Fashion History - Clothing of the Early Middle Ages - Dark Ages 400 - 900 CE

Updated on July 31, 2017
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Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.


Clothing of Early Medieval Europe - Historical Context

The Early Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages, or medieval times, refers to that period in European history after the fall of the Roman Empire.

When the Roman Empire fell in 400 CE (or AD) , the once unified continent fell into disarray. Few images of clothing are left to us of that period and real information is scanty at best.

Medieval clothing styles did not change as quickly then as they did in the Late Middle Ages. Garments made of tough, durable materials could last a lifetime.

But wealthy people and the aristocracy took pride in their appearance by wearing attractive clothing. Just like today, the elite wore fine fabrics and ornamentation as status symbols.

What we call fashion did not exist during the Early Middle Ages, as clothing styles did not change quickly and people of a lower economic strata did not attempt to emulate the elite.

Woman With Spindle and Distaff
Woman With Spindle and Distaff | Source

Life in the Early Middle Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the roads built by the Romans fell into ruin and were plagued by highwaymen. As commerce and industry declined, governments lost revenue and were unable to maintain order or protect people, property and the trades.

Cities became dangerous places and the wealthy moved out to isolated rural villas surrounding themselves with military aides, client families, and peasant farmers.

The Plague of Justinian in 541 and the many wars and invasions greatly reduced the population of Northern Europe.

So, the feudal system was born. Small, local holdings, established around a central hub were dominated by lords. Slavery diminished as the purchase and maintenance of a slave was no longer economical.

Society divided into Freemen - nobles, clerics, military professionals, merchants, and artisans and serfs or peasants who performed agricultural work or assisted Freemen. Serfs worked the farmland owned by lords and paid the lord in produce, livestock, labor, or served in armed conflicts.

Middle ages or Dark ages serf -note short tunic
Middle ages or Dark ages serf -note short tunic | Source

Clothing of Medieval Common People

Serfs, peasants, and low skilled workers wore a tunic made of cloth or leather and an over tunic in colder weather. Serfs went barefoot or wore sandals.

Sumptuary laws restricted the types of clothing worn by the lower classes. But Sumptuary laws were rarely enforced. The poverty endured by the lower classes was enough to prevent them from attempting to imitate their betters. Finer fabrics and embellishments increased with the wealth of the wearer.

The clothing of the lower classes was usually made of woven wool . Garments were made at home from fabrics woven at home. Before the invention of the horizontal loom and spinning wheel, the manufacturer of fabric was a long, arduous task.

Wool had to be sheared, cleaned, and knots removed. The wool was then spun by using a spindle and a distaff ( a forked stick). A mass of wool impaled on the distaff enabled a woman to draw off threads which were pulled and twisted into yarn and wound on the spindle.

Threads would then be woven into fabric, often by men.

There was little difference between garments worn by men and women, though a woman's tunic would be longer and more like a gown.

Men wore trousers under their tunics, a style that had differentiated Northern European dress from Rome and Byzantium for some time. Straps made of leather or straw and wrapped around the lower leg protected both leg and trouser from damage.

Men's tunic lengths depended on their occupation. Laborers wore shorter tunics than those who performed more refined tasks. Poor people wore clothing made of coarse materials and weave.

Early Middle Ages/Dark Ages garment brooch from between 400 - 700 CE
Early Middle Ages/Dark Ages garment brooch from between 400 - 700 CE | Source

Clothing of the Wealthy in the Early Middle Ages

The garments of the wealthy in the Dark Ages were made of finer fabrics. Under tunics made of linen were lighter weight than wool, and were durable, comfortable and easy to launder.

Linen was made from fibers of the flax plant. The difficulty in the production of linen meant that the material was more expensive to purchase and more time consuming to make than the wool worn by common serfs. Nobles and the aristocracy did not make their own clothes but by professional weavers and tailors. Wealthy women sewed shirts and gowns and added embellishments.

The flax plant would have to be uprooted, dried, then retted (or re-moistened). Flax would next be stripped and combed - the plant fibers separated from the course outer layer. Next, the fibers would be spun and woven into a crisp material that became softer with use.

Merchants, artisans, and other freemen wore higher quality garments than serfs, but not so fine as nobles.

Silk was available, imported from Byzantium but was scarce and costly.

