By Sophie Andrade
Putting the haute in 13th century haute couture – how clothing instantly messaged status, wealth, and place in noble society – from the royal ladies through the ranks of their household servants.
There was no such thing as shabby chic in the Middle Ages. The fancier the clothes, the wealthier the person. And it wasn’t just the nobility who paid attention to their garments – their servants’ uniforms also projected symbols of status and wealth. Here we’ll break down what some of the highest-ranking nobles wore in thirteenth-century England, the clothing they provided to their servants, and what it all meant.
Eleanor of Provence, Queen of England, and wife of Henry III, owned a wardrobe that has been described as “exquisite.” In addition to her decadently decorated chambers and chapel, Eleanor wore only the finest robes and gowns. Her appearance, and that of her immediate family and household, was a “facet of queenship,” and was of utmost importance when it came to displaying her power as it was an outward reflection of both her social and her political status.
For her sons, Eleanor purchased camlet tunics. Camlet was an imported fabric made in Asia, primarily Cyprus, out of camel or goat hair. For her daughter Margaret’s wedding, Eleanor and the king wore samite cloaks with gold braid and ermine mantles – an immense display of wealth and status to every guest in attendance.
Ermine, a fur reserved especially for royalty, was soft and white with black spots originating from the stoat weasel. Samite was a very luxurious, heavy silk fabric woven with gold thread. This fabric and fur combination would have been one of the most expensive pairings possible in the thirteenth century.
Eleanor of Provence also acquired fabrics from Paris and Florence, and there is evidence of her purchasing gowns of wool, silk, and samite in an array of colours including burgundy, blue, and green. Many of her robes were decorated with silver and gold thread, as well as delicate pearl buttons. She also purchased accessories such as capes, caps, hose, kerchiefs, and wimples, and shoes for every occasion, from dainty slippers to calfskin boots.
This same display of monarchical wealth occurred when Isabella of England, Henry III’s sister, left the kingdom to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II in Germany. The Roll of Cloths for October 8th, 1234 to October 27th, 1235, records the clothing and other fabrics Isabella took with her on her journey to marry Frederick. All her clothing and jewellery was paid for by her brother and given to her as a wedding gift.
She had several garments made of gold cloth, likely for the wedding ceremony, which was by far the most expensive fabric in her wardrobe. Another kind of gold cloth, called arest, sold for 10 shillings and 9 pence per piece in 1237, and Isabella used this decadent fabric to decorate her chapel. Of all the fabric in her wardrobe, scarlet, a luxurious wool, was the most prolific. According to the roll, Isabella had, “two complete robes of scarlet with nine panes of vair; a cloak, tunic and surcoat with sleeves of scarlet; a lined cloak of scarlet; two dressing gowns of scarlet.” The rest of Isabella’s wardrobe consisted of darker colours, such as blue, green, dark brown, and dark blue.
Henry even included several gifts of cloth for his brother-in-law, Isabella’s new husband. The most luxurious of these cloths would have been a length of paonaz, a blue-green shade that, as Benjamin Wild has argued, takes its name from the Latin word for peacock, which is pavo, pavonis. Henry also included lengths of scarlet, a green Cambrai cloth, camelin, blue cloth from Provins, and russet from Sempringham. This striking array of colours and ornate cloth, particularly the cloth of gold, would have greatly impressed the emperor and Isabella’s new subjects.
It was also not only Isabella who was dressed in stunning attire, but her entire entourage as well. Isabella’s servants and officials were given new robes to wear that were in line with their rank, surrounding the new empress and enhancing the splendor of her arrival in Germany.
The spectacle of all this carefully curated clothing would have portrayed the entire kingdom of England as a magnificently wealthy and dignified place.
But make no mistake, ladies like Eleanor and Isabella were not to be upstaged. The ladies’ gifts of modest clothing to their servants served to further distinguish themselves as highest-ranking lady in the household.
As for the servants in these royal households, their robes would have been part of their compensation, along with their wages. The cloth, colour, and amount of fabric used varied according to the servant’s rank and status within the household and the robes may be new or used.
