Sometimes a Codpiece Is Just a Codpiece: The Meanings of Medieval Clothes
By Rachel Hartman
22 October 2001
We all know what the Middle Ages looked like. Medieval clothing, in particular, is easy to picture, since we've encountered it everywhere from movies to fairy tales to high school productions of King Lear. Even as a child I knew hennins, hose, pageboy haircuts, and pointy shoes. This vision of medieval Europe is highly stereotyped, of course, but that's what makes it useful. The medieval setting is a staple of fantasy novels -- it's romantic, it's picturesque, and it gives the modern, western reader a starting point in common with the author. Fashion may have changed substantially during the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, but there seems to be little point in a work of fiction delving too deeply into the subtleties -- even if one describes the clothing in more detail, the reader will either get snagged on strange terminology or end up picturing stereotypical Medieval clothing anyway.
This is not to say that a little bit of education about medieval clothing wouldn't be useful to the writer of speculative fiction, but in a different way than one might imagine. Clothing is never just clothing: it can carry with it a variety of social, economic, and even moral implications. The Middle Ages are foreign enough to our experience that many of their ways of thinking about clothing will be counterintuitive for us. I am going to take you on a small tour of clothing production and of the many roles that clothing played in medieval life. My hope, as always, is that you will find some odd detail that grabs you, something that might not have occurred to you otherwise. The seeds of fiction, in my experience, are almost always facts.
Materials and Manufacturing
As might be expected, wool was by far the most common raw material for medieval clothing. The quality of wool varied widely, depending on the breed of sheep and where it was raised -- British wool was, even then, considered superior due to the cool, wet climate and longer grazing season. Long, fine, white fibers were preferable to short, coarse, dark ones, since they resulted in a finer, stronger thread that could be dyed more brilliantly. Although the exact dates are unknown, the Middle Ages saw the invention of the spinning wheel, the European horizontal loom (other horizontal looms already being in use elsewhere in the world), and the fulling mill, which beat, shrank, and softened wool cloth mechanically.
Wool fabric varied widely in price, depending on the quality of wool used, the hue and darkness of the color, and the process by which it had been woven. The cheapest cloth would have been coarse, scratchy, undyed dark wool, possibly blended with linen or hemp. More expensive fabric would be lighter and finer, could involve a patterned weave instead of a straight basket weave, and would have been softened by fulling. The most expensive woolen fabric would have been nearly as fine as silk. Woad dyed wool various shades of blue or, in combination with other plants, green. The most expensive and prestigious color was red from the kermes insect, and this dye, when combined with a regimen of fulling and clipping, produced the highly luxurious Scarlet cloth (from which "scarlet," the color, derives). Black, which was so popular amongst nobility in the late Middle Ages, was produced not by simply weaving black wool, but by a complicated dying process that made it very expensive, which in turn contributed to its popularity.
We generally associate silks with China, where silk technologies originated. By the time of the Roman Empire, however, silk production had spread all the way to Persia, and it was carried still further in the early Medieval period by Muslims, crossing the north of Africa and into southern Europe. By the thirteenth century, Spain, Italy, and Sicily were producing silks of high enough quality to rival Byzantium's eastern imports. More silk on the market meant it was no longer used exclusively for liturgical purposes. Rich people could actually afford to wear it themselves, and the not-so-rich could sometimes afford a little brocade or ribbon to trim their woolen garments.
It is difficult to gauge how much linen and hemp were used since vegetable fibers decay so rapidly in Europe's wet climate. It is probably safe to assume, however, that because they were so easy to grow and process, even at the cottage level, they were widely used. Linen does not take dye very well, so most linens were left white. They were worn as head coverings and veils, underclothes, aprons, infant clothes, and work clothes for hot weather.
Europeans associated the wearing of animal skins with paganism and barbarity, so one does not see much leather clothing. Shoes, belts, gloves, artisans' aprons, and armor (or padding for armor) are about the extent of it. Fur became popular for trim or to line the inside of warm garments. The more expensive varieties were frequently a dramatic color: sable, vair, ermine, and miniver (squirrel).
The actual production of clothing took place in many different ways. The most straightforward way was to have your women do everything at home, from wool processing to weaving to sewing. This had been the tradition in classical Greece and Rome, and was continued, particularly in rural households, throughout the Middle Ages. As population centers grew, however, the production of textiles became a centralized industry, and therefore more the domain of men. Weaving and sewing became separate crafts, practiced by separate guilds.
