Late Middle Ages Fashion: The Evolution of Medieval Garb

Late Middle Ages Fashion: The Evolution of Medieval Garb

The Late Middle Ages, spanning roughly from the 13th to the late 15th century, was a period of profound changes in Europe. This epoch, preceding the Renaissance, witnessed a range of historical events, from the rise and fall of empires to the bubonic plague. Just as these events shaped politics, economics, and art, they also significantly impacted fashion. This article delves into the Late Middle Ages’ fashion, focusing on the intricacies, influences, and trends that defined the era.

Interesting Facts about Late Medieval Clothing

  1. Pointed Shoes: In the Late Middle Ages, a style known as ‘poulaines’ became popular, characterized by an exaggerated pointed toe. These shoes were so extreme that they were sometimes regulated by law, with the length of the point reflecting one’s social status.
  2. Colorful Clothing: While we may imagine medieval clothing to be drab, the Late Middle Ages saw an explosion of color. The wealthy wore vibrant reds, blues, and greens, thanks to the availability of various dyes. The color of one’s clothing could signify social class, profession, or even political alignment.
  3. Houppelande: A unique garment called the ‘houppelande’ emerged in the 14th century. It was characterized by voluminous fabric and large sleeves, and both men and women wore it. The garment could be tailored for any weather, with lighter materials for summer and heavy, fur-lined versions for winter.
  4. Codpieces: One of the more curious fashion trends was the codpiece, a covering attached to men’s hose to provide a degree of modesty. Over time, it became a symbol of masculinity and was often exaggerated in size and ornately decorated.
  5. Metallic Threads: Gold and silver threads were woven into fabrics to create a glittering effect. These threads were highly prized and indicated wealth and prestige.
  6. Animal Fur Trims: Fur was a sign of luxury, and different types of furs were used to trim the clothing of the nobility. Ermine, a white fur with black tips, was particularly associated with royalty.
  7. Mourning Attire: With the widespread impact of plagues, mourning attire became more standardized. Specific colors and garments were worn to signify mourning, and this practice laid the foundation for modern mourning customs.
  8. Chopines: These were platform shoes worn by women to protect their shoes and dresses from mud and street soil. Chopines could be over 20 inches high, and wearing them required the assistance of canes or servants.
  9. Badges and Emblems: Often, clothing was adorned with badges or emblems to indicate political allegiance, religious devotion, or guild membership. These could be sewn or even painted onto garments.

These fascinating facts reveal the complexity and diversity of Late Medieval clothing, reflecting the era’s rich cultural, social, and even political life. Far from being mere necessities, clothes in the Late Middle Ages were a canvas for expression and identity.

Societal Influences and Changes 

The Black Death: The bubonic plague, which wiped out nearly one-third of Europe’s population in the 14th century, indirectly influenced fashion. As the workforce dwindled, the cost of labor soared. The affluent class began to flaunt their wealth ostentatiously, creating more elaborate and ornate clothing.

Urbanization: With the growth of towns and cities, an urban merchant class emerged, impacting fashion in two ways. Firstly, there was an increased demand for luxurious garments. Secondly, city life promoted a cosmopolitan fashion sense, fostering a quicker exchange of ideas and styles.

Fabrics and Materials 

Luxury Fabrics: Silk, imported mainly from the Byzantine Empire and later the Islamic world, was a highly sought-after fabric. Only the wealthiest could afford garments made entirely of this material.

Wool and Linen: The majority of people wore clothing made of wool, which varied in quality. Linen was commonly used for undergarments due to its breathable nature.

Fur: Used both for warmth and as a status symbol, popular choices included marten, fox, ermine, and squirrel.

Women’s Fashion 

Gowns: The “cote” was a tight-fitting undergarment, usually made of linen. Over it, women wore a “surcote,” which could be either tight-fitting with long sleeves or sleeveless with a wide armhole, allowing the cote underneath to be visible.

