Lords and Ladies: Court Culture and Fashion

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Lords and Ladies: Court Culture and Fashion


Castles Are Transformed. The castles of the highest nobility during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries became increasingly luxurious, and, by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, noble culture was becoming increasingly formal and complex. As the seats of noble courts, the largest castles were becoming more elaborate as well. More outbuildings were constructed in castle yards to supply more goods and services, and the number of castle servants was increasing. At the same time nobles became less itinerant, and powerful lords increasingly divided their time among only a few residences, except when they were needed elsewhere for political considerations. These changes affected only the greatest castles and their lords; yet, the development of this noble, court culture was a distinctive feature of the later Middle Ages.

Clothing the Lord and Lady. Basic clothing for aristocrats was based on the same patterns as that of villagers and craftsmen, but it was made of more valuable materials and had more intricate detailing and decoration. Silks, velvets, and other luxury fabrics were staples of nobles’ wardrobes, although nobles might have their everyday clothes made from wool or linen. Even when they were woolen, however, cloaks and other clothes were lined with luxurious furs for warmth; ermine and sable were two of the most prestigious furs. Nobles were able to afford more elaborate dyes, and there is some evidence that their clothing was more colorful and that the colors lasted longer than those in peasants’ clothes. When a piece of clothing faded, nobles had it re-dyed or gave it to an underling and commissioned a new garment. At the beginning of the Middle Ages, even court clothing followed patterns similar to peasant clothes; yet, by the twelfth century fitted clothing had come into style

for the aristocracy. Some nobles, men and women, went so far as to have themselves pinned into pieces of their garments to make them as close-fitting as possible. Lacings were also used to make clothing fit more closely to the body. In the early fourteenth century buttons were employed as both decoration and fasteners, which allowed for a tailored fit. At the highest levels of society and during royal or ecclesiastical ceremonies, clothing might even be encrusted with jewels or embroidered with precious metals. Clothing was particularly important to a noble because of the value placed on display. Tailored clothes of the finest material and with the most costly decorations shouted a noble’s status and aspirations, and men and women alike had an extensive knowledge of the quality and cost of various kinds of cloth.

Embroidery. One way of decorating clothing in the Middle Ages was to embroider it. Embroidery was considered an appropriate occupation for noblewomen throughout the era, and embroideries produced by the wives and daughters of high-ranking men could have powerful symbolic value when presented as gifts. For example, in the eleventh century when King Canute of England presented altar cloths embroidered by his wife to the abbeys of Croy-land and Romsey, clergymen and nobles throughout his kingdom saw it as a sign of royal favor for those abbeys. To supply the demand for ornate clothes and linens professional embroiderers increased in number during the course of the Middle Ages. By the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries embroidered wall hangings and bedclothes were important marks of noble status. This idea carried over into noble clothing. Embroidery decorated capes, hats, money pouches, and even shoes. The designs could be quite elaborate and specific to a profession as well; while robes for a clergyman might have the story of Christ’s life embroidered on them, court robes for nobles could be decorated with hunting scenes or heraldic devices. The threads and materials used varied greatly. In the earlier Middle Ages much embroidery thread was made and dyed with local materials; by the eleventh century embroiderers used costly imported materials. Silk, silver, and gold threads were regularly used, and jewels were sometimes sewn into the patterns. Quilting and fringes could also be worked into the cloth to provide added decoration. Because of the time and craft needed to produce it embroidered clothing was usually worn by only nobles and the clergy, and the materials and techniques used in embroidered goods reflected the wealth and status of the wearer.

