
insects, molluscs and iron oxide, virtually every colour could be
achieved. Dyes came from different sources, some of them more expensive
than others. Even the humble peasant could have colourful clothing.
Dyed fabric would fade if it was not mixed with a mordant. Bolder
shades required either longer dyeing times or more expensive dyes.
Fabrics of the brightest and richest colours cost more and were
therefore most often found on nobility and the very rich. Brighter
colours, better materials, and a longer jacket length were usually
signs of greater wealth.
Men wore stockings (hose) and tunics. Noblemen wore tunics or jackets
with hose, leggings and breeches. The wealthy also wore furs and
Women wore long gowns with sleeveless tunics and wimples to cover
their hair. Sheepskin cloaks and woollen hats and mittens were worn
in winter for protection from the cold and rain. Women wore flowing
gowns and elaborate headwear, ranging from headdresses shaped like
hearts or butterflies to tall steeple caps and Italian turbans.
Throughout much of the Middle Ages and in most societies, undergarments
worn by both men and women didn't substantially change. They consisted
of a shirt or undertunic, stockings or hose, and, for men at least,
Illuminations, woodcuts, and other period artwork illustrate medieval
people in bed in different attire; some are unclothed, but just
as many are wearing simple gowns or shirts, some with sleeves. We
have virtually no documentation regarding what people wore to bed,
but from these images it is clear that that those who wore night
dress would have been clad in an under-tunic, possibly the same
one they had worn during the day.
Leather boots were covered with wooden patens to keep the feet
dry. Outer clothes were almost never laundered, but the linen underwear
was regularly washed. The smell of wood smoke that permeated the
clothing seemed to act as a deodorant.
Clothing of the aristocracy and wealthy merchants tended to be
elaborate and changed according to the dictates of fashion.
Fur was often used to line the garments of the wealthy. Jewellery
was lavish, much of it imported. Gem cutting had not been invented
until the fifteenth century, so most stones were not lustrous. Ring
brooches were the most popular item from the twelfth century on.
Diamonds became popular in Europe in the fourteenth century. By
the mid-fourteenth century there were laws to control who wore what
jewellery. Knights were not permitted to wear rings.
Sometimes clothes were garnished with silver, but only the wealthy
could wear such items.
Virtually everyone wore something on their heads in the Middle
Ages, to keep off the sun in hot weather, to keep their heads warm
in cold weather, and to keep dirt out of their hair. as with every
other type of garment, hats could indicate a person's job or station
in life and could make a fashion statement. Hats were especially
important, and to knock someone's hat off his or her head was a
grave insult that, depending on the circumstances, could even be
Types of men's hats included wide-brimmed straw hats, close-fitting
coifs of linen or hemp that tied under the chin like a bonnet, and
a wide variety of felt caps. Women wore veils and wimples; among
the fashion-conscious nobility of the High Middle Ages, some fairly
complex hats and head rolls were in vogue.
Both men and women wore hoods, sometimes attached to capes or
jackets but sometimes standing alone. Some of the more complicated
men's hats were hoods with a long strip of fabric in the back that
could be wound around the head. A common accoutrement for men of
the working classes was a hood attached to a short cape that covered
just the shoulders.
Most of the holy orders wore long woollen habits in emulation
of Roman clothing. . St. Benedict stated that a monk's clothes should
be plain but comfortable and they were allowed to wear linen coifs
to keep their heads warm. Benedictines wore black; the Cistercians,
undyed wool or white. Franciscans wore grey, and later brown.
Silk was the most luxurious fabric available to medieval Europeans,
and it was so costly that only the upper classes, and churchmen,
could afford it. While its beauty made it a highly-prized status
symbol, silk has practical aspects that made it much sought-after.
It is lightweight yet strong, resists soil, has excellent dyeing
properties and is cool and comfortable in warmer weather.
Western Europeans imported silks from Byzantium, but also import
them from India and the Far East,. Wherever it came from, the fabric
was so costly that its use was reserved for church ceremony and
Muslims, who had conquered Persia and acquired the secret of silk,
brought the knowledge to Sicily and Spain.From there, it spread
to Italy. By the 13th century European silk was competing successfully
with Byzantine products. For most of the Middle Ages, silk production
spread no further in Europe, until factories were set up in France
in the 15th century.
Laws dating back to the Romans restricted ordinary people in their
expenditure. These were called Sumptuary Laws. The word Sumptuary
is derived from the Latin word for expenditure.
English Sumptuary Laws were imposed to curb the expenditure of
the people. Sumptuary laws might apply to food, beverages, furniture,
jewellery and clothing. These Laws were used to control behaviour
and ensure that a specific class structure was maintained. Penalties
for violating Sumptuary Laws could be harsh - fines, the loss of
property, title and even life.
The first record of sumptuary legislation is an ordinance of the
City of London in 1281 which regulated the apparel, or clothing,
of workman. These related to workers who had working clothes supplied
by their employer as a part of their wages.
The second record of sumptuary legislation occurred during the
reign of King Edward II (1284-1327) related to food expenditure.
King Edward II issued a proclamation against 'outrageous consumption
of meats and fine dishes' by nobles.
The next records of sumptuary legislation occurred during the reign
of King Edward III (1312-1377). King Edward III passed these Sumptuary
Laws to regulate the dress of various classes of the English people,
promote English garments and to preserve class distinctions by means
of costume, clothes and dress.
The sumptuary legislation of 1336 attempted to curb expenditure
and preserve class distinction. One of acts stated the following:
no knight under the estate of a lord, esquire or gentleman ,
nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having spikes
or points which exceed the length of two inches, under the forfeiture
of forty pence.
The sumptuary legislation of 1337 was designed to promote English
garments and restrict the wearing of furs. English Sumptuary legislation
passed in 1363 included the following:
- Women were, in general, to be dressed according to the position
of their fathers or husbands
- Wives and daughters of servants were not to wear veils above
twelve pence in value
- Handicraftsmen's and yeomen's wives were not to wear silk veils
- The use of fur was confined to the ladies of knights with a
rental above 200 marks a year
- The wife or daughter of a knight was not to wear cloth of gold
or sable fur
- The wife or daughter of a knight-bachelor not to wear velvet
- The wife or daughter of an esquire or gentleman not to wear
velvet, satin or ermine
- The wife or daughter of a labourer were not to wear clothes
beyond a certain price or a girdle garnished with silver
- Cloth of gold and purple silk were confined to women of the
- The importation of silk and lace by Lombards and other foreigners
These Sumptuary Laws distinguished social categories and made members
of each class easily distinguished by their clothing