Fashion History: Early Middle Ages or Dark Ages (400–900 CE)
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.
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.
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. The lower classes went barefoot or wore simple leather shoes or boots.
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.
Hemp is easy to grow in many climates. It is easier to produce fabric from hemp than from linen. Lower class people often wore hemp garments which were tough and long lasting.
Men's and Women's Clothes
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.
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.
Other Notes on Clothing Quality
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.
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.
Various Clothing Items
- 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.
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.
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.
Fashion the Mirror of History by Ariane and Michael Batterberry
Dress in Anglo-Saxon England by Gale R. Owen-Crocker
Viking Clothing by Thor Ewing
Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England AD 450 - 700 by Penelope Walton Rogers
Old Irish and Highland Dress and That of the Isle of Mann by J. Telfer Dunbar
Clothing the Clergy, Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe by Maureen C. Miller
Questions & Answers
Do they describe a specific use for the offcuts of fabric from the 'cross pattern tunic? What book was this article on the clothes of the Early Middle Ages referenced from?
Any fabric scrap of the past would have been put to good use. Fabric was hard to come by and expensive. A piece of material cut out from a garment, say for the neck hole could be used as a pouch or for a decorative element. Pieces of scrap fabric could be used as decorative trim or edging for sleeves or hems.
A list of helpful books is provided at the end of the article. However, I can't recall which book this information is from but there are many sources in books and online if you wish to read more.Helpful 11