According to the accounts of Henry, son of Edward I, Henry’s head clerk’s daily wage was 4 ½ pence, while his robes were valued at 30 shillings and 8 pence – a significant expense indeed. The domestic officials who were of a lower rank than the clerks in Henry’s accounts, such as the cook and tailor, were paid 2 pence per day and their robes cost 9 shillings. It is evident that while the employees earned similar wages, the values of their robes varied greatly. It was the robes in this instance that demonstrated their difference in rank, rather than the money that they earned.
Robes that once belonged to wealthy nobles could also be given away in acts of charity. If worn for ceremonial purposes, the luxurious robes would be given away to minstrels or high-ranking servants once the original robe wearer’s duties had been fulfilled. After Simon de Montfort acted as Steward of England at Henry III’s wedding, he gave his robe to Henry’s master cook.
In Empress Isabella’s household, the difference in rank among the clerks was symbolized by the amount of cloth they received for their robes and what kind of fur was used for the trim. Higher-ranking servants were given clothes made of blue cloth with lamb fur, (shearling) while other, lower-ranking clerks wore robes of russet. Described as the “coarsest and cheapest” fabric, russet was a woolen cloth worn mainly by servants and labourers.
Any kind of dyed fabric with a fur trim would have been more impressive than a robe of russet, so the difference between clerks’ robes is clear. Lamb fur, however, was inexpensive and not nearly as luxurious as squirrel fur, which very high-ranking employees and some nobles often wore.
Isabella’s physician, Master Gilbert, received 11 ½ ells of burnet, 2 squirrel furs and 2 bis for his robe, while her ladies of the chamber received 10 ells of burnet and 2 bis each, and her laundress received 10 ½ ells of cloth (which kind of cloth is not indicated) with lamb and one coney. Burnet was made from softer wool than russet and was often used for making hose, and bis was another type of inexpensive fur, most likely made of deerskin. Here the difference in rank is noticeable in that Master Gilbert also received squirrel fur for his robes, while the ladies of the chamber, who were lower in rank, did not.
In addition to portraying the differences in rank among household staff, the robes and liveries of servants reflected their employer’s wealth and status. When seen in public or when hosting guests, to be surrounded by finely dressed servants was a positive representation of their power.
This idea is made clear in Robert Grosseteste’s Rules. The Rules were written for Margaret de Lacy, the countess of Lincoln, in the 1240s. It is a treatise written in French describing how Margaret should manage her estate and household. The sixteenth rule in the section on household management reads as follows:
The sixteenth rule teaches you in what clothing your men ought to wait on you at table. Order your knights and your gentlemen who wear your livery that they ought to put on that same livery every day, and especially at your table and in your presence to uphold your honour, and not old surcoats, and soiled cloaks, and cut-off coats.
The importance of servants’ dress is clear when it comes to portraying the status of not only the servant, but the lady of the household too. Clothing acted as a visual representation of their servants’ rank within their home, and their subordination, especially when compared to the clothing worn by the ladies themselves. The old adage, “vestim verus facit” – or, the clothes make the man – was evidently truer in thirteenth-century noble society than it is today.
Sophie Andrade is a recent graduate of the University of St Andrews with an MLitt in Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on medieval women, music, manuscripts, and castles. She lives in Nottingham, England.
Houston, Mary G. Medieval Costume in France and England. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1950.
Howell, Margaret. Eleanor of Provence. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
Labarge, Margaret Wade. A Baronial Household of the Thirteenth Century. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965.
Lachaud, Frédérique. “Liveries of Robes in England, c. 1200-c.1330.” English Historical Review 111, no. 441 (April 1996): 279-298.
Wild, Benjamin L. “The Empress’ New Clothes.” Medieval Clothing and Textiles 7 (2011): 1-29.
Wilkinson, Louise J. “The Imperial marriage of Isabella of England, Henry III’s sister.” In The Rituals and Rhetoric of Queenship: Medieval to Early Modern, edited by Liz Oakley-Brown and Louise J. Wilkinson, 20-36. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009.