Medieval Dresses – A Brief History

You shall not go to the ball

Balls or banquets have always been the preserve of the rich. Throughout history, these grand occasions were an opportunity to show off social status or indeed the perfect place to try and gain a little. Peasants or the working classes would never be able to attend a grand ball except in a serving capacity and therefore aside from perhaps a Sunday dress, ladies of the lower classes are unlikely to have possessed anything approaching a fancy dress.

For peasants, clothes were comfortable and practical and would have little in the way of embellishments or details.  A peasant girl would have been content with a simple under and overdress with functionality as the key. Generally, throughout the ages fashion favoured the meek and style wise the poorer woman would have sported plain gowns, floor length and made from cotton or wool.  Colours were also important and even the lower classes would at least have dyed their gowns at least as far as their means would allow. Some dyes in the middle ages were rare and expensive and brighter colours such as indigo or woad blue were a symbol of affluence although almost everyone would have known how to make simple dyes from crushed berries and other easily obtained sources.

Uptown Girls

For the wealthier, merchants, the nobility and the like, fashion at the ball was very much like it is today. Modes and fads and colour schemes would spread from court to court and new styles would rage across Europe as fast as word of mouth.

Like their lower class cousins, ladies of the court would have two essential garments. Their underwear which would consist of a cotton under-dress and an overdress which would be worn over the cotton slip to create essentially a protective layer for the slip beneath.  The underdress would have been cleaned on a regular basis and a well to do lady is likely to have had more than one. The overdress by contrast would have been washed less frequently, but again a wealthy lady would have more than one. These other gowns would be altered and changed a-la-mode. As fashion changed across the court, so would their look. Embellishments like fancy sleeves, plunging necklines and embroidery would be added by maids and seamstresses or even by a young lady herself. It was not uncommon for a lady to be schooled and skilled in needlecraft.  It wasn’t until the 15th century when gem cutting progressed to a stage where gems and precious stones would have been seen on clothing, although broaches and jewellery were an exception to the rule.

Other touches like fur lining, cuffs and details would have been seen adorning the garments of the rich, but like other embellishments, they would have been governed by mode. The French and Italians would have taken the lead in terms of style and travelling merchants would come home with tales, paintings and other artwork depicting the current trends. As well as bales of the latest fabric in the most popular colours. The ladies at court would be the first to hear these stories and to sample these wares. From there, these fashions would spread up and down the country and in many ways the world of fashion hasn’t changed that much.

A first-class war

Another divide between the rich and the poor was that of layers. Fabric was expensive and basically a luxury, it was also deemed a symbol of status. Therefore, the more layers one wore, the more money and power they had. Peasants had to get by with a simple underdress and a Kirtle (overdress). Women with more wealth would display it by wearing additional layers or surcoates, often more than one.  These additional layers could be identical to the outfit beneath or perhaps be open at the sides to better display any details or embellishments or then again they might feature a hood or a fur lining to offer some protection from the elements. Of course, more fabric didn’t just mean more layers, the rich would also show off their wealth by wearing longer coats with longer sleeves and their dresses and cloaks would have been fashioned using thicker more luxuriant wool to make their clothes appear thicker and grander. Colour too was a sign off money as some dyes were expensive to produce and therefore some colours like plum, green and red would be almost exclusively seen on the rich.

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