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European Peasant Dress

What Men and Women Peasants and Laborers Wore in the Middle Ages

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While the fashions of the upper classes were changing with the decade (or at least the century), peasants and laborers stuck to the useful, modest garments their progenitors had been clad in for generations. Of course, as the centuries passed, minor variations in style and color were bound to appear; but, for the most part, European peasants wore very similar clothing in most countries from the 8th to the 14th century.

The Ubiquitous Tunic

The basic garment worn by both men and women alike was a tunic. This appears to have evolved from the tunica of late antiquity. Such tunics are made either by folding over a long piece of fabric and cutting a hole in the center of the fold for the neck, or by sewing two pieces of fabric together at the shoulders, leaving a gap for the neck. Sleeves, which weren't always part of the garment, could be cut as part of the same piece of fabric and sewn closed, or added later. Tunics fell to at least the thighs. Though the garment might be called by different names at different times and places, the construction of the tunic was essentially the same throughout these centuries.

At various times, men and, less often, women wore tunics with slits up the sides to afford more freedom of movement. An opening was fairly common at the throat to make it easier to put on over one's head; this might be a simple widening of the neck hole; or, it might be a slit that could be tied closed with cloth ties or left open with plain or decorative edging.

Women wore their tunics long, usually to mid-calf, which made them, essentially, dresses. Some were even longer, with trailing trains that could be used in a variety of ways. If any of her chores required her to shorten her dress, the average peasant woman could tuck the ends of it up in her belt. Ingenious methods of tucking and folding could turn the excess fabric into a pouch for carrying picked fruit, chicken feed, etc.; or, she could wrap the train over her head to protect herself from the rain.

Women's tunics were usually made of wool. Woolen fabric could be woven rather finely, though the quality of the cloth for working class women was mediocre at best. Blue was the most common color for a woman's tunic; though many different shades might be achieved, the blue dye made from Woad was used on a large percentage of manufactured cloth. Other colors were unusual, but not unknown: pale yellow, green, and a light shade of red or orange could all be made from less-expensive dyes. All these colors would fade in time; dyes that stayed fast over the years were too expensive for the average laborer.

Men generally wore tunics that fell past their knees. If they needed them shorter, they could tuck the ends in their belts; or, they could hike up the garment and fold fabric from the middle of the tunic over their belts. Some men, particularly those engaged in heavy labor, might wear sleeveless tunics to help them deal with the heat. Most men's tunics were made of wool, but they were often coarser and not as brightly colored as women's wear. Men's tunics could be made from "beige" (undyed wool) or "frieze" (coarse wool with heavy nap) as well as more finely woven wool. Undyed wool was sometimes brown or gray, from brown and gray sheep.

Undergarments

Realistically, there is no telling whether or not most members of the working classes wore anything between their skin and their woolen tunics until the 14th century. Contemporary artwork depicts peasants and laborers at work without revealing what's worn underneath their outer garments. But usually the nature of undergarments is that they're worn under other garments and are therefore ordinarily unseen; so, the fact that there are no contemporary representations shouldn't hold much weight.

In the 1300s, it became the fashion for people to wear shifts, or undertunics, that had longer sleeves and lower hemlines than their tunics, and therefore were plainly visible. Usually among the working classes, these shifts would be woven from hemp and would remain undyed; after many wearings and washings, they would soften up and lighten in color. Field workers were known to wear shifts, hats, and little else in the heat of summer.

More affluent people could afford linen undergarments. Linen could be fairly stiff, and unless bleached it wouldn't be perfectly white, though time, wear and cleansing could make it lighter and more flexible. It was unusual for peasants and laborers to wear linen, but it wasn't altogether unknown; some of the clothing of the prosperous, including undergarments, were donated to the poor upon the wearer's death.

Men wore braes or loincloths for underpants. Whether or not women wore underpants remains a mystery.

Shoes and Socks

It was not at all uncommon for peasants to go about barefoot, especially in warmer weather. But in cooler weather and for work in the fields, fairly simple leather shoes were regularly worn. One of the most common styles was an ankle-high boot that laced up the front. Later styles were closed by a single strap and buckle. Shoes were known to have wooden soles, but it was just as likely for soles to be constructed of thick or multi-layered leather. Felt was also used in shoes and slippers. Most shoes and boots had rounded toes; some shoes worn by the working class might have somewhat pointed toes, but workers didn't wear the extreme pointy styles that were at times the fashion of the upper classes.

As with undergarments, it's difficult to determine when stockings came into common use. Women probably didn't wear stockings any higher than the knee; they didn't have to, since their dresses were so long. But men, whose tunics were shorter and who were unlikely to have heard of trousers, let alone wear them, often wore hose up to the thighs.

Hats, Hoods, and Other Head-Coverings

For every member of society, a head-covering was an important part of one's attire, and the working class was no exception. Field workers often wore broad-brimmed straw hats to keep off the sun. A coif -- a linen or hemp bonnet that fit close to the head and was tied under the chin -- was usually worn by men undertaking messy work such as pottery, painting, masonry, or crushing grapes. Butchers and bakers wore kerchiefs over their hair; blacksmiths needed to protect their heads from flying sparks and might wear any of a variety of linen or felt caps.

Women usually wore veils -- a simple square, rectangle, or oval of linen kept in place by tying a ribbon or cord around the forehead. Some women also wore wimples, which attached to the veil and covered the throat and any exposed flesh above the tunic's neckline. A barbette might be used to keep the veil and wimple in place, but for most working class women, this extra piece of fabric may have seemed like an unnecessary expense. Headgear was very important for the respectable woman; only unmarried girls and prostitutes went without something covering their hair.

Both men and women wore hoods, sometimes attached to capes or jackets. Some hoods had a length of fabric in the back that the wearer could wrap around his neck or his head. Men were known to wear hoods that were attached to a short cape that covered the shoulders, very often in colors that contrasted with their tunics. Both red and blue became popular colors for hoods.

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