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How to create your own medieval costume

By Danielle Trynoski

Ever experience costume envy when you attend a re-enactment event? There are some beautiful costume kits available at these events and online, but you’ll spend hundreds of dollars to get outfitted. Here are some tips to create your own thrifty costume! Head out to your local second-hand stores or charity shops with these suggestions (remember to cut off your tags and labels!) and soon you’ll have your own “medieval” wardrobe!

Aim for layers

  • Stack multiple garments and cinch with a belt (a.k.a. girdle) or tie at the waist
  • Long leather belts can be wrapped or tied around the natural waist or loosely buckled around the hips
  • Use solid color scarves for a waist sash
  • Some medieval girdles were highly decorated like this 14th century example in the Musée de Cluny in Paris, but I recommend you keep it simple
Fourteenth century belt – photo by Danielle Trynoski

Nature or Nurture? Natural is best in this case!

  • Linen, wool, and rough cotton are better choices than polyester, gold-foil lamé, green sequins, or any overtly modern materials
  • Silks and velvets are acceptable, but not always the most comfortable to wear
  • Use leather for accessories rather than garments

Not all the colors of the rainbow

  • Consider color based on your character goals
  • Subsistence farmers, a.k.a. serfs, need muted colors like browns, tans, greys, creams, and soft pinks (yes, pink; it’s dyed with onion skins)
  • Use colors like cream or grey for a head covering or cap
  • Nobility can “afford” brighter colors like purple, bright red, vibrant yellows, blue, and black
  • Play with bright colored accessories like drawstring purses, hats, scarves, gloves, and jewelry
  • Clothing for merchants and tradesmen should be a mix of these palettes with select accessories like brightly colored ribbons

Garters aren’t just for the bride

Garters or gartered stockings are easy to make. Buy a solid color flannel or cotton bedsheet. Cut two strips on the long axis, approximately 3 inches wide. These will be your garters. From the rest of the fabric, cut two rectangles. Ensure these rectangles are long enough to wrap your calf, covering the leg between ankle and knee. These stockings can cover your legs if you have short trousers or heavy leggings, and the garters will criss-cross around your calf, tying at the base of the knee. These are common for men’s costumes and for lower class women.

Shoes in not so many shapes and forms

  • Unless you have a penchant for wooden clogs, then leather shoes are best
  • Simple flat shoes with a strap are good for men and women; you can get them for about $20 USD at shoe stores or online. Buy these in a natural color. Flat pull-on boots in brown or black leather or canvas are good options too.

A mantle for the cold days

A mantle is a cloak or outerwear garment to keep the primary outfit clean and the wearer warm. Early medieval and lower class mantles are large pieces of fabric knotted or pinned at the shoulder. Mantles from the High and Later Middle Ages are pinned at the neck or with a short chain across the chest. The bedding and household section will likely have some options for you here; look for flannel sheets or curtains in brown, yellow, or green. Thin coverlets with quilting and embroidery can serve as High and Later Middle Ages pieces. To keep it around your shoulders, look for sweater chains used to keep ladies’ cardigans in place in the 1950-60’s, or make your own with vintage buttons and chains.

Dolling it up and decking it out

  • Use simple metal jewelry in bronze, pewter, and copper, but gold and silver was only attainable by a small part of medieval society. Circular brooches can be found second-hand, or you can glue pin clasps onto metallic buttons or necklace pendants.
  • Focus on showing your character’s “wealth” through the use of bright color, lace, or silk
  • Pick out embroidery, lace, appliqués, and painted details rather than printed or dyed patterns
  • Buttons are appropriate for characters based in the 14th century and later, otherwise brooches or lacing should be used for closures. Leather cord is available at most craft stores or online. Whatever you do, don’t do a Google Image search for Leather Thong…
Photo by Danielle Trynoski

Tips for Women

  • Peasant blouses and dresses with loose sleeves are your friend. These can easily imitate a shift/ chainse/chemise.
  • Use blouses or dresses larger than your normal size to allow for draping
  • Lower and middle class characters wear a more fitted sleeve for function, upper class characters wear long, wide sleeves to show off expensive fabric and embroideries.
  • After finding a long-sleeved shift, look for a solid color dress or robe with short or half sleeves to be your bliaud, or over-dress. If your shift goes to the floor, then your dress can be calf-length otherwise get a full-length dress. Nightgowns and 1970’s day dresses are good candidates for this.
  • Buttons join the scene in the late 14th century; look for rows of small buttons à la 1980’s wedding dresses on the front or on sleeves
  • Use a sleeveless dress or long vest as a surcoat, and layer over the shift, bliaud, and belt
  • Pick up sheer or solid color scarves and experiment with a wimple, draped veil, or head wrap using ribbon or a headband to keep it in place
  • The less visible hair, the better. Tuck under a scarf or head covering, or braid ribbons into one or two long plaits.

Tips for Men

  • Gents, some of your thrifty costume will likely consist of some women’s items. Layers should consist of an undershirt or shift, then a long tunic or surcoat fastened at the waist by a belt. In general, shirts should be loosely fitting with large sleeves and trousers should be more tailored.
  • You can alter modern seams by cutting along the top shoulder seams of large loose garments and reconnecting the front and back with ties, leather cord lacing, or brooches.
  • For trousers, look for sweatpants in a single dark color.
  • For more generic leg coverings, buy close-fitting leggings to be your hose and add garters (see above).
  • Look for broad-brimmed hats in simple materials like wool, felt, velvet, or even straw. You can add feathers, grass, ribbons, or other decorations.
Photo by Danielle Trynoski

References and Additional Resources

Bayard, Tania, ed. A Medieval Home Companion: Housekeeping in the Fourteenth Century Perennial (1992)

Heath, Ian and McBride, Angus. Elite Series: #9 Normans (Osprey Publishing, 1985)

Museum of London. Shoes and Pattens (Medieval Finds from Excavations in London: 2) (HMSO, 1988)

Nicolle, David, and McBride, Angus. Elite Series: #3 The Vikings (Osprey Publishing, 1985)

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester University Press, 1986)

Tierney, Tom. Medieval Fashions Coloring Book (Dover Publications, 1998)

Danielle Trynoski earned her MA in Medieval Archaeology at the University of York in England. When she’s not visiting museums and historical sites, she’s riding horses or reading about Vikings. She currently lives in southern California and manages the website CuratoryStory.com

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

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