Women’s clothing in any time period is partly a reflection of their social status and can influence how they are perceived. In the medieval period, clothing was made by women using silk, cotton, wool, or even horsehair, with more luxurious materials worn by those who could afford them. Clothing dyes would be made from substances including crushed flowers and berries, and here, too, what you wore would be a reflection of your status: Colors that were more expensive or difficult to make would be worn only by the upper classes, and poorer people would wear more fabrics that were not dyed.
Sumptuary laws were laws that were implemented to ensure that everyone kept to their place on the social ladder, influencing what you would be given access to buy or use. Sumptuary laws impacted fashion in many ways. For instance, there were laws about just how much fur you were allowed to wear depending on where you were on the social ladder. When buttons were invented in the 1300s, there were even rules about how many buttons you were allowed to have.
Usually, peasant women in the Middle Ages would not dress in the same manner as noble women. Peasant women didn’t have enough money to afford clothes that were tailored for them, so they would make their own clothes using the materials and skills they had. Typically, their fashions consisted of long gowns and sleeveless tunics.
People of lower classes typically wore clothing made of wool, linen, and sheepskin. People of higher classes wore velvets, furs, silks, taffeta, cotton, and lace. Tunics were worn throughout the medieval period because they were very easily made and were comfortable to wear, but even this simple garment could be a high-class fashion; in this case, it would likely be made of expensive fabric, dyed an eye-catching color, and skillfully tailored.
The 1100s were a time of elegance, and fashions became much more ornate and elongated. The most popular dress of the time was called a bliaut, a style that had large, flowing skirts and long, exaggerated sleeves. Whenever people think of women in medieval times, they usually think of the high hats, high waists, and long sleeves worn by women who were of a noble station in the Middle Ages.
The under-tunic, a form of underclothing, could be worn by both men and women. The under-tunic was worn under either a gown or a long vest. Women also wore tight underpants that were usually white. Men’s undershirts had round necks and shallow slit openings.
Cloaks were a popular part of medieval fashion and often made of thick wool that helped to keep off the rain and chill. A cloak without a hood might be called a mantle, though these could also be worn with a separate hood. Mantles could be made in different thicknesses to suit the weather conditions, and upper-class women might own many in a variety of colors to match her outfits.
Coifs, hats that tie under the chin, were worn by men and women. A woman’s outfit was not complete without some sort of head covering; peasant women might wear a wimple to cover their hair when out in public. Almost everyone wore hose or stockings as well as shoes, although as with every other part of a person’s outfit, the quality and detailing of these pieces would vary depending on a person’s class.
The early medieval ladies’ dresses were tighter and came up to their necks, and they would consist of two tunics and veils to cover the whole body. But as the decades and centuries passed, these fashions would begin to loosen and elongate, creating more ornate and flowing looks. Of course, these outfits would be less practical for those of the laboring classes, and so the most fashion-forward people would be those in the aristocracy. However, over time, as the Elizabethan era approached, these more complex styles would become somewhat more accessible to women of all statuses.
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