In Europe, medieval clothing varied according to the time frame as well as the region. Here are some societies (and segments of society) whose clothing styles are especially evocative of their cultures.
Clothing of Late Antiquity
3rd- to 7th-century Europe
Traditional Roman garb consisted largely of simple, single pieces of fabric that were carefully wrapped to cover the body. As the Western Roman Empire declined, fashions were influenced by the sturdy, protective garments of Barbarian peoples. The result was a synthesis of trousers and sleeved shirts with cloaks, stolas and palliums. Medieval clothing would evolve from late antique garments and styles.
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4th- to 15th century Eastern Roman Empire
People of the Byzantine Empire inherited many of the traditions of Rome, but fashion was also influenced by the styles of the East. They abandoned wrapped garments for long-sleeved, flowing tunicas and dalmaticas that often fell to the floor. Thanks to Constantinople's standing as a center of trade, luxurious fabrics like silk and cotton were available to the richer Byzantines. Fashions for the elite changed frequently over the centuries, but the essential elements of costume remained fairly consistent. The extreme luxury of Byzantine fashions served as a counterpoint to most European medieval clothing.
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8th- to 11th-century Scandinavia and Britain
Scandinavian and Germanic peoples in northern Europe dressed for warmth and utility. Men wore trousers, shirts with tight-fitting sleeves, capes and hats. They often wore leg wraps around their calves and simple shoes or boots of leather. Women wore layers of tunics: linen under woolen overtunics, sometimes kept in place at the shoulders with decorative brooches. Viking clothing was often decorated with embroidery or braid. Aside from the tunic (which was also worn in Late Antiquity), most Viking garb had little influence on later European medieval clothing.
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European Peasant Dress
8th- to 15th-century Europe and Britain
While the fashions of the upper classes were changing with the decade, peasants and laborers wore useful, modest garments that varied little over the centuries. Their outfits revolved around a simple yet versatile tunic -- longer for women than for men -- and were usually somewhat dull in color.
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High Medieval Fashion of the Nobility
12th- to 14th-century Europe and Britain
For most of the early Middle Ages, the clothing worn by men and women of the nobility shared a basic pattern with that worn by the working classes, but was generally made of finer fabric, in bolder and brighter colors, and at times with additional decoration. In the late 12th and 13th century, to this plain style was added a surcoat, probably influenced by the tabard worn by crusading knights over their armor. It wasn't until the mid-14th century that designs really began to change noticeably, becoming more tailored and increasingly elaborate. It is the style of the nobility in the high Middle Ages that most people would recognize as "medieval clothing."
Italian Renaissance Style
15th- to 17th-century Italy
Throughout the Middle Ages, but especially in the later Middle Ages, Italian cities such as Venice, Florence, Genoa and Milan flourished as a result of international commerce. Families grew wealthy trading in spices, rare foods, jewels, furs, precious metals and, of course, cloth. Some of the finest and most sought-after fabrics were produced in Italy, and the extensive disposable income enjoyed by the Italian upper classes was spent lavishly on more and more ostentatious outfits. As costume evolved from medieval clothing to Renaissance fashion, the outfits were captured by artists who painted the portraits of their patrons as had not been done in earlier times.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Norris, Herbert, Medieval Costume and Fashion. J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1927; reprinted by Dover; 485 pp. Visit merchant