Headdresses: The Late Middle Ages saw a variety of headdresses for women, such as the “wimple,” which covered the neck and chin, and the “hennin,” a tall, conical hat.

Belts: Worn at the hips, these were both functional and decorative, with the wealthy often adorning theirs with jewels.

Men’s Fashion 

Doublets and Pourpoints: These were padded garments worn over the shirt and under the outer garments. The “pourpoint” was instrumental in introducing the “baggy trousers” fashion.

Hose: Early in the period, men wore “braies” or baggy underpants tied at the waist and mid-calf. Over this, they wore hose, which eventually evolved into a tighter-fitting garment.

Hats: Men had a range of hats to choose from, including coifs, hoods with ‘liripipes’ (a long tail), and by the 15th century, wide-brimmed hats became popular.

Shoes and Accessories 

Poulaine: Perhaps one of the most iconic medieval shoe styles, the poulaine featured an exaggerated long pointed toe. The length of the toe often indicated the wearer’s status.

Jewelry: While rings were universally popular, brooches, particularly the annular (ring-shaped) brooch, were worn by both men and women. Wealthier individuals also wore necklaces and jeweled belts.

Children’s Clothing 

During the Late Middle Ages, children’s clothing was an exciting reflection of societal norms and expectations. Unlike today, where children’s clothing is often colorful and distinct, children were typically dressed as miniature adults in the medieval period. This approach reflected a broader cultural understanding of children as small grown-ups and underlined their aspiration to emulate adult behaviors.

Infants were usually swaddled in bands of linen to keep them warm and secure. Swaddling was believed to help the baby’s limbs grow straight, and it was a common practice across various social classes. Once a child reached the age of about six or seven, they would transition into clothing that resembled adults’ clothing.

For boys, this meant wearing tunics and hose, similar to their fathers, while girls wore dresses like their mothers, often with some sort of head covering. The fabric and ornamentation would reflect the family’s social status, with wealthier children wearing rich materials such as silk or velvet. In comparison, poorer children wore simpler fabrics like wool or linen.

Children’s clothing also had practical considerations. It needed to be durable and flexible for active play and growth. Fastenings and lacing allowed for size adjustments, accommodating a growing child.

Marriage and occupational expectations also influenced children’s clothing. Young girls might wear a simple version of a bridal gown, reflecting their future role as wives and mothers. Boys might wear attire reflecting their intended profession or the trade of their father.

Children’s clothing during the Late Middle Ages was far more than mere garments. It was symbolic of societal roles, familial expectations, and cultural norms. The way children were dressed signaled their place within the family and society, emphasizing their transition from infancy to adulthood and their future responsibilities.

Sumptuary Laws 

As fashion became a distinct mark of one’s social and economic status, various European states introduced sumptuary laws. These laws regulated the colors, materials, and types of clothing worn by different classes. Their primary aim was to ensure that the societal hierarchy remained visually evident and curb extravagant clothing spending.

Regional Variations

The fashion of the Late Middle Ages was not uniform across Europe. Distinct regional variations emerged, reflecting the diverse cultural, political, and climatic factors unique to different areas. These variations have left a rich legacy and provide fascinating insights into the particularities of each region.

Italian Elegance: Fashion in Renaissance Italy

Italy, particularly Florence, was at the forefront of fashion during the Late Middle Ages. With a thriving textile industry, Italy introduced luxurious fabrics like silk and velvet to European courts. The Italian style was characterized by grace and elegance, with garments designed to highlight the human form. The introduction of slashing, where the outer fabric was cut to reveal contrasting linings, added flair and was widely copied across Europe.

French Courtly Styles

French fashion was highly influential, setting trends for European nobility. The French court was known for its refinement and elaborate ornamentation. Intricate patterns, embroidery, and the use of precious jewels were common. The houppelande, a garment with wide sleeves and full skirts, originated in France and became a staple for both men and women.