For the wealthy, it would have been most common to employ the services of a tailor and have clothing custom-made. The customer would be responsible for providing the tailor with the fabric, but the tailor would provide the thread. If one wanted fur trim or embroidery, a furrier or embroiderer (each from a different guild) could also be employed. Royal households would have had all these craftsmen on staff, sometimes one per each adult in the household. This is not to say that the art of sewing was lost in wealthy households -- women, and not just servants, would certainly have been engaged in embroidery and lace making, if nothing else, but it is likely that some did repairs and alterations themselves as well.
Surprisingly enough, there was also some ready-made clothing available. Mercers' shops, the medieval answer to the general store, sold a variety of items. Most seem to have been accessories, like gloves, caps, and socks, but some carried simple shifts and hose as well. Tailors would also sometimes have clothing for sale that had been made but not paid for. While this was not exactly department-store convenience, it was still an interesting and unusual development for medieval Europe, where such products usually passed directly from producer to consumer.
During the early Middle Ages, the difference in masculine and feminine profile was not very pronounced: both sexes wore a long tunic called a "bliaut," belted at the waist, and perhaps a cloak. This is not to say men and women looked alike -- men wore beards and their hemlines sometimes crept up to the knee -- but rather that both sexes were still in skirts. It was only later, corresponding to the development of armor, that a strong differentiation began to manifest itself.
The bliaut, while compatible with chain mail, did not wear well under the more sophisticated plate armor that developed. The bliaut was too long, and its T-shape meant that its sleeves bunched up under the arms, which was uncomfortable under armor. The pourpoint or joupon, a shorter garment with a more tailored contour, was developed to replace the tunic and was worn with hose. The joupon eventually evolved into the more familiar doublet, a long sleeved, jacket-like garment, often quilted, which tapered at the waist and flared at the hips. This "skirt" didn't provide any coverage whatsoever, meaning that hose (which began life as thigh high stockings held up by straps) had to be lengthened and joined together at the top. Hose were not knit: what little stretch they had came from cutting the material on the bias (diagonally). They had to be tied to the bottom of the doublet because they didn't stay up well. They did, however, show off the legs admirably. The result is that men ended up with a different profile than women -- they now wore a form-fitting outfit with articulated limbs, while the women were still in skirts.
With this differentiation came the systematic exaggeration of other masculine characteristics. Doublets were padded for a pigeon-breasted, manly-man effect. Codpieces, one of the most comical fashions ever, grew to prominence. From their humble beginnings as the mere defenders of masculine modesty, codpieces were eventually padded, embroidered, bejeweled, and obvious. Some could be used for storage like a pocket or a purse. Shoulder padding and short capes added to a man's breadth, and even beards made a comeback after the crusades. To see all these innovations put to good use, almost any portrait of Henry VIII will do.
In 21st century America the stereotype of women being more caught up in fashion than men is still pretty common, but in the Middle Ages people considered the opposite to be true. Men, especially in the upper classes, were highly concerned with clothing and very fond of finery. It's likely that women were too, but the usual troubles with documentation occur -- men did most of the recording, and they seem to have had a lot more interest in their own clothing than in whatever the women may have been wearing. It is not uncommon to find a detailed record of what a duke was wearing on his wedding day that makes no mention whatsoever of his bride's clothing. Cautionary exempla tales decry women's predilection for fancy dress more than men's, but then, they decry all the vices in women more than in men.
The most remarkable developments in women's fashion during the Middle Ages occurred not in their clothing but in their headgear. Clothing itself changed superficially: waistlines and necklines moved up and down, sleeves alternated between voluminous and tight-fitting. Women generally dressed in two layers, an overdress (cote-hardie) and an underdress (the aforementioned bliaut). Sometimes a linen shift -- as close as a Medieval woman got to underwear -- was worn under the bliaut, but this was chiefly an affectation of the wealthy. The houppelande, a voluminous robe also worn by men (with slightly different styling), was popular until the fourteenth century and was worn on top of everything else. Headgear, however, is where Medieval women's clothing had its true distinctiveness.
Head coverings were not optional, first of all. Only young girls were permitted to go around with their heads uncovered. Hair was emblematic of feminine seductiveness -- Eve, Jezebel, Mary Magdalene, and other biblical temptresses commonly appear with their hair down. In addition, a quirk of Medieval theology encouraged women to keep their ears hidden. Some theologians believed Mary had conceived through her ear, thereby retaining her virginity, but creating an odd and, frankly, creepy sexualization of the feminine ear. Pulling off anyone's hat was considered a crime, but forcibly removing a woman's headdress, in particular, was tantamount to accusing her of being a whore.