Under and over tunics made of different colors created a stylish appearance. Hems, necklines, and sleeve edges decorated with borders added interest. And a beautiful clasp added panache to a plain cloak. Cloaks could be lined or edged in fur for warmth and status.

Early Middle Ages beads circa 700 - German
Early Middle Ages beads circa 700 - German | Source

Thorsbjerg Tunic

 Found in a bog in Schleswig - Holstein, Germany an area that was part of Denmark in the Late Roman Iron Age, 4th Century AD.
Found in a bog in Schleswig - Holstein, Germany an area that was part of Denmark in the Late Roman Iron Age, 4th Century AD. | Source
Woman in costume of the Early Middle Ages - simple yet elegant head covering
Woman in costume of the Early Middle Ages - simple yet elegant head covering | Source
Simple garments of the early middle ages
Simple garments of the early middle ages | Source

Basic Clothing of the Early Middle Ages

In the earliest part of the Middle Ages, a garment was made out of a single piece of fabric. Cut in a cross shape with a hole in the center for the head, the fabric was folded in half, then stitched, creating a boat neck.

Variations were created by altering sleeve length (See illustration on the right). Later tunics were made using 2 pieces of fabric for front and back. Tucks, pleats, and gores added variation.For a better, closer fit, fabric was pieced in 4 cuts (front, back, and two sleeves as is the Thorsbjerg Tunic which slightly predates the Dark Ages; pictured below right).

The Church mandated simplicity in women's clothing, hairstyles, and accessories. Women's gowns took on an elegant look with the slight changes described above.

Women wore veils or head coverings for modesty as dictated by the Church. Veils became, over the years, more complicated and evolved into elaborate headdresses in the later Middle Ages.

Shoes were simply made of one or two pieces of stout cloth or leather, folded, then stitched.

Outer wear for colder weather included capes and shawls, simple garments made of wool or leather. One of the features of wool is that keeps the body warm even when wet.

A cape could be tossed over the shoulder and held closed near the neckline with a brooch.

Franks circa 400 - 600 AD

From the 1882 book "Costumes of All Nations"
From the 1882 book "Costumes of All Nations" | Source

Anglo Saxons circa 500 - 1000 AD

From the 1882 book "Costumes of All Nations"
From the 1882 book "Costumes of All Nations" | Source

The Dawn of Fashion in Europe

Clothing began to change as Europe moved toward the millennium. The Crusades brought silks and cultural influences from the Mid East. Marco Polo's trip to the Far East and trade with China introduced new ideas and technological advances that impacted textiles, garments, and clothing styles that created the beautiful and changing fashions of the later Middle Ages.

Books consulted:

Daily Life in Medieval Times, by Gies and Gies

Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion; edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library

Costume & Styles - the Evolution of Fashion from Early Egypt to the Present by Henny Harald Hansen; E. P. Dutton & Co.

Questions & Answers


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      • Dolores Monet profile image

        Dolores Monet 9 months ago from East Coast, United States

        Hi Anonymous - if you are working on a paper for college you need to delve more deeply into the topic. A general page like this will probably be unacceptable. You need to locate books on the topic, or information from museums, or in scholarly journals. Thank you for your interest! Good luck on the paper.

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        Anonymous 9 months ago

        I would like to use some of your knowledge of fashion history if I may. Its for a research paper for my college class. There is so many interesting facts in your hub and I wouldn't plagiarize at all. Thank you for your time.

      • Dolores Monet profile image

        Dolores Monet 15 months ago from East Coast, United States

        skyler - being a knight meant that you had to have a lot of equipment as well as a horse, all which would be quite expensive! Sons of nobles spent a lot of time in training, starting as a page, then working their way up. People who had to work for a living did not have the time, connections, or birthright to become a knight.

      • Dolores Monet profile image

        Dolores Monet 7 years ago from East Coast, United States

        tony - yes. The scientific advances in the Muslim world were incredible during that time. And scholars don't use the term 'Dark Ages' anymore, but Early Middle Ages. I used the term because many of us geezers are familiar with it. Of course this is a Eurocentric article on fashion. I could not write about the fashions all over the world as it would be way too long with way too much information. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      • tonymead60 profile image

        Tony Mead 7 years ago from Yorkshire

        HI there I certainly enjoyed your hub. The term 'the dark ages' is a bit misleading, because outside Europe they were making some incredible advances in science, art and medicine. The mystery of how blood circulates the body was discovered which was just one of many discoveries.