Medieval Clothing: A Primer

Medieval Dress for the Beginner:


Leg coverings(under construction)


The cloak is as pervasive a garment throughout the Middle Ages as any featured in this series. Cloaks have existed, in one form or another, for as long as man has been wearing clothing. When prehistoric man first wrapped himself in an animal's fur to ward off the evening chill, he was wearing a rudimentary cloak.

In order to keep the continuity of this series, this article will follow the same format as the previous articles. It will discuss cloaks as they relate to time periods within the scope of the MMCG and will focus mainly on Northern and Western European fashions of the Dark Ages (circa 800-1050), the High Middle Ages (circa 1050-1300) and the Late Middle Ages (circa 1300-1500). Each section will discuss material choices and style, color availability would be no different than that discussed in the tunic article. This article will also discuss some alternatives to the cloak since their use as outermost garments makes it appropriate that they be discussed herein.

This article is not meant to be an exhaustive study and it should be understood that, as the Middle Ages progressed, regional styles became more and more pronounced and general statements about style are not as easily made.

It will be assumed that the reader is reading this series in order and therefore, statements explaining the social and economic factors at work will not be repeated from previous articles unless necissary.

The Dark Ages: (circa 800-1050)


Wool, being such a sturdy and weather worthy fabric, was the number one material of choice in making cloaks. It is possible that silk was used for cloaks for special occasions, but only by the extremely wealthy.

While it is possible that linen may have been used to make cloaks, it is highly unlikely and there have been no finds to support linen as a cloak material. Linen has none of the insulating or weather shedding characteristics of wool and, therefore, would not be desireable as a foul-weather garment, it also doesn't dye as well, and would be passed over for better choices when seeking to make an ostentatious show of wealth through vibrant color.

At the very end of the period, there is evidence that fur was used on a limited basis as a lining for fine cloaks, and even more rarely as the outer material with fine fabric serving as the lining. Beaver fur was readily available through trade with the Vikings - the Domesday book mentions Chester as an center for fur import. King Malcom of Scotland and his wife Margaret included garments of marten, and possibly imported grey squirell and ermine garments, in a gift to King Ętheling of England in 1075.

Although there is solid evidence that fur was becoming fashionable again, it was only seen as respectable when done with the finest, most expensive furs and on a limited basis. This point is made clear by disparaging remarks made about fur garments. One such instance occurs in the 10th century, according to William of Malmesbury, when Edith of Wilton commented on a 'ragged fur' worn by a bishop (probably a traditional religious garment called a fel).


Iconographic evidence suggests that cloaks were worn both indoors and out, by all classes of people and with very little style variation during the Dark Ages. Most often, short cloaks were worn with short tunics and longer cloaks with long tunics.

The cloaks of the Anglo-Saxons were of the same style as the cloaks of the Franks and even very similar to those worn in the Eastern Roman Empire. Cloaks were not tailored and were most often square or rectangular - a fact that probably owed as much to practicality as it did style. A square or rectangular cloak could easily be used as a blanket when on campaign or at home for those without the means to own multiple garments. While the Bayeux tapestry seems to use cloaks to denote important figures, other period images show people of all classes wearing cloaks. Typically, the only people regularly depicted not wearing cloaks are those engaged in physical activities where a cloak would inhibit the work.

The coronation of Harold, detail from the Bayeux Tapestry. This time, look at the cloaks worn by the individuals in the image. The men to the right of the king wear the short, rectangular cloaks fastened at the shoulder while the king and bishop, in their long, court clothes, wear the longer cloak fastened at the front.
Dark Age style tunic

The short cloak is almost always fastened at the right shoulder with a cloak pin and sometimes ties. Rather than being cut to fit the neck and shoulders, the excess fabric is gathered at the shoulder and the excess length is allowed to drape down the front of the person, is draped over the left arm, or is flung back over the left shoulder; this arangement allows for the right arm to be free.

The long tunic was favored when wearing a long gown for court purposes and could have been of the square or rectangular shape, but many depictions seem to indicate a circular or semi-circular long cloak. Whatever the shape may have been, when worn over long garments and on formal occasions, the prefered method of cloak fastening was to pin it in the middle of the chest below the chin with the drape thrown back over the shoulders.

Embroidered or brocaded strips of silk were often used to dress up a cloak and to demonstrate wealth. Viking setlements in Ireland show large amounts of silk and other luxury fabrics applied to cloaks, suggesting that even less important men in these colonies had the means and the desire to spend some of their surplus income on luxury goods. Also found in these settlements is evidence of pearls adorning cloaks and cloaks fastened with clasps instead of pins.