In late antiquity and the early Medieval period, women's headdresses consisted mostly of a "couvre-chef," a large square of cloth (generally linen) draped over the head and held in place by a strip of fabric or a circlet. Hair was worn Frankish style: two long plaits entwined with ribbons or leather strips, and sporting pointy metal tips at the ends. That much sexy hair couldn't be left out where everyone could see it for long -- the braids were soon being wrapped around the ears or the back of the head, carefully tucked under where no one could see it. The coverchief turned into the wimple, which covered the head, hair, ears, neck, and sometimes even the cheeks and forehead. A variety of hats and turbans could be worn over a wimple. The wimple drifted in and out of popularity, until only nuns and widows were still wearing them. A vestige remained in the form of the barbette, a linen strap under the chin, but by and large women's throats were out in the open during the later Middle Ages.
That's when the really strange hats started appearing. It has been hypothesized that women's hats during the gothic period were intended to emulate architecture, and that makes sense in the case of the steeple-like hennin. Some headdresses, however, resembled horns more than churches. Fine linen veils became popular, supported in various winged shapes by wires. Ears eventually became visible again, but women began plucking their hairlines to give themselves what Chaucer called a "high forheed," tucking any hint of hair away under their hats.
As with men's codpieces, women's clothing engaged in the systematic exaggeration of feminine features. Padding was worn under clothing to make bellies bulge, and the bum-bolster (a late development) did exactly what its name suggests. Cosmetics, some of them highly toxic, whitened the skin and teeth. Weaves and wigs lengthened and thickened hair.
The notion of pink as feminine and blue as masculine would have been reversed in the Middle Ages. While specific colors were not assigned to gender, blue was considered a weaker color than pink (which derives from red, after all). Blue also connoted gentleness and was associated with Mary. Red stood for power, passion, wealth, and blood. Green was more ambiguous -- it could stand for envy, but also was associated with spring and youth. Yellow was generally in disfavor and associated with various vices, among them avarice and cowardice. Black was not used as a color for mourning until nearly the Renaissance, and then only by the wealthy. White stood for purity, but was not worn by brides -- whatever their station, people were simply married in the very best clothing they owned.
In a society as rigidly structured as Medieval Europe, sumptuary laws were probably inevitable. As cities and trade developed, more untitled individuals became rich from trade and the nobility noticed a disturbing development -- mere merchants could now afford to clothe themselves in expensive material! This was unacceptable, of course. If the common rabble could afford silks and scarlets, then it was going to become increasingly difficult to tell who was who. As a result, laws sprang up all over Europe dictating who could wear what. Certain colors, materials, styles, and even decorative patterns were forbidden to anyone without a good pedigree. The laws varied from place to place, and included such eccentric details as how tall a lady's hennin could be (it was proportional to her rank), what classes of people could wear pointy shoes (no one at or below the level of "artisan"), and that peasants should never wear more than one color at once except, perhaps, a differently colored hood for special occasions.
There were other, less obvious reasons for instituting sumptuary laws, however. In some places, it was the clergy who pressed for the laws, fearing that fashion (and hence, vanity) was getting way out of hand. The clergy generally targeted fashions that were too revealing or ostentatious, e.g. men's short hemlines and women's trains. Sometimes the purpose of regulation was to keep young noblemen from bankrupting themselves in an attempt to keep up with the latest fashions at court. Being titled did not automatically mean you were rich, and young men in particular were prone to ruining their family fortunes. Finally, some places instituted sumptuary laws as a means of protecting local industry or stimulating trade. In England during the fourteenth century, for example, laws prohibited the purchase of any non-English fabric, protecting their wool industry against the threat of cheap foreign imports.
Clothing has meaning beyond its beauty or utility. I have already outlined how sumptuary laws helped reinforce social strata by relegating certain fashions and materials to specific segments of society. Clothing also served to send more specific messages. Just as we can identify police officers, medical workers, and even store clerks today by their uniforms, clothing differentiated certain groups in Medieval society. The wealthy were responsible for clothing their servants -- what better way to advertise one's power than to dress them all alike, in a livery based upon the colors of one's coat of arms? Some nobles even dressed their children in livery. The coat of arms itself is another example of a clothing signifier. While it never really caught on for everyday wear, coats of arms or their devices did appear occasionally on formal clothing, and were specific enough that one could immediately identify the wearer's parentage.
