Friday, September 25, 2015

Sumptuous Dressing in the Late Medieval Era

by Carol McGrath

I am fascinated by clothing and fabrics sold by drapers and merchants during the late medieval and early Tudor period. Wool was England's most valuable export. It was sold in quantity all over Europe.

I have been studying pictures of clothing that appear on illuminated manuscript work- those fabulous tiny figures dressed in gorgeous bright colours and in exotic fabrics other than wool. Velvet, silk and damask were the most expensive fabrics that were popular among society's elite.

Beautiful fabrics and colours for the elite

However, by the end of this period there was a market for what was known as the new draperies. They were made from wool that was combed out rather than felted and which at the weaving stage was mixed with silk, linen and even cotton. These new fabrics were often light and had a variety of interesting names such as serges, bayes, sayes, perpetuanas, frisadoes, minikins, bombasines, grosgraines, buffins, russells, sagathies, mockadoes, shalloons and tammies. They actually varied little from each other except in firmness, weight and size.

Notice the pattern woven into this new fabric

The woolen industry proper involved the manufacture of broadcloth, dozens, penistones and medley cloth. These names may seem complicated to our minds, and I have only mentioned a selection of them. Yet, I have no doubt that the medieval merchant knew what he or she was looking at when they purchased fabric in the great cloth fairs such as the September fair of St Bartholomew in London or The Northampton Cloth Fair in November.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the clothing and fashion industry are the Sumptuary laws.  In 1513 such laws were passed in England to define what different classes of people were allowed to wear. They should not just know their station, but they should look it as well. I often think as John Ball, the hedge-priest said at the time of the Peasant's Revolt,  'When Adam delved, and Eve spun, who was then a gentleman?' Equality was idealism. It could not exist within a society ruled by a feudal system.


Fashion was an important way in which identity, values and status could be displayed within society. Before the 14th century status was simply indicated by the quality of clothing worn. After this there were concerns about style and tailoring. Buttons were used from circa 1350. This meant that tight fitting garments were easier to wear. There was also an increased range of imported dyes and fabrics for the elite which could afford the latest trends. There was also a greater use of fur and embroidery. Head-dresses became more complex. The higher the rank, the more choice there was of materials and colour. The upper classes could wear taffeta, velvets, silks, furs and lace. Poor Tudors wore wool and linen.

The poor throughout the seasons
Thus, in England sumptuary rules dictated the colour and types of clothing allowed to persons of various ranks and incomes. An extremely long list of items specifying colour and materials existed well into the 17th century. Only royalty could wear purple. Gold, silver, crimson, scarlet, deep blue were for the nobility and royalty only. Poor Tudors wore browns, beige,yellow, orange, russet, green, grey and paler blues.

So, you see, the beautifully clothed figures we see in illuminated manuscripts did not represent the unfashionable poorer majority in society. Rather, they show societal elite.

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Carol McGrath lives near Oxford. She is the author of The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy. Her latest novel is The Betrothed Sister. Her WIP is set in the early Tudor period. She can be found at:

https://www.facebook.com/daughtersofhastings
Follow me on Twitter @carolmcgrath
www.carolcmcgrath.co.uk
 

16 comments:

  1. 'no person below a yeoman shall wear hose cut from cloth costing more than 10d a yard' was one I recall, meaning that they could not use the specially woven slightly stretch fabrics, so they would always have baggy knees and ankles. It also meant the cloth wouldn't be wide enough, as a woollen of that price would be narrowcloth not broadcloth, to cut the hosen on the bias for extra stretch, even if the peasant was a rich enough peasant to do so.
    Sumptuary laws were generally more in the breach than the observance, and it's in the late 15th century that there was the appearance of the 'Essex brights', cheap, usually narrowcloth, woollens woven and dyed in Suffolk and Essex, in bright colours, albeit not as bright as the various colours obtained using 'scarlet', aping the clothing of the better off. This was a direct result of the plague since the work force was reduced and could negotiate better terms and hence had more disposable income. There is economic evidence that these cloths were produced purely for the home market, not export, and were the Medieval equivalent of Primark aping Versace.

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    1. Wonderful extra information. I find cloth from these centuries fascinating .

