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Essay: Uncovering The Lost Tale of Medieval Fashion: An Identity Through Adornment

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  • Published: 1 June 2019*
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Fashion, as a means of self-expression, has been with us since humans began to clothe themselves. The arrangement of cloth on the body—at times an animal’s fur or a textile like velvet—relied on thought and consideration. The way a person chooses to adorn themselves marks them as an individual or as part of a larger collective. Choice of clothes, accessories, hairstyles, and makeup have assisted men and women in their branding of themselves or in their assimilating into a group with a shared identity. Throughout history, there has been a tendency to distinguish the various positions of individuals through a particular kind of dress.

The cultural study of adornment and fashion provides insights into why people chose to dress or appear as they did to the outside world. Dress can be regarded a code: a collection of signs understood by other members of society. Identity, occupation, and moral character can often be conveyed by an individual’s clothes. During the medieval time period, people were expected to dress according to their social position, something believed necessary for the stability of society.

Since hardly any medieval adornment or garments remain—apart from a limited collection of shoes and jackets—historians must rely on the descriptions of clothing in literature and archival records. Art created during this time period also provides scholars with information regarding the appearance and structure of a garment as well as how fashion was manipulated in a specific work of art.

Throughout this time period, the one unifying factor in Europe was the church, the one organization that formed the grounds of social unity. Identities were defined by the social class of an individual and their family. At the top of the hierarchy were nobility (both upper and lower nobility) and the prelates of the Church. Next, the middle class held the upper bourgeoisie, the lesser merchants and entrepreneurs, the legal professions, and members of the regular clergy. Below them the craftsmen, and finally the workers and the peasants at the bottom. Every group dressed in clothes and fabrics suits to their positions.

Church officials wore ecclesiastic robes, a look that has had little altercation since that time. Medieval fabric was used to distinguish social classes. Clothing worn by the clergy and the elite were made with rich borders and trims. Clergy in Britain were divided on the subject of the tonsure: some wore a circle while others shaved one in a semicircle, although for the monks this was possibly related to which order they belonged to. Spanish, German, and Italian priests wore a circular tonsure—referred to as the tonsure of St. Peter.

In 1086, a council at Melfi, near Naples, Italy, condemned a regional custom of wearing clocks that cut away in front. French clergy were forbidden in 1254 to use long sleeves, and in Paris could not wear clothing of multiple colors. A decree related to councils at Cologne stated that thirteenth century clergy commonly wore clothing of red or green, usually trimmed with expensive furs. These restrictions are regarded as the Roman Catholic Church’s early attempts at gaining uniformity amongst the clergy.

Men’s headgear is described and illustrated on a woodblock referred to as Ballade on the Fashion for High Bonnets, discovered in Paris. The text, written anonymously, declares: ‘…high bonnets hold the field…Who should wear high bonnets? Is it the craftsmen? Oh no: popes, cardinals, Kings, dukes, counts, knights, Churchmen, and bachelors who labor at studies. Now in every quater, high bonnets hold the field.’

Wool was one of the most important fabrics of the middle ages. Camelot was a fine, woven wool that was produced in France. Jersey was made in Italy. Silk weaving became popular in Europe and became cheaper to purchase. Fur was worn despite the season and an individual’s social class, although class was a determining factor in the type of fur one had access to. Ermine and sable were worn by the wealthy.

Historian Hubert Norris contends that ‘…nobility, clergy, and laity alike were condemned for their love of apparel and extravagance…’ during the reign of William II of England. Another historian and author of Illuminating Fashion: Dress in the Art of Medieval France and the Netherlands 1325-1515, Anne van Buren, argues that since markers and wearers of medieval fashion have left behind almost no record of their thoughts, their voices are rarely heard. Van Buren goes on to state that the literary record and the visual art archival record that has preserved medieval history is the most accessible way to approach medieval fashion. Today it seem art historians are more inclined than they have previously been to include dress and fashion in the analysis of visual artworks and their place in cultural history.

However, there are costume and fashion historians who specialize in the field regarding clothing and its impact on society. These historians have accessed medieval artwork for traces and suggestions of what was worn during the time period. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, surveys were a common method of analyzing medieval dress.

In 1929, Adrien Harmand used the publications of the Société Française de Reproduction de Manuscrits à Peintures and manuscripts available from librarians in France, Belgium, and England for his study of clothing and adornment during the lifetime of Joan of Arc. Harmand examines visual material and offers a reconstruction of the cutting patterns for each garment. Harmand’s patterns were later used for the clothing worn by models during the first international meeting on the history of dress held in Venice in 1952.

Stella Newton published an article in 1953 that brought new awareness to fashion-dating in paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Many specialists in the field have been dressmakers themselves, interested in the materials, seams, and fastenings of medieval dress—knowledge that can be used to produce replicas. Later in 1980, Newton released a case study of mid-fourteenth century fashion based on the accounts in archival payments. Newton also examined death inventories of individuals to piece together clothing items owned by the recently deceased.

For example, Newton found that John Wynd-Hill, a priest of Arnecliffe, claimed in his 1431 will two green gowns, a silk gown, and two black gowns all trimmed with fur. He also declared a girdle of sanguine silk and another adorned with silver gilt. Other wills left behind by priests include similar details: crimson, purple, and green gowns, girdle with precious metals, and sometimes daggers with ivory handles.

In 1571, a command was issued under Queen Elizabeth of England stating that clergy should wear ‘…such seemly habits, garments, and square caps as were most commonly and orderly received in the later years of King Edwards VI…’ One of the reasons given for this ordinance was that it was useful for others to be able to quickly identity members of the clergy, both inside the physical church and elsewhere.

A complaint was voiced by the councilors of Charles VII (1422-1461) urging the king to regulate dress: ‘…among all the inhabited nations of the earth none is so deformed, variable, outrageous, excessive, and inconstant in its garments and dress as the French nation; and…one cannot tell people’s estate or occupation be they princes, noblemen,…merchants or craftsmen, because everyone…is allowed to dress as they please…’ The councilors went on to advise Charles VII to forbid the selling of gold, silver, and silk to anyone who was not of royal blood or a prelate of the Church. A fine of sixty livres was suggested by the councilors for any violators of this ordinance.

A Parisian dressmaker, Colin Gourdin (called ‘de Lormoye’) provided a testimony dated between 1423 to 1455 recalling his customers. He frequently made monastic habits for monks and clerics. The fabrics were usually provided by the customer themselves and were often grey or black wool with a mixture of linen and cotton.

The Church was often critical of how members of the society dressed. In the eleventh century, French monks and abbots were known to attack the hair of young knights. The bishop of Séez ended his Easter sermon in 1105 by removing a pair of scissors from his sleeve and cutting the hair of King Henry I. Afterwards, a new hairstyle trend circulated and those in the audience had their hair trimmed as well. In 1273, the Dominican Gilles of Orléans preached against narrow shoes and gowns with long trains. The beliefs of Gilles of Orléans were repeated by clergy throughout the fourteenth century.  

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