Fashion and Cultural Change

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Fashion and Cultural Change

Medieval Social Structure.

In order to understand the history of Western Europe's costume from 800 to 1450 c.e., it is important to recognize the basic social structures and the dynamic changes that took place during this era. In the years leading up to this period, the fall of the Roman Empire had left much of Europe populated by the Germanic tribal peoples who had invaded from the east, pushing the formerly Romanized Celtic tribes westward, so that the society itself might be characterized by its emphasis on warfare and geographic mobility. Under these conditions, costume tended to vary little between that of the local chiefs or kings and that of their subjects, except by its quality of materials and decoration. The most stable institution of society was the system of Roman Catholic monasteries where much of the wealth and learning that had arrived with the Romans was concentrated, but these were not yet organized into the numerous orders that would later lead to formalized distinctions in religious costume. It is only with the solidification of the power of the Frankish king Charlemagne and the establishment, in 800, of his empire over an area that includes what is now France, Germany, Italy, and the Low Countries, that medieval society began to stabilize, creating the conditions under which the aristocracy, now spending more time in the royal court than on the battlefield, would wish to distinguish itself by costume. By the eleventh century, a change in the economic and political system had created a hierarchy of lords, elite landholders, and land-working peasants, while in the centuries that followed, increased trade and economic development created a rising class of artisans, merchants, and financiers. At each stage, the impulse to distinguish one class of people from another through clothing became more intense, at the same time that the means of creating distinctive costume—through access to materials, craftsmanship, and wealth—were enhanced. Thus fashion in the Middle Ages reflects the complexity of a particular society in transition, as well as certain processes common to the development of fashion in general.

The Three Estates.

Although the period from the twelfth century forward saw a rise in what would now be recognized as a "middle class," the traditional way of describing medieval society was in terms of the "three estates": those who fight (the nobility or aristocracy), those who pray (monks, friars, secular clergy, and the ecclesiastical hierarchy), and those who labor (peasants and serfs). There was also an important division between laity and clergy. This sense of how society was organized is basic to any discussion of fashion, since it is to the interests and concerns of the aristocracy that one must always look for the origin of fashion trends. Because the nobility of Europe originated as a warrior class, the males in this society continued to prefer a style of clothing that was designed for vigorous movement both in walking and in riding until the eleventh century. They wore brief garments called tunics that were cut close to the flanks and hips. Belted at the waist, these tunics were made of wool or linen, and were worn over braies—a sort of loose bloomer or shapeless trouser-like undergarment for men that was knee-length or slightly longer. The bottoms of the braies were usually tucked into full-length hose or bound close to the leg, and the large cloak worn over top could double as a blanket. This very practical garment reflected the functional role of the aristocratic male, but at the same time it took on certain decorative elements more characteristic of a system of "style." During the Carolingian period, the hems of tunics were edged with woolen or silken braid, and the cloak, which was large and square, was fastened at the right shoulder in a style reminiscent of a Roman toga. Both of these touches suggest that costume was being used not only to provide an appropriate garment for work, but also to make a symbolic statement about the relationship between Charlemagne's new empire and the Roman empire that it replaced. The women in this empire wore longer versions of the male tunic. The clothing of the peasant, which often consisted of only a single smock or long shirt, worn over leggings and under a hooded cape in cold weather, would not be marked by decorative elements, nor, as long as a land-based economic system persisted, would it be subject to periodic change. Likewise, clerical garb for daily wear remained static because it was subject to ecclesiastical regulation and, in keeping with the imagined simplicity of Jesus and his disciples, consisted of the plainest of styles, while church vestments for the celebration of the Mass were determined not by fashion, but by their specific symbolic character.

The Historical Process.

Throughout the Middle Ages, aristocratic costume evolved in a manner characteristic of all fashion change, illustrating the basic principle of periodic shifts and reversals of extremes. The era from the ninth century to the fifteenth saw major changes in social roles, political leadership, economic well-being, foreign influence, and the visual arts, all of which had some direct or indirect influence on styles of clothing. Such influences, however, do not provide the complete explanation for all the shifts that occurred sporadically from the ninth century—when T-shaped styles (cut from a single piece of fabric with a hole for the head, seams down the sides, and sleeves draped over the arms and sewn underneath) and relatively simple fabrics and ornamentation were the norm—to the late fifteenth century when excesses in luxurious, closely fitted, and fanciful dress were commonplace in the upper and middle classes. In this complex historical process, there were periods during which one or more aspects of current dress were carried to such an extreme—for example, the practices of vastly lengthening gowns, widening shoulder proportions, using excessive amounts of fabric in a gown, or tightening a garment to fit the body that had formerly been hidden among folds of fabric—that excesses were followed by a swing or return to conservative, opposite styles in dress. Such reversals in fashion, then, resulted from a variety of factors and contributed to the development of a system of fashion as a powerful force in the

of Medieval Clothing

Bliaut: Either a costly fabric, a knight's court tunic, or a lady's court dress. When this term refers to the lady's garment, it signifies a gown of the richest fabrics, banded at neck and wrist edges with strips of embroidery; fur-lined; having a tightly-laced (at the sides) elongated bodice; a full, long skirt; and sleeves of various styles. The sleeves were often sewn on with each wearing, and one pair might be exchanged with another in the course of the day. As a fabric, bliaut meant silk, satin, or velvet imported from the Orient. This cloth was frequently woven with gold thread and embroidered with gems.

