Historical Clothing

Clothing in the Middle Ages from today’s perspective

The Middle Ages encompasses an enormous time span in the history of mankind—from the 6th to the 15th centuries. Even though there is an enormous difference in the way people dressed during the various eras of the Middle Ages, throughout all strata of the European population it was common to wear clothing in layers that were often divided into outer- and undergarments. Because clothes in the Middle Ages were often used to recognize the wearer’s station in life and had therefore a more symbolic function, sumptuary laws decided which stratum was allowed to wear—or prohibited from wearing—a given kind of clothing. Their main goal was to prevent the peasantry from dressing in the kind of clothes the nobles fancied.

Differences in clothing in the middle ages

Sometimes clothing in the Middle Ages varied, due to the sumptuary laws and financial considerations. Not only the wearer’s station in life played a role here, but also gender, region, and the given sub-epoch within the Middle Ages. The fashion among the nobles for instance changed rather rapidly throughout the era, whereas the peasantry’s clothing remained more or less the same, since they had fewer resources at their disposal than did the rich and their clothes didn’t need to be stylish but rather practical.

Women’s garments had to be longer than those of men, as it was unseemly for them to reveal too much of their figure or undergarments. Yet this attitude was gradually set aside over the course of time during the Middle Ages. Also, married women were expected to cover their hair, a rule, that, however, declined in importance by the end of the Middle Ages, and as a consequence, women started wearing elaborate hairstyles and headdresses.

Medieval clothing today

Today, many people harbor a biased, overly generalized view of the Middle Ages, often ignoring significant differences among epochs or regions. Views on medieval clothing are commonly derived from movies in which the actors’ outfits aren’t based on historical facts. Since a lot of false information and myths circulate about the Middle Ages, the costumes are frequently changed to fit the story of the movie or simply are not carefully enough researched. In historical movies, the costuming ends up representing a random mixture of different epochs and regions, or even contains fantasy elements, creating an appealing style—but an inaccurate one.