Archive for November, 2011

Jewelry was similar to clothing when it came to portraying rank and wealth.  At the beginning of the Medieval era, the only people wealthy enough to afford jewels and fine metals were the nobility.  However, with the expansion of trade and commerce and therefore a more developed and larger middle class, more people could afford jewelry.  By the fourteenth century, the wearing of it became so common that, like with clothing, sumptuary laws were passed restricting the amount of people allowed to wear jewelry, based on amount of land owned and social ranking.  Of course, these laws were largely ignored and many people of the middle class wore jewelry anyway.  This caused the nobility to have to boost the extravagance of their jewelry in order to further distinguish themselves from the middle class.  And, of course, the middle class caught on and did the same.  So the cycle continued and jewelry became more and more lavish and embellished.  The interesting thing is that jewel-cutting was still underdeveloped, so jewels then would have been much more dull and less colorful than they are now, and yet they were still extremely valuable.  The main items of jewelry were brooches, belts/girdles, coronets, and necklaces/rings.


Brooches.    Brooches were at first used for necessity, for pinning on cloaks or

Fig. 1 - brooch engraved with cross

fastening belts.  They were usually round, solid, and fairly small.  However, they soon became much more decorative, at first having intricate reliefs worked in them with silver or gold.  These reliefs could be of geometric shapes, designs taken from nature, inscriptions, or crosses (Fig 1).  In the middle of the thirteenth century, they became circles of gold set with jewels, with a movable pin in the center (Fig 2).

Fig 2 - circular brooch with pin

During the fourteenth century, many were shaped as hearts.  Hat brooches became popular during the fifteenth century and became even more extravagant, practically dripping with jewels and pearls.  Thus, brooches also came to signify rank and wealth just as much as normal clothes.


Belts/Girdles.    The girdle was used by women for the majority of this period.

Fig. 3 - women's girdle

It was often made of leather or silk and set with jewels or ornamented with gold and silver.  The buckle would also be well-decorated (Fig 3).  During the 14th century, girdles began to be replaced by hip belts, which were usually made of metal and worn straight around the hips over the cotehardie.  These were much more embellished with jewels and such since they could carry more weight.  They were usually made of separate plaques connected by links.  Men could also wear these and attach their swords to them, on the left side if they were right-handed and on the right side of they were left-handed.  These belts were so thick sometimes the hips would appear to be much wider.


Coronets.    Crowns were perhaps the strongest signifiers

Fig 4 - coronet

of nobility, especially royalty, and so they were extremely lavish and intricate and were made of the most precious metals and jewels.  Coronets, however, were smaller and plainer circlets.  These could be worn by the nobility and were first worn around lords’ helmets.  Women soon adopted them to wear over their veils.  They were made of thin gold bands or small jewels linked together (Fig 4).   During the 14th century women began wearing them much larger, similar to the hip belts.  Cauls were also often made of gold or silver and studded with jewels.


Necklaces and Rings.    Rings were worn to signify betrothal, royalty, or high nobility.  They were the only piece of jewelry to decrease in size over the years.  By the 14th century they had become smaller and less unwieldy, and were usually just bands of gold or silver with an inscription or a few small jewels.  Signet rings were heavier than normal rings and so they were worn on the thumb.  During the 15th century, women began wearing rings more often than men.  Their rings were much more delicate and small than the rings men wore.  Necklaces only began to be worn often during the 14th century.  They began as strips of fabric or ribbon that were embellished with jewels, but developed into intricately jeweled metal chains and pendants during the 15th century.  Women began wearing delicate necklaces made of pearls with jewel pendants (Fig 5).

