If you are a bride wanting to have a medieval look on your wedding day, what should you wear? While evidence about medieval wedding dresses is scattered in the sources, there are a few details we can learn. They reveal the brides would wear a lot of colour and several kinds of accessories.
While there is much writing about medieval-style weddings, it’s often hard to come across information related to bridal dresses. One recent article about medieval-inspired wedding dresses suggests that they should be long and flowing garments. While all their examples show white wedding dresses, this would be the one aspect that was the least medieval. The practice of wearing white on your wedding day dates only back to the Victorian age in the 19th century.
When looking through evidence about wedding dresses from medieval Western Europe, one thing becomes very clear – brides liked to wear colourful dresses, with greens, reds and blues prominent. While some historians suggest that they just wore their best outfit at their wedding, we can find a lot of records that suggest that they would have a very specific bridal gown, which was worn only for their wedding, but then would be passed down to their daughters.
One of the best descriptions of a wedding dress comes from John Whitcomb, a wealthy clothier in the English town of Newbury. Writing in the 16th century, he describes the bridal dress of his wife:
The bride, being habited in a gown of sheep’s russet, and a kertle of fine worsted; her head attired with a billiment of gold, and her hair, as yellow as gold, hanging down behind her, which was curiously combed and plaited, according to the manner of those days was led to church between two boys, with bride-laces and rosemary tied about their silken sleeves.
Sheep’s russet would be a reddish-brown colour of wool that came from black sheep, while a kertle would be a one-piece garment worn underneath the gown. A billiment is a type of hood-headdress popular in Tudor-era England. To complete her look, the bride also wore a length of blue ribbon binding sprigs of rosemary, a flowery plant that was also popular in England for its fragrance and beauty.
If we go back about a century, the diary of Luca Landucci, who owned an apothecary in Florence, Italy, includes a description of his wife’s wedding dress from the day they got married in 1466. Her outfit consisted of a pale blue garment, embroidered with pearls and a purple gown with sleeves that had a thin brocade. A brocade was a fabric with a pattern of raised figures, sometimes made of silk interwoven with threads of gold or silver. Underneath she had a white under-gown.
Another description of a wedding dress comes from the governmental records of King Henry III of England in the 13th century. In 1259 he commanded that a wedding dress be made for the daughter of a nobleman named William Bluet. The outfit to be made was to be “a tunic, an overcoat, and a mantle, of green or burnett (brownish), with a coat of fine biss (a dark fur) and furs.”
Wills can also sometimes reveal details about wedding dresses as they are passed down to descendants. Lucie Laumonier, who has been researching the archives of the French town of Montpellier, and between the years 1350 and 1490 she found 13 instances of testators bequeathing a wedding dress to a daughter, granddaughter or niece. The wedding dress is always described as red and often comes with a silver belt.
The choice of colours was very much influenced by medieval people’s perceptions of each hue. Green, for instance, was viewed as the middle colour between black and white and had a reputation for being soothing. Meanwhile, blue was something of a neglected colour for much of the Middle Ages, partly because it was so hard to recreate for painting or clothing. It wasn’t until the 12th century that it started to be used a lot, and from that time it started to get incorporated into wedding fashion too.
Venetian laws on wedding dresses
In the year 1299 the ruling council of Venice passed a new set of sumptuary laws. These were rules about what women could wear, and while they often were phrased as ways to promote modesty, in reality they were passed so that lower-ranking women would not dress the same as the nobility.
What is interesting about the 1299 laws is that they say a lot about weddings. The rules carve out exemptions for wedding dresses – these would be the only occasions where women could wear particular outfits. For example, it states that brides, “may have borders of pearls on their wedding dress a single time, and similarly one headpiece of pearls; and they may not place the aforesaid borders on any gown other than the wedding gown.” The law adds that if the cost of the wedding dress is more than 20 soldi di grossi, they would be fined another 20.
In another section, brides were exempted from prohibitions on the length of a train:
Item, that henceforth no woman’s tunic may have a train of more than one arm’s length trailing on the ground or an underdress train of more than half an arm’s length, under the aforesaid penalty. Except that a bride may have whatever sort of train she wishes a single time, on her wedding tunic.
English Royal Weddings
When it comes to descriptions of weddings in the Middle Ages, chroniclers tended to write few details and were usually more interested in what the people feasted on instead of what they wore. However, we sometimes get a few details. In her book, The Plantagenet Socialite, Jan-Marie Knights describes what princesses and queens wore on their wedding days:
1236 – Marriage of Eleanor of Provence to King Henry III – she wore a long-sleeved shimmering golden dress which cinched in at the waist and flared out to her feet in wide pleats.
1290 – Marriage of Princess Margaret to John, heir to the Duchy of Brabant – her dress came with a gold belt studded with pearls, rubies and royal leopards in sapphires.
1308 – Marriage of Isabella of France to King Edward II – she wore a shiny blue and gold mantle over a gown of blue.
1361 – Marriage of Princess May to John de Montfort, Duke of Brittany – she wore a cloth-of-gold tunic and a very long mantle, trimmed with the fur of six hundred squirrels and forty ermines.
