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.