Fig. 5 - women's pearl pendant necklace

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As I promised earlier, I scanned some of the best of the paper dolls to visually show the styles of the nobility/middle class from around 1200-1450 in Western Europe, especially England and France.  They are generally shown in chronological order.  All of the terms are defined in my previous post.



c. 1200    The woman is wearing a black wool surcoat over a pleated chainse, and a porkpie hat over her hair.  This style of a loose, vertical gown was frequent in the earlier Medieval period.  The man is wearing a particolored cotehardie and a surgarloaf hat, all over his hose and leather shoes.



 c. 1250    The woman is wearing a pale green cotehardie with a full skirt and sleeves over a maroon chainse.  Belts were often worn as in this picture to hold up the skirts and allow for freer movements.  Low-waisted belts would remain the fashion until the late fourteenth century.  She is also wearing a chatelaine to carry household items.  She wears a gorget and wimple over her hair and neck.  The man wears a fur houppeland with the leather on the outside and a leather belt with another form of a chatelaine.



c. 1300    Here the woman is wearing a sideless/cutaway surcoat laced up the front over a blue cotehardie.  This style of surcoat was looked down on by the church because it accentuated the feminine figure.  Her hair is worn loose down her back, usually only acceptable for younger women and girls.  The man is wearing a short green cotehardie and an orange chaperon with a long liripipe attached.  The points of his shoes are a bit more elongated, and they would continue to get more and more so throughout the period.



c. 1350    Here the woman wears a pelicon made from a huge piece of elliptical fabric with slits cuts for the arms and head.  A hood is attached to the neck and buttons down the front.  She also wears a wimple over her hair.  At this point wearing hair loosely and uncovered was considered unacceptable, which eventually gave rise to elaborate headdresses.   The man wears a short cotehardie and hose under a tabard faced with fur.  His cap is draped with woolen cloth. 



c. 1350    The man wears a blue tappert with padded shoulders and slashed sleeves.  His hose are particolored white and light blue.  The woman wears a rolled and padded hennin worn over a caul and draped with a veil.  Her surcoat is worn over a brocade cotehardie and lined with fur, as are the dalmation sleeves.  High-waisted gowns became the fashion for the rest of the Medieval period. 



c. 1400    The man wears a red houppeland with dagged dalmation sleeves and a chaperon which is also dagged.   The woman wears a dress with a style very popular in this period.  The neckline forms a deep V to the waistband, with a ruched bib underneath coming up higher to the neckline.  The blue gown is trimmed with red velvet.  This style of gown was often known as a “Burgundian gown.”  She wears a hennin with a butterfly styled veil.



c. 1450    The man wears a short pourpoint jacket lined with fur.  His hat is trimmed with a gold coronet.  The woman wears an escoffion with a veil and gold ribbon attached.  Her brocade gown has fur-lined dalmation sleeves.  Jewels and gold were often used to line clothing of the nobility as a means to display wealth. 



c. 1450  The man wears a “shockingly” short tunic that became popular in this period.  The feet of his hose are pointed and tipped by bells.  Bells were often used on many garments, especially belts, purses, and shoes.  The woman wears a gown with bag sleeves trimmed in fur.  Her headdress is a more modern version of the toque, worn with a butterfly veil.


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I have found in my research that I keep coming across many terms related to medieval clothing that I am not familiar with, and I doubt most people are.  While normally I would just infer meanings of words I don’t know, most of these are pretty critical in understanding this subject, and are usually interesting as well.  So I have decided to make a short dictionary of sorts to increase both my understanding and yours.  These terms relate mostly to clothing items, but some are used in methods of making clothes or in different styles. 

bliaud — overgown with either long, tight sleeves or looser, elbow-length sleeves

braies/slops — short pants gathered and tied at the waist and tucked into hose (men)

butterfly— starching veils and shaping them using wired, worn over headdresses (women)

Butterfly-styled headdress

caul/snood/crespinette — a net, usually of gold or silver, used to hold up hair, often lined with fabric (women)

chainse — under-tunic, often belted with leather or cord and worn alone in warm weather

chaperon — hood covering head and draped over shoulders

chatelaine — leather pouch or chain hanging from a belt that usually carried household tools, personal items, or coins

chausses — hose attached at the top (men)

coif — close-fitting headdress of white linen, cotton or silk that tied under chin, usually worn under other head coverings

cotehardie — tight-fitting tunic or gown

cottes historiées — family’s coat of arms emblazoned on garments in embroidery or appliqué

crackowes/poulaines — soft, pointed shoes, often wooden-soled, sometimes with the toes held up by gold chains attached to the knee if they were long enough

cyclas — sleeveless tunic worn with or without belt

dagging — ornamental cutting of fabric edges, applied to all manners of clothing

dalmation/angel sleeves — large, voluminous sleeves

escoffion — double-pointed headdress (women)

gorget — square of fabric draped under chin to cover neck (often accompanying the wimple) (women)

hennin — high, pointed, conical headdress that imitated the Gothic church spire, often with veils attached to them (women)

houppelande— long, voluminous coat with sleeves sometimes lined or trimmed with fur

