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Vintage Fashion: Second-Hand Clothing in Medieval France

By Lucie Laumonier

Even when made of coarse fabric and unrefined, clothes were expensive in the Middle Ages. Dresses, stockings and cloaks were mended until they were too damaged to wear. People bought second-hand clothing from retailers and received clothes as bequests. This article sheds light on the circulation of second-hand clothing in the southern French city of Montpellier and its immediate surroundings in the late medieval period, by looking at the sale of used clothing and donations of second-hand clothes.

A dealer of used clothes was a “pelhier” in the local Vernacular (pelherius in vernacularized Latin), and sold pelhas, which the best English translation would probably be “rags,” without any negative connotation. The first statutes regulating the pelhiers’ labour were drafted in 1322 but yield few details about the profession, besides the fact that pelhiers sold “rags, clothes, and other things.” Their statutes were updated in 1351, in the aftermath of the Black Death, giving more information on the workers’ activities. They retailed second-hand raubas sive vestes, “vestments and clothes,” as well as rags (pelhas), house linens, and bedding (mattresses, pillows, and blankets).

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At that time, the pelhiers of Montpellier were called pelhiers de Santa Cros, after the district of the Holy Cross where they resided and worked, a district populated by artisans and middle-class workers. Between c. 1410 and c. 1420, a new guild of pelhiers was created, whose workers laboured in the busy streets of St. Guilhem. The guild of St. Guilhem was short lived and was discontinued in the 1420s, maybe because it did not have enough members. In the 1450s, the pelhiers of Santa Cros merged with the guild of the hosiery makers/retailers (caussatiers). From that point onward, dealers of second-hand clothes and hose makers formed a joined guild. This merger may also suggest plummeting or stagnating headcounts in the profession of pelhier.

Indeed, it appears that few people worked in the second-hand clothes retail, or that few people were inclined to say that it was, in fact, their occupation. I only found 30 pelhiers and peliés in fiscal records spanning c. 1380–1480, among the more than 6,100 workers whose occupation was known (0.005%). Most of them lived in the 1380s and early 1400s and resided in the Holy Cross neighborhood.

Two women were identified as pelhieras in fiscal documentation and the 1351 statutes of the profession referred to the guild’s female workers. Women’s involvement in the business of second-hand clothes is not surprising, for female workers were in a large part employed in retail and the clothing industry. The reasons why the profession of pelhier seems to have died out in the first half of the fifteenth century are uncertain. It is possible that selling second-hand clothes was too specialized an occupation to financially support workers and that pelhiers had to diversify their business.

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A lot of used clothing circulated among family members and friends, and was given to house servants or to the poor, either informally, or through testamentary bequests. Clothes were usually kept in chests in the testator’s bedroom—if their house had indeed a bedroom. Women tended, more than men, to bequest the contents of the chest-wardrobe, because they had less access to estate and cash than men – pieces of clothing and jewelry were sometimes the only goods of value women could bequeath. Wills do not yield a precise inventory of the testators’ clothes; notaries simply identified the pieces of clothing, their colour, sometimes their state (good or bad), and whether they were adorned (with a fur collar, embroidery, beads, etc.). The discussion will focus here on bequest of second-hand clothes destined for the dowry of young women.

It was customary for parents to provide the wedding apparel of a bride. In the fifteenth century, the vestes nuptiales gifted to brides were usually two pieces of clothing: a cotardia or a raupa (a dress, a gown) and a gonella (a long underdress). Wedding dresses were not reserved solely for the wedding and would be worn in everyday life of those of a middling or humble social status. In wealthier households, wedding gowns could be of greater value; they were thus kept for special occasions, even after the passing of their owner. In 1480, Jacme Gini a draper of Montpellier donated to his daughter Braydeta, her late mother’s lined wedding gown (which he had kept), adorned with embroidery. Jacme also donated to his daughter, her mother’s silver “wedding belt,” on top of a lofty dowry of 300 livres tournois.

Detail of a miniature of attendants helping a seated man to dress – British Library MS Royal 2 B VII f. 72v

Clothes were expensive enough to enhance the value of a dowry, especially when of good quality, and were thus kept and passed on over generations. In 1462, Anthony Pastres, dweller of Lattes south of Montpellier gave his daughter Johanneta for her dowry 11 livres tournois and a red cotardia (gown) that she would receive on her wedding day. He added 29 livres from the dowry of his late wife, Johanneta’s mother, and some clothes she owned. Johanneta, thus, would have her deceased mother’s dark red gown (“of the colour of blood”), her ruby underdress, and her blueish (lividus) underdress, valued at 3 golden écus. More often, the clothes donated in wills and wedding contracts belonged to a living person. Mothers were especially inclined to endow their daughters with their best dresses and garments. For example, Arnauda, resident of Montpellier in 1478, gave to her daughter Agnès, for her future marriage, 10 livres tournois, her purple dress lined with fur, her rosaries in coral, one of her belts and her white coat.

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Clothes of lesser value were sometimes donated to house servants, friends, more distant relatives and poor people. In 1380, Constancia, wife of a Montpellier notary bequeathed several pieces of clothing to Belonia, her servant. She gave her “for the love of God” (out of charity) a blueish dress (cotardia), a blueish tunic and a hood or hooded cape (caputium) made in a coarse brown woolen fabric. Constancia also decided to give two hooded dresses she owned to Dulcia, daughter of her servant Belonia, “for her marriage.” Likewise, Pruneta who lived in the town of Ganges, north of Montpellier, bequeathed in 1422 a pair of shoes “of medium value” to her goddaughter Ayglina, “for her marriage,” as well as a dark houpelanda (an overdress). When Peyronela, dweller of Montpellier, made her will in 1414, she included Alicia, a “poor girl,” to whom she gave a mantellum (a sleeveless cloak) and a chest, again “for her marriage.”

From the vantage point of poor and middle-status medieval people, used clothes were possessions of value. They could be sold to and purchased from dealers of second-hand clothes to make or save a little money. Used clothes were gifted to loved ones and charitably donated, extending their life span. Many young women received used clothes for their trousseau and even married in second-hand gowns they had been given in their dowries. “Vintage” clothes were without a doubt an important part of medieval fashion.

Lucie Laumonier is an Affiliate assistant professor at Concordia University. Click here to view her Academia.edu page or follow her on Instagram at The French Medievalist.

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Click here to read more from Lucie Laumonier

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.

Top Image: Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a man holding clothes next to a woman. British Library MS Royal 10 E IV f. 162v  

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