In medieval times, as today, both fashion and necessity dictated what people wore. And both fashion and necessity, in addition to cultural tradition and available materials, varied across the centuries of the Middle Ages as well as across the miles of Europe. After all, no one would expect the clothes of an 8th-century Viking to bear any resemblance to those of a 15th-century Venetian.
So when you ask the question "What did a man (or woman) wear in the Middle Ages?" be prepared to answer some questions yourself. Where did he live? When did he live? What was his station in life (noble, peasant, merchant, cleric)? And for what purpose might he be wearing a particular suit of clothes?
Types of Materials used in Medieval Clothing
The many types of synthetic and blended fabrics people wear today were simply not available in medieval times. But this didn't mean that everyone wore heavy wool, burlap, and animal skins. Different textiles were manufactured in a range of weights and could vary greatly in quality. The more finely woven a textile was, the softer and more costly it would be.
Materials available for use in medieval clothing included:
Various fabrics, such as taffeta, velvet and damask, were made from textiles like silk, cotton and linen using specific weaving techniques. These were not generally available in the earlier Middle Ages, and were among the more expensive fabrics for the extra time and care it took to make them.
Colors Found in Medieval Clothing
Dyes came from rather a lot of different sources, some of them far more expensive than others. Still, even the humble peasant could have colorful clothing. Using plants, roots, lichen, tree bark, nuts, crushed insects, mollusks and iron oxide, virtually every color of the rainbow could be achieved.
Dyed fabric would fade fairly quickly if it wasn't mixed with a mordant, and bolder shades required either longer dyeing times or more expensive dyes. Thus, fabrics of the brightest and richest colors cost more and were therefore most often found on nobility and the very rich.
Garments Worn under Medieval Clothing
Throughout much of the Middle Ages and in most societies, the undergarments worn by both men and women didn't substantially change. Basically, they consisted of a shirt or undertunic, stockings or hose, and, for men at least, some kind of underpants or breeches. There is no evidence that women regularly wore underpants, but with a matter of such delicacy that the garments became known as "unmentionables," this isn’t surprising. Women may have worn underpants, depending on their resources, the nature of their outer garments and their personal preferences.
Medieval Hats, Caps, and Head Coverings
Virtually everyone wore something on their heads in the Middle Ages, to keep off the sun in hot weather, to keep their heads warm in cold weather, and to keep dirt out of their hair. Of course, as with every other type of garment, hats could indicate a person's job or station in life and could make a fashion statement. But hats were especially important, and to knock someone's hat off his or her head was a grave insult that, depending on the circumstances, could even be considered assault.
Types of men's hats included wide-brimmed straw hats, close-fitting coifs of linen or hemp that tied under the chin like a bonnet, and a wide variety of felt caps. Women wore veils and wimples; among the fashion-conscious nobility of the High Middle Ages, some fairly complex hats and head rolls were in vogue.
Both men and women wore hoods, often attached to capes or jackets but sometimes standing alone. Some of the more complicated men's hats were actually hoods with a long strip of fabric in the back that could be wound around the head. A common accoutrement for men of the working classes was a hood attached to a short cape that covered just the shoulders.
You may have heard that in the Middle Ages, "everyone slept naked." Like most generalizations, this can't be perfectly accurate -- and in cold weather, it was so unlikely as to be painfully ridiculous.
Illuminations, woodcuts, and other period artwork illustrate medieval people in bed in different attire; some are unclothed, but just as many are wearing simple gowns or shirts, some with sleeves. Though we have virtually no documentation regarding what people wore to bed, from these images we can glean that those who wore night dress could have been clad in an undertunic -- possibly the same one they'd worn during the day -- or even in a lightweight (or, for colder weather, ultra-warm) gown made especially for sleeping, depending on their financial status.
As today, what people wore to bed depended on their resources, the climate, family custom and their own personal preferences.
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