How did fashion change during the Middle Ages? Using images from medieval manuscripts, we can track some of the changes in fashion over the centuries. The styles of dress and clothing would see new trends emerge, ranging from long-toed shoes to plunging necklines.
1. The Carolingians – imitating the Romans
This image of Carolingian Emperor Charles the Bald and his wife was made between 866 and 875. It shows Charles dressed in a sleeved tunic, a loose cloak, and long leg coverings. While this is typical of what the Carolingians would wear, Charles’ outfit is also covered with gold and jewels. The Carolingian rulers saw themselves as heirs to the Roman Empire and wanted to make sure they looked the part. His wife is wearing a long veil, two tunics and jewellery such as earrings and a bracelet.
2. Anglo-Saxon fashion
This image from the year 966 shows English King Edgar (959-975) flanked by the Virgin Mary and St Peter. Edgar is wearing a tunic and cloak that come down to the knees, and leather stockings that go from the ankle to the knee. The female is wearing a long, loose woollen gown that goes to the ankles, a mantle or cloak, and a head covering. Nearly all Anglo-Saxon women, except for the very young and slaves, wore some sort of head covering.
3. Byzantine fashion
This originally was a portrait of Byzantine Emperor Michael VII (1071-8) but the face was replaced with that of his successor Nicephorus III (1078-81). He is wearing a blue tunic over a purplish-red one. The tunic is decorated with pearls, which were very popular among the Byzantine rulers at this time – one of Nicephorus’ predecessors wore an outfit that had 30,000 pearls sown into it, which made him unable to sit down while wearing it. His civil servants wear a garment known as the chlamys, which are red and gold. The clothing of the Byzantine world was often influenced by imports coming from Asia, and the in-turn the Byzantines would influence fashion in the western Mediterranean region.
4. The Normans
This scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicts William, Duke of Normandy, with his half-brothers Odo and Robert. The eleventh-century tapestry is an important source for fashion and dress during the period – and on how the designers would use clothing to offer subtle hints about the people being depicted. William, for example, is often shown wearing elaborate hosiery and a cloak embroidered in gold.
5. Early 12th-century fashion
Here a knight is standing upon his squire while they fight a dragon. Manuscript images from the early 12th century begin to show figures dressed more fashionably. This includes wearing long-toed shoes – according to Orderic Vitalis, it was Fulk, Count of Anjou, who started wearing this fashion trend because it hid his bunions. However, like the sports-star-endorsed sneaker, this footwear soon became popular with everyone else as well.
6. Seasonal changes
This image comes from a late-13th-century book on health – the author is giving advice on what one should wear during the different seasons. In the spring (top left) one should wear robes that are not too hot or too cold, such as those made from cotton or fine woollen cloth. In the summer (top right) one should wear cool clothing such as linen or silk. The dress for autumn (bottom left) should just be a little warmer than for spring, while in the winter (bottom right) thick fluffy wool and fur were the best for keeping warm.
7. Dressing well in 13th-century Italy
The emergence of the city-states of Italy in the High Middle Ages led to great wealth for its citizens. This late-13th-century image shows three very well-dressed Genoese men. Some of their clothing have gold edges or fur, as well as oversized buttons. The book, however, is not portraying these men admiringly – this image is meant to convey the sin of Pride.
8. 14th-century women
This image of two women comes from the first half of the fourteenth century. It shows some changes in the appearance of medieval women – only the married lady is wearing a veil, and the sleeves on their tunics have gotten shorter, reaching only the elbow.
9. Dressing a King
This image depicts the preparations for Charles V of France’s coronation, which took place in 1364. He is wearing a red silk tunic with laces in the front, while his chamberlain is putting on stocking on his legs that are decorated in the fleurs-de-lys. Most of the other men in this scene are wearing colourful long tunics.
10. Women’s Fashion at the beginning of the Italian Renaissance
This image of St. Ursula and her virgin companions, made in the 1380s, shows how much fashion was changing in early Renaissance Italy. The women are wearing a range of tight-fitting tunics that also leave their necks and parts of their shoulders uncovered.
11. Condemning women’s dress
In this scene, the women and men are being condemned by an abbot for their immodest appearance. In late medieval England and Italy government officials passed sumptuary laws to regulate what people wore, especially if they were not nobility. However, these laws were usually ineffective and often ignored.
12. Fifteenth-century fashion
This image from northern Europe in the 1470s depicts noble men and women in the latest fashion. The rider’s hair is longer, and he is wearing a shorter cap and gown. Meanwhile, the women are wearing steeple-shaped headdresses. One lady has looped the long train from her gown around her hand, which would make it easier for her to walk around.
13. Black is the new Black
These late medieval images also reveal how the colour black was becoming common in clothing. In previous centuries the use of black was considered unfashionable and usually left to the poor. Now, black seems to be back in fashion. Meanwhile, other colours were said to have special meaning: green stood for love, grey for sorrow, yellow for hostility, and blue, partly because of its connection with the Virgin Mary, became the colour of fidelity. This image, from the pages of the 15th century Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, shows how colourful medieval fashion could be.
14. Accessories for a King
King Charles VIII of France (1483-1498) tried to ban the wearing of gold or silver cloth for all but the very richest of nobles. Like his Carolingian predecessors, this monarch is also adorned with jewellery, including diamonds, rubies and a gold medallion.
15. What to Wear at the End of the Middle Ages
While this image, depicting a scene from the Roman de Rose, was made in the 1490s, the artist skillfully made use of some older styles of medieval clothing, showing that people were aware that fashion had been changing. Some of the newer elements here include the women wearing gowns with wide sleeves, while the men are dressed in elaborate hose.
The book, Medieval Dress and Fashion by Margaret Scott, offers a great resource about the changes in fashion during the Middle Ages. You can also learn more about medieval fashion from these articles: