Medieval Clothing: A Primer

Medieval Dress for the Beginner

by Ben Holman


Leg coverings (under construction)


So, you want to get started putting together some semblance of medieval style garb, but you really don't know where to begin. Now, you may be tempted to begin by looking to your old copies of Dungeons & Dragons. DON'T! Put away all of your ideas about leather pants and furry vests. In fact, if you have ever seen it in a fantasy book, it's probably completely wrong. Do you really think that people went around in fuzzy britches and maile brassieres? Did you actually believe that anyone walked around with a sword as large as they were tall, cleaving people in half? Obviously, we are all intelligent enough to know that those things are terribly impractical and inaccurate. While maile and leather fashions may be interesting to look at, and are indeed very creative, they are not authentic medieval garb. The purpose of this section is to help the newcomer get started without looking like these two:

It's not that we expect 100% accuracy in your clothing, we just don't want you to look like you've gone down the fantasy route. After all, the more authentic you look, the more authentic we all look.

Here we have two people who would not fit in with a group designed around medieval re-creation. The gentleman on the left has removed the sleeves from his shirt, which probably wasn't too far off to begin with. He is also wearing pants that have been cut to appear worn. As you can see, the effect is anything but believable, in fact, it looks almost cartoonish. I believe he is trying to go for a peasant look, but all it takes is a little thought to understand that no peasant would have been caught dead looking like that. Peasants worked at hard labor on the farm all day. They wore long sleeves and long leg coverings to protect their skin from the inevitable scratches and irritations caused by that type of work.

On the right we see a young woman who has put on the aformentioned fuzzy britches and maile brassiere. A woman of the Middle Ages would have worn a long dress or skirt with a blouse, and certainly would never have shown that much skin. However, for the purposes of our group, we suggest that females wishing to participate in combat follow the male form of dress, as skirts are not conducive to swordplay and tramping through the underbrush.

In order to look the part we must consider several questions: What types of materials were used to make clothing? What colors were used? What is the time period represented? Why is that guy wearing a dress?

First, let us consider materials. Why not leather? Leather was far too valuable for use in shoes, tools, and armor to be wasted on everyday clothing. Why not fur? While fur was used by some groups for some articles of clothing, most fur was used as decoration on the clothing of the wealthy and as blankets. The problem with using fur is the likelihood of ending up looking like Conan the Barbarian, and so it should be used only by those who have thoroughly researched it and who can implement it accurately. Plus, fur is expensive and fake fur just looks silly. So what can be used? Wool, silk and linen mainly, or suitable look-alikes. Cotton did exist, but proof for its use in clothing is sketchy at best; confusing terminology, the term cotton was used as a description for a type of wool weave, and other aspects involved in production of cotton cloth make it difficult to determine the extent of its use. Wool was the cotton of the Middle Ages, it was the most readily available material, was strong, easily woven, easily dyeable, and was affordable. Most people would have worn under garments of linen, to avoid the irritation of the wool, and over garments of wool and silk. Linen does not accept natural dyes well, and for that reason over garments of linen are rare. Fine weaves were readily available and not even the poorest of peasants would have been forced to wear "sack cloth," or those incredibly coarse weaves that many people assume must have been worn. In wool, the herringbone, chevron, diamond, and various twill patterns were common.

Now that we have decided what fabrics to use we can look at colors. Really, nearly any color was possible with natural dyes; although more vibrant colors were more expensive and therefore limited to the rich. Deep purple was considered to be a royal color, and therefore was difficult to obtain. In fact, the Carolingian kings believed that they were the only ones who had the right to wear the color during the early Middle Ages and even went so far as to have customs agents search for people trying to smuggle the purple fabric out of their territory. For the beginner, choose colors that appeal to you but do not use the vibrant colors that are obviously machine dyed.

Ok, so now we've got a fabric and decided on a reasonable color. What should this thing look like? Well, that depends upon the time period you're shooting for; earlier periods were basically long tunics and trousers, while later periods see the shortening of tunics and the wearing of tights, yes tights. Basically, the easiest way to get into period garb is to go for the all purpose tunic.

With this basic pattern, from the SCA web site, one can simulate the style of dress from nearly all periods in medieval history. By changing the length, neck opening, and sleeve style you can approximate anything you want.

Use 60" wide (150cm) fabric, or sew two widths of 45" or 36" together. Fold the fabric in quarters, with one set of folds at the top and one fold running the long way down the middle of what will become the front (see diagram).

As for leg coverings wool trousers work well for beginners, or anything that isn't easily identifiable as modern will do. DO NOT wear blue jeans! Nothing looks tackier than someone in a medieval tunic and blue jeans. If you wear loose fitting trousers, securing them to your lower legs with cross-gartering or winnegas is a common period treatment, we will discuss these two terms later in this series. For later periods form fitting tights are the leg covering of choice.

So, why is that guy wearing a dress? The answer to that is simple, he's not. A rule of thumb for medieval clothing is that length denotes wealth, because those who were wealthy could afford to use more fabric in their clothes. If you are just getting started, go for a length that reaches the top of the knee for everyday wear, if you want to make feast garb, you might consider more length, depending on your period.

What about decoration? Embellishments on garb can range from simply color variations to ornate embroidery. There are various, commercially made, trims available that are suitable; however, these are easily discernable as modern on close inspection. The easiest way to dress up your garb is to simply use a suitable color around the neck, wrists, and hem. If you really feel like investing some serious time, you can choose to do embroidery on your garb; while this method is difficult and time consuming, the results can be quite impressive.

Basically, as long as you make an attempt to dress in medieval garb and to stay away from fantasy elements, no one will get on your case. However, as your tenure in the group lengthens, you are expected to improve upon you clothing as much as time and money allows. We want everyone to be able to come and have fun, but we also want to have the look of the Middle Ages, not a group of fantasy enthusiasts.

I am not suggesting that the people used as examples on this page are doing anything wrong, in fact they are members of a group that encourages fantasy elements. They are used here as an example of the types of misconceptions that people may have about the Mercenaries Medieval Combat Guild. If you are interested in ways to take your medeival fantasy interest in a historical direction without losing the look of your intended costume, you may want to read our "Finding the Reality in Fantasy" article.

Next article in series: tunics.




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