Fashion. Although fashions changed much more slowly in the Middle Ages than in modern times, nobles were concerned with being fashionable. Fashion in medieval Europe was reflected in the tailoring of a gown or mantle, the decoration of a hat, or the length of toes on shoes. Men as well as women were condemned for fashion excesses. In southern Europe during the twelfth century a new fashion developed that remained part of a stylish man’s wardrobe for centuries: colored and patterned woolen hose. Like peasants’ hose, they were generally woven of wool—though hose made for festivals might be of heavy silk or some other luxurious fabric—and were designed to fit much like stirrup pants. A stylish young man had his hose sewn close to his body and tightened it even further by lacings at the hips, a style that some clerics condemned as obscene. A noble might also have one side of his hose woven one color and another side a different one; for example, red on one side and yellow on the other. Tunics could be dyed the same way. These two styles continued throughout the rest of medieval Europe and well into the Renaissance; only the preferred colors and patterns changed as time went on. Eventually stripes and checks of varied colors were mixed in vibrant patterns that commentators condemned for their vanity. Nor were hose the only medieval fashion statement that made clerics or more-conservative laymen cringe. In late-twelfth-century Germany another aristocratic style was to cut the bottom of a tunic into strips that resembled fringe, and these strips could be decorated with embroidery or other material. Some hairstyles called for a woman’s hair to hang “wantonly” down, while the points of shoes at times were made so long that the wearer had to tie them to his waist or thighs in order to walk. When it came to clothing, noblemen were just as, if not more, likely to follow the whims and extremes of fashion as noblewomen.

Jewelry. Noblemen and women both wore jewelry of many kinds, and it had practical uses. Cloaks and mantles needed clasps; swords needed scabbards; and belts needed fasteners. A medieval lord wore a signet ring, generally made of gold and engraved with his coat of arms or some other identifying mark or saying. These rings could be used as seals or for stamping documents to authenticate them. They could also be sent with a courier to testify to his legitimacy. Jewelry was often made of precious metals and gemstones. The jewels came from Europe, Africa, and Asia, testimony to the extent of medieval trade. Goldsmiths also used Roman cameos and classical coins in medieval jewelry. The technique of faceting jewels was not known in the Middle Ages. Instead, jewels were rubbed and shaped to enhance their luster. Gold and silver were often enhanced with elaborate engraving or formed into unusual shapes; pendants and pins were frequently larger than most of their modern counterparts. Large pieces became family heirlooms, and because medieval money was based on gold and silver, having jewelry made from these metals was like having cash in hand. It also represented a substantial investment, and, if necessary, it could be melted down to supply cash.

Other Clothes. Gloves, shoes, and hats were other basic parts of a noble’s wardrobe. Gloves were made of thick leather to protect a knight’s hands while riding or fighting, or of thinner and more-delicate materials, such as doeskin, linen, or silk when worn as a fashion accessory. They could be dyed or embroidered and might be held tightly around the wrist with delicate lacings or, in the fourteenth century, with buttons. Like those of the peasant, nobles’ shoes were leather and generally flat bottomed. Men’s clothing styles left shoes exposed, so they became fashion statements. Jeweled, beribboned, and dyed, the shoes of a court dandy could be almost useless for walking. Much more practical and widely used were heavy leather riding boots with wooden heels. There were both practical and fashionable hats as well. Although linen caps might suit men or women of the minor nobility while they were outdoors supervising their manors, the upper nobility wore hats made of the same expensive materials as their other clothing, and they could be quite ungainly. An aristocratic woman generally wore a veil on top of her hair that draped down the back of her head. In the twelfth century various stylish ways of securing the veil were developed. One, called a barbette, was a strap attached to the veil that went under the chin and back around to tie at the top of the head. A second, the wimple, was another piece of fabric attached to the veil; it wrapped under the chin and covered the entire front of the neck. The elaborate pointed hats and veils in many modern depictions of medieval life were later medieval developments.

Hair and Cosmetics. Aristocratic women and, infrequently, men used cosmetics. Some of them, such as creams and balms, had medicinal value. During cold European winters they prevented the skin from chapping and cracking, which could lead to infections. Other forms of cosmetics were just for aesthetic purposes. White powders made the skin appear fairer; charcoal enhanced eyes; and plant dyes hid gray hair. Although aristocratic women also frequently wore hats, certain styles demanded that their hair be visible. For example, in twelfth-century France and England one style for women was to wear the hair in two braids going down the back or wrapped in ribbons or fabric. As the Middle Ages went on, however, it was increasingly regarded as immodest for an adult woman to wear her hair unbound and her head uncovered; in fact, wrapping hair and covering it with some form of veil or hat was one ritual in a girl’s coming of age.


Q. W. Cunnington and P. Cunnington, Handbook of English Medieval Costume (London: Faber & Faber, 1952).

Fran*****oise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages, translated by Caroline Beamish (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

Kay Staniland, Medieval Craftsmen: Embroiderers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991).

Naomi Tarrant, The Development of Costume (New York: Routledge, 1994).

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