English Practicality and Distinction

England’s fashion was more conservative and practical than the continental styles. Wool was a major textile, reflecting the country’s extensive sheep farming. English nobility favored long, flowing robes with fur trimmings and broad belts. Sumptuary laws were more rigidly enforced in England, emphasizing the distinction between different social classes.

Eastern Influence: Byzantine and Islamic Contributions

Trade routes opened up Eastern influences on European fashion. The Byzantine Empire and Islamic regions introduced intricate patterns, new dyeing techniques, and unique garments like the turban. With its high quality and exotic patterns, Eastern silk became a sought-after commodity, influencing designs and enriching Western fashion.

Regional variations in Late Medieval clothing tell a story of a Europe interconnected yet diverse. They reflect the unique histories, economies, and cultural norms of different regions. Whether it’s the artistic innovation of the Italians, the grandeur of the French court, the sensible designs of the English, or the exotic flair of Eastern styles, each region contributed to the rich tapestry of Late Medieval fashion. These variations are not just historical curiosities but fundamental in understanding the social and cultural dynamics of the time.

Fashion as an Art Form 

The Late Middle Ages set the stage for clothing to be seen as a necessity and a form of self-expression. The intricate embroidery, elaborate patterns, and attention to detail made fashion a genuine art form. This was further amplified by the introduction of slashing – deliberate cuts made in garments to reveal the contrasting color of the undergarment, showcasing both wealth and creativity.

The Transition to the Renaissance

The transition from the Late Middle Ages to the Renaissance marked a profound shift in fashion, reflecting broader cultural, intellectual, and artistic transformations. This period, beginning in the 14th century and blossoming through the 16th and 17th centuries, ushered in new ideals, innovative techniques, and a renewed fascination with the human form.

Humanism and Individual Expression

Renaissance humanism emphasized the value of individuality and human experience. This philosophical shift was mirrored in fashion, with clothing becoming a medium for personal expression. Tailoring techniques improved, allowing for a closer fit emphasizing the natural human form. Where medieval fashion had been about status and function, Renaissance fashion was about artistry and aesthetics.

Innovations in Tailoring and Design

New cutting and sewing techniques allowed for more intricate designs and better-fitted garments. The emergence of the doublet, a close-fitted jacket, marked a significant departure from the looser tunics of the medieval period. Sleeves became detachable, allowing for variations and customization. The farthingale, a hooped skirt, and the ruff, a pleated collar, became fashionable, adding structure and sophistication to clothing.

Decline of Sumptuary Laws

As cities grew wealthier and the middle class expanded, sumptuary laws, which had rigidly dictated who could wear what began to wane. This allowed for greater access to luxurious fabrics and adornments and blurred lines between different social classes. Fashion became more democratized, with more people able to wear stylish clothing.

Influence of Art and Literature

The flourishing of Renaissance art and literature also had an impact on fashion. The clothing depicted in paintings by masters like Leonardo da Vinci and Titian influenced real-world fashion trends. Literary works celebrated beauty and refinement, further inspiring the fashion of the day.

The transition to the Renaissance was a dynamic period that redefined fashion in Western Europe. Moving away from the rigid social structures and religious conservatism of the Late Middle Ages, Renaissance fashion embraced innovation, individuality, and a renewed focus on aesthetics. It laid the groundwork for the modern fashion industry, connecting clothing with status and function and self-expression, art, and culture. The Renaissance gave rise to a fashion that was not merely about covering the body but about celebrating the human spirit, creativity, and the joys of living. It was a revolution not only in style but in thinking, one that continues to influence fashion to this day.

Bottom Line 

The fashion of the Late Middle Ages reflects a society in transition. While retaining elements of feudal society, there were distinct moves towards what would become the Renaissance’s individualistic ethos. Through the fabrics, styles, and accessories of the period, one can trace the socio-political changes, economic shifts, and cultural evolutions of the era. Far from being just about clothing, Late Middle Ages fashion offers a vibrant tapestry of medieval life and thought.