Members of guilds often dressed in specific colors, and were therefore readily identifiable as tailors, tanners, etc. Members of religious orders dressed in distinctive habits, which earned them nicknames -- the Franciscans, for example, were sometimes called "Cordeliers" after their distinctive belts of knotted cord (and I am amused to note that, as I write this, my spell-check not only recognizes the word "Cordeliers," but capitalizes it for me, suggesting that the name is still in use). Doctors, especially during times of plague, wore a sack-like bird mask over their heads, and the protruding beak was filled with various herbs to keep harmful vapors at bay. Pilgrims carried a distinctive staff and a bag for bread. Sometimes they wore emblems and souvenirs from the sites they visited, such as the scallop shell of Santiago de Compostela. It was important for them to be identifiable: because of their holy mission, it was a gross offense, both legally and spiritually, to harm them. Potential cutthroats were, I'm sure, grateful for the warning that killing the traveler with the staff would earn them an extra hot place in hell.
Medieval people had a horror of leprosy. Some communities tried to force lepers to wear distinctive clothing, and for a while, in the south of France, sufferers had to wear a patch in the shape of a duck's foot. Imposing standards of dress on lepers, however, proved difficult since no one wanted to get close enough to do it. Instead, lepers used a rattle or clapper to warn others of their approach, and this had one advantage over clothing -- you could tell when one was coming up behind you.
Local laws required Jews, "Saracens," and sometimes even Christian deviants to wear distinctive clothing, or markers on their clothing, so they could be readily identified. Again, the details varied from community to community. For Jews, the markers most often consisted of a round patch, usually yellow, about the size of a human palm, to be displayed prominently upon the front of the garment. They could sometimes get out of wearing it -- for a fee, of course. Muslims were marked with a yellow crescent. In fact, visible religious identification may have begun in Islamic countries as a means of identifying those who were exempt from heeding the call to prayer. In Christian Europe, however, lawmakers were more interested in segregation, in preventing intermarriage, and in increasing the revenues brought in by tolls and taxes levied exclusively on non-Christians.
The clothing worn by prostitutes was also heavily regulated. Their required markers were sometimes extremely visible: striped hoods or cloaks, black and white pointed hats, and yellow dresses are just a few variations. These later evolved into armbands of a certain color, or a hood cut in a distinctive shape. Fur, jewelry, and even embroidery were generally forbidden to prostitutes, although the reasons for this are ambiguous. It may have been because such finery was only considered appropriate for respectable women, but it may also have been for the protection of the prostitutes themselves. Such visible wealth could have made them targets for robbery, and with no male guardians, they wouldn't have had much legal recourse.
What fascinates me most about medieval clothing is how little we know. That seems to contradict what I said in the very first paragraph, I realize, but it underscores an important point -- medieval clothing is largely a matter of interpretation. Very little fabric remains from that era, thanks to Europe's climate. Writings contain references to articles of clothing that sometimes can't be identified precisely. Artwork depicts men much more frequently than women, or depicts farmhands laboring in their Sunday best, or gives us representations that are hard to understand. A painting of a woman with a butterfly veil, for example, raises more questions than it answers: if the veil is presumably held up by wires, how thick were they? Were they visible? Could you have put your eye out with one? Was the veil stiffly starched, or do the wires hold all the weight? No one knows for sure. The information has to be interpreted, and interpretations differ. This is part of why the costumes in Camelot look like they're from the 60s, and those from A Knight's Tale, when we watch it years from now, will look so very turn-of-the-millennium. We see the Middle Ages, ultimately, through the prism of our own experiences.
Rachel Hartman gave up a million-dollar career in Comparative Literature to make comic books. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Rampage, Brainbomb, and SPX99, and her regular series, Amy Unbounded, has won two awards. When not obsessing over her storylines, she's reading about medieval economics or imagining she can dance. Her previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life
Madeline Pelner Cosman, Medieval Wordbook
Francis M. Kelly and Randolph Schwabe, A Short History of Costume, 1066-1800
John Peacock, Costume 1066-1990s
Pepin Press Design Books, A Pictorial History of Costume
Marie Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages
Lynn Schnurnberger, Let There Be Clothes
Tom Tierney, Medieval Fashions