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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Dressed for Success - Medieval style

illustration from 'T-tunic' - the period way by Lady Muireann ingen Eoghain ua Maoil Mheaghna

In the early middle ages there was one style of dress - a t-tunic. It didn't matter if you were king or peasant, this was your style. The only variation was in the type of fabric (linen, silk, or wool) and the quality of the weave and the trimmings. The finer the fabric and trimmings, the wealthier the owner. But everyone was dressed in the same style at least until the 12th century, but we'll get to that.

These tunics were entirely geometric. As you can see by the above illustration, not a piece of fabric was wasted. Garments were made in a large geometric style so that more than one person could wear a single garment, thereby getting the most use from it. When a garment "wore out" it was because it had been worn to nothing - literally. If someone outgrew it, it was given to someone else, or possibly cut down for a younger member of the family. The wealthy gave their old clothes to servants who when they wore them out gave them to those even poorer than they. Ultimately, the fabric shreds which were too small to make or repair clothes with, were used to stuff mattresses.

The photo to the right is me, taken several years ago wearing a Viking style tunic and apron.

Why such frugality? Because you didn't go to Walmart for $1 a yard fabric back then. You hand wove it...every blessed inch of it. Gores (additional fabric inserts in the side and front of a garment) and gussets (small squares of fabric under the arms) were used to provide ease of movement which are not easy to create if you only use rectangles. The differences between men's and women's clothes were length, and depending on your station a man's tunic might be as long as a woman's. Generally, one also wore layers. The wealthier the person, the more layers one could afford to wear. A noblewoman usually wore (at least) a chemise or shift, an undertunic, and an overtunic. She may also wear robes and cloaks as well.

If you were wealthy you might have a few changes of clothes but if you were poor, you probably had - at best- two sets. Most likely only one. Yep, the folks were probably pretty ripe smelling -especially the poor ones. So if you find yourself writing early medieval fiction, make sure you don't have your protagonists dressed in tailored garments. The clothes were loose fitting and cinched in with belts.

In the mid-1100s a new style garment became the rage. It was called a bliaut and yes, both men and women wore these garments. This garment was fitted to the individual - hence it wasted fabric - and the construction was far more complex than previous garments.

The sleeves were close fitting, as were the bodices. These garments were to be worn by one individual - not shared. These were the garments of the wealthy because it was entirely impractical to fashion garments which were tailored to fit someone. Also, because they fit so tightly, they often required assistance to get them on. Only the wealthy could easily afford that kind of assistance.

In the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, yet another new style appeared. The sideless surcoat, commonly referred to as the "gates of hell."

The gates of hell were the open sides of the garment which was considered risque and far too revealing. Why? Because good Christian men and women should not wear garments which revealed so much of their body to the opposite sex thereby enticing them to sin. No doubt there were a lot of "oh the kids these days..." comments. The undertunic was tight fitting but the sideless was loose over the top. Most sideless surcoates revealed the waist and hips through the sides of the garment so the moral danger was those open sides.

When you're writing something set in the middle ages, remember to do your homework first so you know what your hero and heroine would have been wearing. You don't want your Norman heroine wearing a sideless surcoat anymore than you'd want a contemporary of Eleanor of Acquitaine wearing an Elizabethan ruff around her neck. And trust me...neither do your readers. Cause if you dress your people wrong, your readers will know. And they'll tell you. grin.

Do you enjoy writing historicals because you love researching the clothes? Do you hate slogging through the clothing research? Are you curious about the way style developed and evolved through history? Please share a comment to let me know what you think!


Paris said...

Fascinating post! I love researching the facts behind costuming your characters. The fact that nothing was wasted because it was so expensive, just makes sense but then those are the details that make history so interesting.

Serena Shay said...

Awesome blog! The history of what people wore back then is so interesting. It's hard to imagine today that a sideless dress was so taboo. LOL

MaggieRivers said...

Francesca, great article. Oh, those kids! I had to laugh over the garmet with the opening sides - so risque. If they could only see us now. Sometimes I think we'd be better off in those garmets from years ago. At least it left something to the imagination.

Le Loup said...

This garment looks to me to be much the same as the garment worn by men in the same period. I have been researching the men's work frock in the 18th century and from what I have seen in period pics it seems to have started with a garment such as you describe.
Good post, well done.
Regards, Le Loup.

Beth Trissel said...

This is great! Love this site and just came upon it. Terrific post.

Patricia Barraclough said...

I don't write, but the details of life in a particular era fascinate me. I especially enjoy books that have a fair amount of historical detail.
Am so glad I discovered this site. Really enjoy it.

Savanna Kougar said...

Francesca, utterly fascinating blog. I like making these kind of garments just to see, for real, what they're like. I'll have to try that design at the top sometimes.
Looks darn comfy, actually.
I have made a few garments similar to the later design. Gosh, those feel good when you wear them, but then I did cheat and used a stretchy fabric. Not like I have attendants to dress me, either.

Armenia said...

I love your post.

I always wondered while reading a paragraph in a medievel historical, how from a bolt of fabric, they managed to have a finished tunic in one day. Considering these dresses were floor length and there was not a Singer sewing machine handy, it did not seem possible. Well, now that I know the pattern was geometric I can believe this. I'm a seamstress so it looks easy and do-able. Thanks for the research.

Hmm...makes me wonder, I can make a gown for the next Renaissance Faire, ya think?

Armenia said...

Oops, sorry forgot my email.

armiefox at yahoo dot com

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Viagra Online said...

I've been visiting many blogs like this one, and I think you have the best information about the medieval topic, and what I said goes...so the tunics are something special even in this time, we don't need the 12th century to know it.

Generic Cialis said...

Yeah actually this fashion if can be called like this, it's coming back I already saw some dresses like this in stores and the age of 1900 - 1950 it's coming back too haha

Anonymous said...

You mention that a Norman heroine should not wear a sideless surcoat -- I didn't notice the part of the article where you noted that sideless surcoats were apparently not worn in Normandy?