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Fashion History: Early Middle Ages or Dark Ages (400–900 CE)

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

A painting showing some Early Middle Ages clothing styles.

A painting showing some Early Middle Ages clothing styles.

Clothing of Early Medieval Europe: Historical Context

The Early Middle Ages, once 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.

Information on the garments of the period can be found in paintings and illustrated manuscripts. Written information includes wills which documented assets. Clothing was considered an asset and wills listed the types of garments owned by wealthy people. Wardrobe inventories of the elite listed textiles and types of garments, footwear, and jewelry. Books, sermons, articles, contracts, and documents pertaining to the textile trade mention types of clothing as well. Though few actual garments of the period have endured, jewelry can last for many years.

Medieval clothing styles did not change as quickly then as they did in the Late Middle Ages. What we think of as fashion, a quickly changeable style based on novelty, did not exist. 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.

Woman With Spindle and Distaff

Woman With Spindle and Distaff

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.

A serf from the Early Middle Ages (Dark Ages)—note his short tunic.

A serf from the Early Middle Ages (Dark Ages)—note his short tunic.

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.

Wool

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.

Early Middle Ages/Dark Ages garment brooch from between 400–700 CE.

Early Middle Ages/Dark Ages garment brooch from between 400–700 CE.

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

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.

Woman wore veils in the Early Middle Ages

Woman wore veils in the Early Middle Ages

 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.

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. Later tunics were made using two 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 above).

Women's Clothing

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

Sources

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.

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

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Comments

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on July 20, 2020:

Viking Age Irish people wore tunics (linen or wool) and cloaks (in leather or wool) as well as beautiful jewelry including circle brooches and bracelets made of copper alloy, silver, or gold. Women wore caps, scarves, and kerchiefs.

The garments of the elite were in brighter colors than the clothing of peasants. Upscale garments would feature decorative trim.

Leather moccasin shoes were worn.

Check out these sites for more information:

"Dress and Costume in Ancient Ireland" by Library Ireland as well as" Early Gaelic Dress by Scott Barrett."

You can also use books about the Viking Age, many which feature information on Irish culture at the time.

Kathy Crouch on July 18, 2020:

I'm researching 800-900 era clothing for a novel set in Ireland during that time period

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on January 26, 2011:

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!

Tony Mead from Yorkshire on January 25, 2011:

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.

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