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  2. ... The historians of Ipswich records office have been doing some serious research based on records of wool sales

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  3. From my memory of the history of fashion - when I was doing costume design at art school - the fabric used to make the high ladies "dress" (can't recall the proper name, if there was one) was often the full circle. It drapes beautifully and uses the maximum amount of fabric. I made myself a white lace mini dress, with a hood, on this principle. It was an old bedspread that the dog had torn by jumping onto the bed.

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    1. Gillian: I think you mean the houppelande of the fifteenth century. A garment for both sexes, it was very full and sometimes lined with fur. It draped in deep vertical folds. Ladies wore theirs belted high, just under the bust. One of the most iconic images of the period is a lady wearing a houppelande and an elaborate headdress in various forms, such as a conical, cylindrical, or heart-shaped.

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  4. Delightful and where is that mini dress now?

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  5. I found, in a clear out a few weeks back, all the butterfly hennins I made for a school play when I was about 14, serious cheating and brocades glued over cardboard with fur edges, and silk scarves over, they were remarkably effective from a distance. Our houppelandes were old damask bedspreads. Heh, that takes me back. I love the fabrics of this period, and contrary to the belief of some re-enactors cotton was used. It was used more in southern europe than in England but there was some. The Moors cultivated it, and the Spanish used cotton for their ship sails not linen. But it's not as sexy as the brocades, damasks and velvets, and that amazing fabric camlet or camelot which was camel or goat hair woven with silk, and was light, rich, lustrous and warm. The goat is the only animal whose coat gives both a very fine [first combing] and very coarse [second combing] hair. the first was quite silky and rich. And of course this is also the period in which lace comes into its own, bobbin lace being invented seemingly independently in both Flanders and Italy somewhere between 1450 and 1500, though other reticello works were worked before. It's also after the end of the heyday of the opus Anglicanum for decorating cloth, as complex woven cloths replaced heavily embroidered ones, and the fancy Velvet that came with more than one height of pile either in self or other colours, cut or uncut, or with voided ground. So many wonderful wonderful cloths

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    1. You are probably right, Mary Anne. And Carol, I adapted the dress, dyed it when the white started to go dingy and restyled it as a long shirt with laced slash opening at the front. I was very practical. I think I still have it somewhere at the back of the wardrobe. I never throw anything away!

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    2. I did wonder about cotton and where it came from to England. My books say it was used but did not explain the source.

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    3. Probably Spain. Our word "cotton" comes from Spanish "algodón".

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  6. sorry. A deep interest of mine, the cloth of the late medieval period. Forgive me for drooling all across the site

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  7. One Jehan de Mandeville, aka Sir John Mandeville, who wrote in the late 14th century and may have been a pseudonym for one or more writers, wrote tales of his pilgrimage, in which he described lambs growing on trees which was cotton. Theophrastus, a follower of Aristotle, had described cotton as looking like fleeces growing from trees, which is where Jehan doubtless got the idea. His book is somewhat fanciful throughout. However, cotton items, together with the concept of applique, were brought back by the crusaders. In Italy, cotton was usually used in combination with other fibres, as it was not considered strong enough as a warp thread. [Dressing Renaissance Florence, Frick an excellent though quite expensive book. Should be available for under $30 in paperback though]

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    1. Just finding this out makes it worth it writing that post. Thank you.

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    2. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles is another great book, huge and in two volumes and my wonderful husband bought it for me for Christmas a couple of years back, but it costs an arm and a leg. It has a couple of essays in vol 1 by JH Munro, one on Scarlet [used for all dark rich colours] and one on the wool trade in the low countries. Also for reference I recommend a couple of Fairchild's dictionaries, of Textiles [brilliant!] and of fashion [pretty good]

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    3. If I'm permitted to link, I have a glossary here: http://sarahs-history-place.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/renaissance%20fabric%20glossary

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  8. Thank you, I didn't know the origin of the word! And that sounds as though it may have had Moorish roots before being adopted into Spanish, too. The Spaniards tended to use cotton for shifts rather than linen, since Linen needs cool, damp conditions to grow, and cotton prefers it warm and dry. Hence cotton sails, which were not as durable as northern European linen canvas. The cotton sails of the Armada were not fit for the weather, and part of the reason so many foundered may have been due to inadequate sails for the wet winds of the British coast. Cotton readily rots. Linen is much more rot resistant.

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