1396 – Marriage of Isabella of France to King Richard II – the six-year-old French princess wore a blue velvet dress decorated with gold fleur-de-lis.
1406 – Marriage of Princess Philippa to King Eric of Denmark, which took place in the Swedish city of Lund – she wore a white tunic and a white silken cloak bordered with squirrel fur and ermine.
1464 – Marriage of Elizabeth Woodville to King Edward IV – she wore a dress of the richest blue bordered with ermine, plus a pearl necklace.
1468 – Marriage of Princess Margaret to Charles, Duke of Burgundy – she arrived for her wedding wearing a white cloth-of-gold and ermine gown.
These being important political events, it is not surprising that the clothing of some of the brides also reflected politics – both French princesses came to their weddings wearing outfits with a lot of blue. These were also very extravagant affairs. The groom would also be dressed in fine clothes, and we sometimes read that the wedding party and even the guests would wear matching outfits.
We can see the efforts put into royal wedding dresses from the records related to the wedding of Elizabeth, daughter of England’s King Edward I, to John I, Count of Holland, Zeeland, and Lord of Friesland. In the weeks leading up to their wedding on 7 January 1297, the royal government paid a team of thirty-five tailors in London 70 shillings to create the bridal dress. They needed four days and nights to finish their work, with the dress being embroidered with silk and adorned with buttons of silver and gold. At least another 52 shillings were spent on materials, transportation and storage of the dress – altogether the wedding gown cost about the same as a small house.
The ‘Golden Gown’ of Queen Margaret
It is very rare to have physical examples of medieval clothing that have lasted to our present times. We know of one wedding dress that has survived mostly intact since the Middle Ages. Known as the ‘Golden Gown’ of Queen Margaret it is kept in Uppsala Cathedral in Sweden. For centuries it was believed that this was the wedding dress of Margareta, Queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden (1353-1412), but recent research reveals the dress was made from silk and linen that dates to between 1403 and 1439.
Most likely, this was the wedding dress for Princess Margaret (1456–1486), the daughter of Christian I of Denmark and Dorothea of Brandenburg, when she married King James III of Scotland in 1469. She would then become the Queen of Scotland, but her wedding dress seems to have been returned to Scandinavia and deposited in the cathedral as a kind of royal family relic.
This reconstruction of Queen Margaret’s golden dress is spectacular. Original was made around 1403-1439, Italian gold brocade with a pomegranate design in gold on a reddish-violet silk ground. I don’t wear many dresses but if I had this, I would wear it everyday! #MedievalFashion pic.twitter.com/2FIKdU4VKj
— Pieta Greaves (@PietaGreaves) September 29, 2019
Elizabeth Coatsworth and Gale R. Owen-Crocker offer this description of the dress:
The gown is made of a sumptuous, gold brocade cloth. The gold content of the gilding was 75%, evidence of opulent royal fashion in medieval Europe. On a base of red silk, gold thread is used to create an all-over pattern. The central element of the design is a fruit, like a pineapple, surrounded by a frame of laurels and pomegranates. Each pattern is 30cm (11.8in) wide and 49–50cm (19.2–19.6in) high. The style of elaborate patterning – often oriental influenced – on diasper weave is characteristic of the fourteenth-century luxury cloth produced in Lucca.
This expensive dress was made by someone very skilled, with the only blemish being a small tear in the skirt which was patched up. Coatsworth and Owen-Crocker add:
The skirt may have been intended to pool at the wearer’s feet at the front, and it certainly trailed at the back, an extravagant use of the expensive cloth. It may have been altered: unmatching material in the underside sleeve gussets, and the possible reduction in the size of the waist by taking in the back seam, suggest some re-tailoring. The remaining facing at the top may suggest that an edging of luxurious fur was once part of the gown.
How can this information help a bride be more ‘medieval’ when it comes to their wedding dress? First of all, all the evidence shows that wedding dresses were beautiful and extravagant – they were items that women cherished, whether they be princesses or peasants. Medieval people liked having a lot of bold colours – today we might think they would be too bright and colourful – and bridal dresses reflected that.
Medieval wedding outfits also show a lot of diversity, with some women having headpieces and others not, with other accessories including furs, belts and jewellery. The bride from 16th-century England even included real flowers in her clothing. This should give a prospective bride a lot of options in designing an outfit that looks both medieval and beautiful for their wedding.
Medieval Celebrations: Your Guide to Planning and Hosting Spectacular Feasts, Parties, Weddings, and Renaissance Fairs, by Daniel Diehl and Mark P. Donnelly (Stackpole Books, 2011)
The Dictionary of Fashion History, by Valerie Cumming, C. W. Cunnington and P. E. Cunnington (Berg, 2010)
Medieval Dress and Textile in Britain: A Multilingual Sourcebook, by Louise M. Sylvester, Mark C. Chambers and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Boydell, 2014)
Women’s Lives in Medieval Europe: A Sourcebook, edited by Emilie Amt (Routledge, 2010)
Clothing the Past: Surviving Garments from Early Medieval to Early Modern Western Europe, by Elizabeth Coatsworth and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Brill, 2018)
Top Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Français 12575, fol. 26v