Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The ‘Material’ World of Medieval Times

In medieval life, clothes made the medieval man. The kind of clothing a person wore became the summary of credentials that distinguished him in society and in life. Since laws of the land dictated their options when they buy medieval clothing, society was immediately differentiated through the quality, cut, color, and material of clothing that its members wore. Indeed, it can be said that the medieval people lived in a “material” world.

From Medieval Clothing…

In such a pyramidal society where the elite are few and the common masses many, most of the population dressed simply and unremarkably. The masses wore home-made clothes, which were very simply cut and from cloth made in their villages. The most common material from which medieval wardrobes were made of was undyed wool and leather or fur obtained from hunting animals. Since sumptuary laws that had existed since Roman times restricted expenditures on clothing and food according to social rank, the peasantry wore mostly unadorned clothing.

The elite and the rich, however, had free reign over the degree of luxury they desired in their clothing. They imported silk and cotton and could meet the expense of bleached linen and dyed and simply patterned wool. Royalty and nobility wrapped themselves in richly embroidered fabrics, and extended their ostentatiousness through jewelry, buckles, purses, weapon fittings, and metalwork accessories. Medieval dresses of highborn women were hemmed with colorful borders and fine needlework.

…To Renaissance Costumes

When the golden era set in, wool was still the most popular fabric, next of which were linen and hemp. By now wool was available in a variety of qualities, from rough undyed cloth to fine, dense, and velvety broadcloth. During the Renaissance, costumes made of wool could be dyed in rich colors, most commonly reds, blues, greens, and golds.

With the dawn that announced this idyllic time came silk-weaving. Figured silks like silk velvets with silver-gilt wefts were most often seen on the well-heeled Italians, gradually catching fire with the rest of wealthy Europe. The refined flamboyance of China eventually reached the Ottoman civilization in the form of stately floral designs in pomegranate or artichoke motifs. Through the Ottomans, the Western world embraced the trend.

En Vogue: Elaborate

It was not long before elaborate became en vogue. Slashing emerged from Germany, a style of Renaissance clothing for sale at the time that revealed a different texture or color of clothing beneath the outer fabric. Perhaps the undying chicness of black became established during the Renaissance, when polite society began to wear it to formal events.

The mere ruffle at the neckline bloomed into the cartwheel-shaped ruff that marked Elizabethan fashion and into very grandiose designs made of Italian linen lace and wire-supported. As well, exquisite needlelace with scrolling designs flowered from Italy and spread to the continent. The grandiosity in clothing peaked with the stylish Tudors’ clothes, which embraced rich, heavy brocades and gold-shot fabrics encrusted with jewels.


Berry Sweis writes articles related to renaissance clothing and medieval costume. You can find more information about medieval costume at our web site.

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