By Melanie Schuessler
The Once and Future Classroom, Volume 5:1 (2007)
Introduction: First, the pitch: the clothing of the Middle Ages is fascinating. What people wear is connected to nearly everything else in their lives, whether it is finances, social status, career, or beliefs about morality, gender roles, or what is beautiful. It can also give information about trade, politics, and many other issues. Clothing, with all of its various implications, is something that students today have in common with people of the past, so it is a wonderful way to introduce many different concepts about medieval society.
But researching clothing of the Middle Ages can be a perilous business. Sources with reliable images and information are scarce, and the other kind are everywhere. Images from the time can be confusing, as they come from a different aesthetic tradition than ours and are often not what we think of as realistic in style. In addition to this, many images include representations of saints and biblical, historic, or archetypal figures whose clothing is symbolic rather than real. The section on research later in this article contains detailed tips on how to judge sources and images. For teachers, the most important problem is that of whether to include information about this topic, and if so, how to make it interesting and relevant.
The first hurdle is to make sure students accept that these are clothes, not costumes. Despite how odd some medieval fashions look to modern eyes, people in the past wore this clothing every day, found it comfortable, reasonable, and lovely, and were able to accomplish what they needed to while wearing it. The key is to find out what these clothes meant to the people wearing them.