England’s medieval period is generally regarded as having lasted more than a millennium, from the fall of the Roman Empire (c. 395 AD) to the beginning of the Renaissance (c. 1485). As a result, the Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Danes, Normans and Britons who lived in England wore a wide and evolving range of clothing over the period, with factors such as class, international relations, technology and fashion further altering different styles of dress.
Though clothing during the early medieval period was normally functional, even amongst the less wealthy it went on to become a marker of status, wealth and occupation right up until the Renaissance, with its importance reflected in events such as ‘sumptuary laws’ that forbade the lower classes from dressing above their station.
Here’s an introduction to the clothing of medieval England.
Men and women’s clothing was often surprisingly similar
In the early medieval period, both sexes wore a long tunic that was pulled up to the armpit and worn over another sleeved garment, such as a dress. Brooches were used to fasten the materials, while personal items were hung from decorated, sometimes flashy belts around the waist. Some women at this time also wore head coverings.
Fleeces, furs and animal skins were also used to line garments and for outerwear. Until the late 6th and 7th centuries, there is little evidence of footwear: people were probably barefoot until it became the norm in the middle Anglo-Saxon era. Similarly, it is likely that most people slept either naked or in a light linen under-tunic.
By the year 1300, women’s gowns were more tight-fitting, with lower necklines, more layers and surcoats (long, coat-like outer garments) accompanying capes, smocks, kirtles, hoods and bonnets.
In spite of the range of clothing that became available by the end of the medieval period, most of it was very expensive, meaning that most people only owned only a few items. Only noblewomen really owned a number of dresses, with the more extravagant ones being worn to social events such as tournaments.
Clothing materials, rather than designs, delineated class
More expensive items of clothing were normally marked by their superior use of materials and cut rather than their design. For instance, the wealthy could enjoy the luxury of materials such as silk and fine linen, while the lower classes used more coarse linen and scratchy wool.
Colours were important, with more expensive dyes such as red and purple being reserved for royalty. The lowest classes had few items of clothing and often went barefoot, while middle classes wore more layers that might have even had trimmings of fur or silk.
Jewellery was a rare luxury
Since most of it was imported, jewellery was a particularly lavish and prized and was even used as security against loans. Gem cutting wasn’t invented until the 15th century, so most stones weren’t particularly shiny.
By the 14th century, diamonds became popular in Europe, and by the middle of the same century there were laws about who could wear what kinds of jewellery. Knights, for instance, were banned from wearing rings. Very occasionally, clothes reserved for the wealthy were garnished with silver.
International relations and art influenced clothing styles
The 7th to the 9th centuries saw a change in fashion that reflected the influence of Northern Europe, the Frankish Kingdom, the Byzantine Empire and a revival of Roman culture. Linen was used more widely, and leg coverings or stockings were commonly worn.
Contemporary English art from the period also showed women wearing ankle-length, tailored gowns which often had a distinct border. Multiple sleeve styles such as long, braided or embroidered sleeves were also fashionable, while the buckled belts that had previously been popular had gone out of style. However, the majority of dresses were plain with minimal decoration.
‘Sumptuary laws’ regulated who could wear what
Social status was crucially important during the medieval era and could be exemplified through dress. As a result, the upper classes protected their styles of clothing through law, so that the lower classes could not attempt to advance themselves by dressing ‘above their station’.
From the 13th century onwards, detailed ‘sumptuary laws’ or ‘acts of apparel’ were passed which restricted the wearing of certain materials by the lower classes in order to maintain societal class divisions. Limits were put on things like the quantity of expensive imported materials such as furs and silks, and the lower classes could be punished for wearing certain clothing styles or using certain materials.
These laws also applied to certain religious people, with monks sometimes getting in trouble because they were deemed to be dressing too extravagantly.
Furthermore, for everyone but the upper classes, clothing was considered along with other personal effects to decide how much tax they should pay. The upper classes being left out indicated that social display was seen as necessary for them, whereas it was regarded as an unnecessary luxury for everyone else.
Dyes were common
Contrary to popular belief, even the lower classes normally wore colourful clothing. Nearly every colour imaginable could be obtained from plants, roots, lichen, tree bark, nuts, molluscs, iron oxide and crushed insects.
However, more expensive dyes were normally needed for the dye to last a long time. As a result, the brightest and richest colours were reserved for the wealthy who could afford to pay for such luxury. Moreover, a longer jacket length indicated that you could afford more material to be treated.
Nearly everyone covered their heads
It was practical for everyone to wear something on their heads to protect the face from the hot sun in the summer, keep their head warm in the winter and more generally to keep dirt off the face. As with other clothing, hats could indicate a person’s job or station in life and were considered to be especially important: knocking someone’s hat off their head was a grave insult that could even carry charges for assault.
Men wore wide-brimmed straw hats, close fitting bonnet-like hoods made from linen or hemp, or a felt cap. Women wore veils and wimples (large, draped cloth), with upper class women enjoying complex hats and head rolls.