The High Middle Ages: (circa 1050-1300)


Wool and now fine silk are the materials of choice for cloaks during this period. Wool being still desired for its warmth and other fine properties and silk for the ostentatious show it made for the wearer. Obviously, such extravagancies as silk cloaks would be only owned by the most wealthy who could afford the expense of the wasted fabric. The lesser nobles and the common classes would stick to wool.

By the middle of the 12th century, fur lining and trim became much more common for those who could afford it and was a widely accepted method of decoration for cloaks. This trend would continue into the later Middle Ages and would eventually extend to other forms of clothing.


During the reign of Henry I, 1100-1135, it became fashionable to use excessive amounts of cloth in clothing. The trains of women's dresses, the sleeves of garments for both sexes and even cloak hems were extend to absurd lengths. This is the period in which women began knotting their sleeves so as not to drag them on the ground. The extra length of cloaks would be carried over whichever arm was free by the wearer.

These two men wear surcotes lined with fur and designed with integral hoods.
Two men in surcotes.

The semi-circular cloak was highly popular during this period but the method of fastening with a brooch at the right shoulder continued well into this time. By the end of the 12th century, circular cloaks of varrying degrees begun to be commonly worn with the straight middle seam in the middle of the back with the remainder draped over the shoulders and fastened by cords attached to jeweled pins or with cords laced through pairs of grommets in the cloak. However, fastening the cloak at the shoulder persisted and was likely the preferred attachment method for men while the the latter method becme more common for women.

By the end of this period, cloaks begin to share the duty of outermost garment with different styles of garment. Thick robes, which could be described as surcotes, gardecorps and pelicons began to be worn commonly. These different outer garments did not supplant the cloak, they merely were an alternative and could be finished and lined in the same ways as cloaks.

It is also important to note that, while cloaks of this period did have a bit of tailoring, integral hoods on cloaks do not appear to have been employed. This is not true, however, for the other styles of outerwear. Iconographic evidence abounds with surcoats, gardecorps and other robes with integral hoods.

The Late Middle Ages: (circa 1300-1500)


Fabric used for cloaks and outer garments during this period is much the same as the previous period except that finer fabrics and colors were available to a larger group of people. Fur linings such as ermine and sable were highly popular in cloaks made for the extremely rich.


A houpelande with fur lined collar and dagged sleeves. This garment was only popular for a short period, approximately from 1380-1450. Notice the voluminous sleeves and the very full skirt. This garment required such a large amount of cloth that only the wealthy could afford to wear them.
Ser Owen's houpelande.

Since the cloak is such a simple garment, the cut of the garment
Lionel, Duke of Clarence. He wears a fully circular cloak attached at the right shoulder. This image makes it appear that there is a hood attached, but the hood must be seperate since attaching a hood to a cloak that is not attached at the front would be difficult if not impossible.
Lionel, Duke of Clarence.
didn't change drastically since the High Middle Ages. Cloaks of this period were anywhere from half-circles to full circles, including every degree of partial circle in between.

Funeral effigies show both men and women wearing cloaks attached in front of the body - both clasped at the neck and joined by a cord between jeweled brooches. However, other iconographic evidence depicts fastening the cloak at the shoulder as much more prevalent for men during this period while women are most commonly portrayed using a cord across the chest.

It is also important to note that this period, while not marking the end of the cloak, displays a sever decline in the use of cloaks. Images depicting cloaks are far rarer during this period. What is displayed by the evidence, however, is that short cloaks were favored for riding and longer ones when not riding. Cloaks are almost exclusively depicted as worn only in foul weather and for court ceremonies such as coronations. Decorations on the cloaks that are depicted include dagged hems and embroidery.

The most popular forms of outer garment during this period were the houpelande, the heuke and a second cotehardie made to fit over the under cotehardie. The heuke, being the one garment not discussed previously in this series, was a loose, robe-like item that often included an integral hood. Heukes and cotehardies were worn by all levels of society - although mounted soldiers who work heukes often had them slit up the front to allow for better freedom of movement when sitting a horse.

Houpelandes were an item reserved for the wealthy because of the excessive amounts of fabric required for their construction. They were often decorated to extremes and those intended for court events were often made of silk and had highly ornate designs on them.

This noble, from an early 15th century French hunting manuscript, wears a long houpelande lined with fur.
A Mounted noble wearing a houpelande.

Next: Leg Coverings (under construction) go to Footwear.




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