By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Written and visual sources reveal that crucial and long-lasting changes in Western clothing were beginning to take place during the second half of the first millennium. These would begin to accelerate around the year 1100—and to such a marked degree that the fashions of separate decades, even years, start to become distinctive by the middle of the 14th century.
Popularity of Silk
The fabric, weave, cut, and tailoring of clothing underwent a sea change with the introduction of newer elements. The Christian Roman Emperor Justinian was credited with the innovation that began to revolutionize the production of silk—by wresting control of its manufacture from China.
This Chinese hold on the commodity loosened with the early medieval diversification of sericulture throughout the eastern Roman Empire and its travel, with Islam, into Iberia and Italy. Major silk production centers emerged in the Italian city of Lucca and in the French cities of Paris and Lyon, and technologies for spinning and weaving the delicate threads began to improve steadily by the early 13th century.
Two texts from this period describe devices that textile historians have identified as doubling or combining machines, which could turn spun silk into durable threads for weaving or lace-making, and there are numerous depictions of silk-spinning wheels and looms in stained glass and manuscript illuminations.
Velvet Makes Its Way
Meanwhile, a special method for weaving silk to produce a tufted, dense texture was making its way westward from Kashmir, where velvet had first been produced. Its manufacture was encouraged in Baghdad by the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid around 800, and Cairo also became a major velvet-producing center.
It was in Cairo that the richest man in the world, then or ever, the Malian emperor Mansa Musa, recruited velvet makers to return with him to his golden empire in West Africa, on the way back from his obligatory visit to Mecca around 1300.
Silk factories in Italy began to produce velvet, too. In fact, in his will, King Richard II of England instructed his executors to ensure that his body was swathed in this sumptuous material after his death. (Given that he was murdered by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, it is unlikely that this directive was carried out.)
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Emergence of Cotton
In addition to silk, medieval European clothiers were able to add another new material to the very few basics—wool, linen, leather, and fur—that had been available from time immemorial: cotton. The cultivation and spinning of cotton had been introduced into Egypt from South Asia under the Romans and it, too, spread with the movement of Islam into Iberia and southern Italy, benefitting from the same technical innovations as silk.
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—hence the German name for it, Baumwolle.
New Techniques and Weaves
Along with these newly available materials, medieval craftsmen were developing new techniques for weaving and fulling cloth that produced distinctive patterns and textures which were literally, and perpetually, branded or stamped with the names of the places where they originated.
Elegant damask, from the Syrian city of Damascus, was woven from silk or cotton on a single or compound loom, in one or multiple colors, and also had a distinctive, lustrous sheen. Introduced into Europe after the First Crusade, during the 12th century, the Damascus technique was soon adapted to the weaving of linen in flax-growing regions, especially in France, Flanders, and the Low Countries.
Denim: A New Innovation
At some point during the later Middle Ages, a type of serge, or sturdy cloth, favored by shepherds of the Cévennes mountains in southern France began to be commercially produced in the city of Nîmes. Originally made of wool, or (for aristocrats) a silk-wool mixture, this serge de Nîmes eventually became the cotton “de Nîmes” or denim woven in the “dark, satanic mills” of the English Industrial Revolution.
Similarly, a serge fabric of combined cotton and wool was developed in medieval Genoa for making durable sails and clothing; in the shared French vernacular of the Mediterranean, this cloth of Genoa, or Gênes, became jeans.
The Franco-Flemish city of Arras, which dominated the wool-weaving industry from the 11th century onward, became especially famous for the making of luxurious tapestries. Even when other cities, notably Bruges, had edged Arras out of the market, its name remained attached not only to tapestry but to any kind of wall hanging—arras in English, arazzi in Italian.
But the most momentous medieval contributions to fashion were arguably Europe’s rapidly evolving innovations in couture—literally, the cut and shaping of garments. This was a novelty that contemporaries recognized and watched happening in real time.
Writing toward the end of the 12th century, the English scholar and abbot Alexander Neckam found the rapid pace of fashion bewildering and remarked that anyone looking to find a place at court needed to be constantly changing the cut of his clothing so that it would always appear new.
Eleanor of Aquitaine’s Role
Earlier in the century, Abbot Geoffroy of Vigeois had blamed this change on England’s queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and her companions, saying: “They have clothes fashioned of rich and precious materials, in colors to suit their humors. They snip out the cloth in rings and long slashes to show the lining beneath, and the borders are cut into little spheres and pointed tongues, so that they look like the devils in paintings. They slash their mantles, and their sleeves drag like those of hermits. The young men affect long hair and shoes with pointed toes. The ladies’ trains are so long, the abbot further opines, that they look like snakes.”
Bernard of Clairvaux, an austere reformer, also remarked disapprovingly that Eleanor and her companions loaded their arms with clashing bracelets and wore long pendant earrings. Their wimples—the linen veils usually worn by married women—were often made of silk instead, and held in place by circlets of gold, and were so long that the end was draped affectedly over the left arm.
Common Questions about Fashion Innovation in the Middle Ages
The Christian Roman Emperor Justinian is credited with the revolution in the production of silk.
The Damascus technique involved production of damask silk, woven from silk or cotton on a single or compound loom, in one or multiple colors.
The German term for cotton is Baumwolle.