By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The second half of the first millennium brought about noteworthy changes in Western clothing, a testimony of which can be found in many written and visual medieval sources. Clothes were not just an expression of individual taste and fashion, but were indicative of one’s social status as well.
Gradation in Status
The changing medieval fashions and dressing worked to unite the elites of the medieval world, across regions and religions, and create gradations of status and identity among all types of people.
The fabric, weave, cut, and tailoring of clothing became instantly recognizable ways of distinguishing among classes and professions, while the conspicuous consumption of certain foods in certain ways was a further indication of one’s socioeconomic standing.
Fabrics of the Affluent
Until then, what had primarily distinguished the dress of the wealthy and powerful was the quality and quantity of the garments’ fabric, color, and detachable ornamentation. Draped garments, from the chlamys to the toga, sari, and ceremonial cloak, were signs of status precisely because so much material was essentially wasted.
And so long as silk and sericulture were monopolized by China, as they were throughout antiquity, possessing and wearing anything made of this material was impressive in itself—or decadent, since silk clung to the body and was, for that reason, the favored garment of prostitutes, thus a material condemned by Roman traditionalists.
In northern Europe, cotton remained a luxury item, given that linen was the locally cultivated plant-based material for lightweight clothing. Indeed, popular representations of cotton suggest that Europeans who had never seen it being cultivated imagined that it was a type of wool that grew on trees.
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Colors, too, were readily apparent symbols of status and wealth. Saffron, imported from Persia and Kashmir, was expensive and often associated with priesthood. Kermes, made from the dried bodies of the female insect Kermes vermilio, native to the Mediterranean littoral, produced rich shades of crimson and vermilion; an astonishing surviving example is the ceremonial cope of the first Norman king of Sicily, Roger II, made in the 1130s.
Purple was the color of extreme opulence because the dye was so rare and expensive; it had to be harvested from the mucous secretions of a small, spiny sea snail (species Murex brandaris) native to the eastern Mediterranean.
Purple for Royalty
Purple is still known as Tyrian purple because the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre was the major site of its production—in fact, the Phoenicians get their name from the Greek word for this color.
Because it took some 9,000 of these mollusks to produce a single gram of dye, it was worth more than gold. According to legend, Roman Emperor Aurelian acquired a reputation for frugality by refusing to allow his wife to buy a purple-dyed mantle—at a time, in the 3rd century CE, when older Roman prohibitions against opulent dress were being relaxed.
By the 6th century, when the Christian Roman Emperor Justinian had himself and his wife, Theodora, depicted in the gold mosaics of Ravenna, purple dye’s potency was firmly tied to Christian kingship. A fragment of the polychrome Tyrian silk shroud supposedly woven for the Frankish king and emperor Charlemagne, at the end of the 8th century, can still be seen in the Musée de Cluny in Paris.
What about Accessories?
For at least 500 years, ever since the barbarians of northern Europe had been integrated into the frontier societies of the Roman Empire and, afterward, into Latin Christendom, the standard dress for men and women was more or less the same, regardless of class.
All that distinguished one class from another was the quality of the cloth and the variety of metal used for the brooches, clasps, or pins that fastened them on.
Clothes of the Clergy
Greco-Roman styles and articles of dress were preserved mostly by the clergy of the Roman and Orthodox Churches, and are still the vestments worn by the ministers of some Christian denominations today:
- the chasuble, a round, poncho-like garment worn over a white robe or alb
- the liturgical cope or cape, often richly embroidered, for celebrating Mass
- a pallium or stole, worn mostly by bishops
- for lesser clergy, a dalmatic or sleeved tunic
Yet, while the ceremonial clothing of clergy remained virtually unchanged, at least until the Reformation—when many Protestant denominations abandoned it—secular fashions would be constantly evolving.
Cinching the Class
Based on the evidence, it is clear that elites began to patronize and encourage the work of professional clothing tailleurs, shapers or tailors, who were beginning to form their own professional guilds. As the clerical critics suggest, the tastemakers of the 12th century wanted clothing to fit more closely to the body, and to be less bulky.
While medieval peasants and laborers would continue to wear homespun garments like simple round or T-shaped tunics, elites and anyone with pretensions to social mobility were replacing them with tailored garments cinched to the body with laces or (another new invention) buttons, and with sleeves that clung narrowly to the upper arm, often billowing out into long, lined or slashed bells.
Sleeves could be sewn to the body of a dress or robe, but they were often meant to be detachable, so that a new look could be produced by pinning or lacing a new pair of sleeves to an existing gown or jacket.
There is still an Italian expression, Un altro paio di maniche (That’s another pair of sleeves!), which captures the effect of this fashion statement. Chivalric romances of the 12th century onward are full of incidents in which a lady, to show favor to her chosen knight, removes one of her sleeves so that her champion can wear it into battle, or in a tournament. His proud display would be matched by her brazen show of bared arm.
Common Questions about Medieval Fashion
Purple was considered opulent because the dye was rare and expensive—it had to be harvested from the mucous secretions of a small, spiny sea snail (species Murex brandaris) native to the eastern Mediterranean.
The wealthy class preferred to wear expensive fabrics such as silk and cotton.
The elites and anyone with pretensions to social mobility were replacing the simple tunics with tailored garments cinched to the body with laces or (another new invention) buttons, and with sleeves that clung narrowly to the upper arm, often billowing out into long, lined or slashed bells.