What did people wear in the 15th century? How did clothes of aristocracy and ordinary citizens differ? And how did people show off in the 1400s?
We know that fabrics traveled throughout the world freely in the Middle Ages – from east to west. More than most people travel today. And with these cloths, traveled plague and other awful diseases. Today, we will find out how that influenced fashion.
When we think of knights, we immediately think of them as wearing armor, but, of course, armor is hot and heavy and uncomfortable, and unless you're fighting in a battle, it’s quite impractical. So, what did they wear when they weren't fighting?
In the medieval period, up until about 1400s, the type of clothes that anybody would wear, depending on his status, wasn't that different. The cloth might have been different but the things they wore were, broadly speaking, the same. You would have had woolen leggings or hose, you would have had the underpants on, which were made of linen, you would have had an undershirt, and you would have worn a wool coat or tunic over the top.
Broadly speaking, you were using as much of the cloth as you could to make the outfit. You weren't that worried about fashion because your status was actually illustrated by the accessories you had – the kind of gilding on your knife, and brooches, and jewelry, and also the cloth that you had your clothing made out of.
This is the outfit made of a sort of mid-status wool. It is very practical, it would really be something you would wear to your local tavern or work in the fields or do your writing if you're a merchant. It's long-lasting, fairly heavy-weight wool.
The type of wool varied, though. There was expensive wool and cheap wool, as you might have imagined, and the color of your clothes also sort of gave some indication of your status – the darker and richer colors were more expensive because they used up more dye, the lighter colors and the more easily available colors, which could be hand-dyed rather than specialist-dyed, were the cheaper colors.
So, you could tell instantly that somebody's status was high, medium, or low from the colors they were wearing and the type of cloth. But not necessarily from how they looked or the arrangement of their clothes.
This is a modern reproduction of something we see in illustrations from Hans Memling, which is about 1430s, 1440s, 1450s. And it has a very bold pomegranate pattern on it. This is not made with gold, but the original would have been made with gold thread. This is a modern material, but it shows you the luster and complexity of the type of fabrics that were available.
And fabrics were coming from far away. We know this because there is a lot of evidence of Vikings having Islamic writing on their silks or even, in some cases, what looks like Chinese silks. So there is a huge and significant trade in clothing material passing from the east to the west along what is known to this day as “The Silk Road”.
The other thing about clothing is that the more fabric you've got, the wealthier you are, because fabric costs and materials cost more proportionately than people's time in making the clothing. So if you have very full clothing, you're also very wealthy. Big sleeves were an important component. And for women's clothing, big voluminous dresses were the way to go, and having them very long so they actually rubbed on the ground.
But, of course, people wouldn't necessarily wear their best garments for ordinary everyday endeavors. The posh fabric might have just been brought out to meet the king or meet the local nobility or for special occasions, much like it is done today.
The Silk Road brought expensive cloth from east to west, but it also brought disaster in the shape of disease. The plague swept through Western Europe and decimated the population, and that brought with it changes. Rebuilding society was a big driver for changes in fashion. In fact, it's at this moment that we notice that cuts of cloth and fashions start to come in. People start to show off more. Shoes start to become incredibly pointy. And people start to have incredibly ornate platform heels when they can afford it.
And fashion starts to really get hold of things more than types of cloth. The cut of sleeves, the type of hat you were wearing – all these things were, in many ways, powered by changes in society. People wanted to move on from the past. Change brings with it innovation, and innovation is represented by different types of clothing, different types of fashion. In some ways, you could say that the fashion industry was born out of the disaster of the Great Plague.
Around this period in history, various Sumptuary laws were brought in. Sumptuary laws are simply things that say what you can wear because of who you are. And if you wear the wrong kind of material or the wrong kind of color, then you could be fined by the authorities and you have to pay money and you have to take those clothes off and get rid of them. What it, in fact, meant was that you could show off even more, because if you were of middle status and you wanted to wear really posh cloth, you knew you had to pay a fine, get away with it, and it just proved you were more wealthy. So, in many ways, the Sumptuary laws were an attempt to slow down change in society by reactionary forces, who didn't really like the speed of change. But, of course, like most laws trying to stop human nature, they didn't last very long and were widely ridiculed, even at the time.
The fashion in the medieval period was very serious. Humanity (like then, like now) likes to cover itself in cloth to keep warm, to show status, and, basically, to show off. Yes, the designs, cuts, and materials of clothing are different these days and in the Middle Ages, but the meaning behind clothes didn’t change much since then.