Sometimes a Codpiece Is Just a Codpiece: The Meanings of Medieval Clothes
Strange Horizons: Published Online in (2011)
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.