Braies: Loosely fitted linen thighor knee-length underpants worn by men of all classes.

Corse: The bodice of a bliaut, or a stiffened garment worn underneath a bodice made of lighter weight fabric. It could be laced tightly to shape the waist and torso.

Cotehardie: A short, tightly-fitting jacket-like garment for men popular from around 1333 through the mid-fifteenth century. In its earliest form, it was a tightly-fitting, low-necked garment reaching only to the knee, worn over a shirt, distinguished by a row of buttons that ran from the neckline to the low waistline. When worn by women, the cotehardie was somewhat less fancy. Buttons were optional, and no girdle was worn with it.

Courtepie: A short garment worn by men and women over other garments in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The courtepie resembled the surcoat, and in its fifteenth-century version may have been the short houppelande.

Doublet (pourpoint, gambeson): A short garment for men with a tight waist and a thickness of padding through the chest; also a garment worn by knights, both as an outer garment (coupled with hose) and as padding under armor.

Girdle: A kind of belt introduced into female costumes in the eleventh century to give the female figure a more distinctive outline, but later worn by both men and women. Girdles were usually constructed as twisted cords, sometimes knotted, made from gold or silver wire and dyed wool or silks, and bound with ornamental fasteners or finished off with tassels. Simpler girdles were also constructed from a length of fabric that was decorated with stitching of a contrasting color.

Gown: See Houppelande.

Houppelande: A fourteenth-century garment of variable length that was worn over the doublet and hose. The longest version of this garment was worn for formal occasions and was ground-length or somewhat longer. A short version reached halfway between ankle and knee, and one of an even shorter length hit some inches above the knee. Initial forms of the houppelande had high collars that fanned out, but later collar styles differed. Belts were sometimes worn with houppelandes. Sleeves were funnel shaped, increasingly wide at their ends, and often edged with fancy cut-work ("dagging") and slashed to show fur linings of complementary colors. The short version was named "haincelin" for the jester Haincelin Coq in the court of Charles VI of France. After 1450, the more usual term for this garment was "gown." The houppelande was replaced by the robe later in the fifteenth century.

Mantle: A garment worn to protect its wearer from bad weather while serving also to designate high social status and power. Throughout the Middle Ages, variations in style depended on intended usage. In the period from 1066 to 1154, two shapes of mantles had long been in use—the semi-circular and the rectangular. These outer garments were bordered with contrasting colored embroidery interspersed with gold or silver threads. A mantle was often received from an overlord as a valuable gift, then bequeathed from generation to generation; because of its history, this garment increased in social significance through time.

Paletot: A short-sleeved, short and loose gown for men, sometimes worn as an over-garment with the doublet.

Poulaines: Leather shoes with long pointed toes, sometimes called crakows. Both names were associated with Poland where such shoes supposedly originated.

Pourpoint: See Doublet.

Robe: A name applied to many different garments during the Middle Ages, ranging from the long tunic in England (late eleventh century) to a complete outfit of a varying number of layers intended to be worn together, some of them made of silk, some furred (fourteenth century). In the fifteenth century, "robe" indicated a particular kind of gown, worn long for important events and short for ordinary purposes.

Tunic: A loose wide-necked garment, usually extending to the hip or knee and gathered with a belt at the waist.

dress of Europe. Regardless of their causes, of course, once the swings had occurred, the movement toward excess in dress would inevitably begin again and build toward another peak. The end of the fifteenth century was one such excessive period in the dress of the nobility and the commercial class that, by this time, also had the money to dress lavishly.

Men and the Age of Fashion.

Although in recent centuries society has been accustomed to thinking of fashion as an area of greater interest to women than to men, during the Middle Ages it was the clothing of men that underwent the most radical transformations. Female aristocratic costume retained a uniform set of basic elements, including a minimum skirt length at the top of the shoes, throughout the entire period; changes in fashion mostly concerned the tightness of fit, exposure of neck, chest, and shoulders, amount of fabric utilized, decorative elements, and the addition of such accessories as sewn-in sleeves, girdles (belts), and headdress. The clothing of men, on the other hand, underwent more profound alterations in garment type and especially length. These alterations reflect the change from an almost exclusively warrior image to a developing role as both warrior and courtier, and, finally, around 1350–1400, to a status in which the former military role was mainly symbolic. This last shift in male fashion, characterized by a major transformation from long to short costume, took place during a period when other economic and social factors encouraged interest in clothing as a reflection of status, and, as a result, led to an accelerated pace of imitation and alteration. Thus, the period from 1350 onward can be identified as The Age of Fashion.


Georges Duby, The Three Orders: Feudal Society Imagined. Trans. A. Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

Joan Evans, Dress in Mediaeval France (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1952).

Gilles Lipovetsky, The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy. Trans. Catherine Porter (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Françoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages (New Haven, Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 1997).

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Fashion and Cultural Change

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