Sideless surcoat worn over a chainse, with a wimple over the hair

justacorps/pourpoint/jupon — quilted garment similar to a vest or jacket (men)

liripipe — long, trailing point often added to a hood or headdress

mantle — cloak worn over clothes, sometimes lined with fur or with a hood

particolored — garments divided into sections and sewn in contrasting colors

pelicon — fur lined robe, usually made from large piece of fabric with holes cut for the head and slits for arms

points/tapes — small laces that tied hose up to slops or braies (men)

ruching — pleating or gathering

stomacher — traingular piece extending from neckline to lower abdomen (women)

sugarloaf hat — tall, rounded hat (men)

surcoat/robe — outer tunic

tabard — scoop-necked surcoat often open at the sides (men)

tappert — German coat padded at the shoulders, usually with slashed and cuffed sleeves (men)

toque/porkpie hat — hat with scalloped/pleated edges and an open top, attached by a chinstrap

wimple/headrail/couvre-chef — kerchief draped over head and shoulders or over a cloth cap (women)

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The other day I pulled out some paper dolls I had when I was little and kept all these years.  Seeing how I always loved anything that I could dress up, paper dolls were some of my most valuable commodities in my younger days.  These particular paper dolls are not just like any others I had – they are historical paper dolls, and probably meant more for historians and costume designers than for little girls.  Yes, I know, I’m a dork.  But, when pulling them out again, I realized just how much information is stored in the front and back flaps of the books–literally paragraphs of detailed descriptions and commentary in itty bitty print.  In seeing this information, I decided these books (I have 6, all done by the same artist), which happen to cover the major areas of European historical fashion, are going to be a major source of information for this project.  I may even try to scan some of the costumes because they are skillfully drawn and are truly lovely.  But I may as well start with the medieval ones, so here follows the information I have gathered as of yet:

During centuries 100-900 AD, usually called the Dark Ages, people mostly wore relatively uncreative and uncolorful clothing.  Apparel was usually similar to Classical styles (Roman and Byzantine), which were tunics and cloaks of coarse cloth, with added fur and layers.  Clothing was usually woolen with linen undergarments.  However, with the development of the feudal system and manorialism, class distinction became very important.  At first, the length of clothing was the major stylistic difference between ranks, with nobles wearing floor-length gowns and tunics and peasants wearing shorter garments.  Eventually the nobles developed much more variety and extravagance in their clothing. 

This was very much assisted by the Crusades, which brought in bright fabrics and thread from the Middle East.  Brocades, silks, and velvets, all in a variety of colors, as well as gold thread, were suddenly introduced into society.  Since medieval life was for the most part monotonous and relatively dark, people delighted in color and portrayed this in their clothing.  Colors came to have symbolic meanings:  blue for fidelity, green for passion, gray for pensiveness, and yellow for anger.  Increased travel and international trade allowed for fashions and ideas to be spread throughout the Western European countries.  Jewelry and intricate embellishments became ever more popular and important, as did hat styles for both men and women. 

All of these factors served to increase the role fashion played in society, so much so that social position legally dictated what someone wore.  Courts passed sumptuary laws that restricted the extravagance of clothing and jewelry of people not of the aristocracy, regardless of wealth.  However, these laws were often evaded by people determined to keep up with the latest fashions. 

One thing that I found very interesting is that there are very few clothing items that survived from the medieval era, primarily because clothes were worn until they fell apart because they were such a valuable commodity.  Peasants would sometimes even wear the castoffs and worn-down clothing of their masters. Used clothing was actually a very successful market. 

Clothing played such an important part in their society.  It was probably similar to the role of cars in our modern culture–the kind of car you have usually denotes your financial status, and even earns you more respect.  It’s interesting to think about just how materialistic our human nature is.

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