Intercultural Influences and Regional Distinctions

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Intercultural Influences and Regional Distinctions

The Islamic Influence.

The First Crusade (1095–1099), in which a mostly French Christian army traveled to the Holy Land to recover it from Islamic control, had markedly influenced noble dress by the mid-twelfth century, ushering in a new "Eastern" style. At this time there was already evidence of Byzantine influence in outer tunics. As returning crusaders also brought back ideas of Islamic dress cut and fabrics woven in the Mediterranean area and far East, Islamic influence may be found in European dress at least as early as the first part of the twelfth century. These included cloth specific to the East such as damask, brocade, and muslin—thin fabric of silk and gold from Mosul in what is now Iraq and other very fine and thin gauze-like materials; they tended to replace the heavier, stiffer fabrics and garments of Byzantine cut. Other fabrics of this type were those woven of cotton from Egypt and the cloth called in Old French "camlet," which was believed to be woven with part camel hair in Syria and Asia Minor, the predecessor of modern "camel hair" fabrics for top coats. Eastern silken fabrics, some of which were manufactured in Islamic workshops in Sicily, remained permanently in European costume throughout the Middle Ages. Other features adapted from Islamic dress and merged with customary European styles were the decorative bands on garment edges and top portions of the sleeves, known as tiraz. These bands frequently featured embroidered written characters, often in strange alphabets. Another major change from the old eleventh-century T-shaped garments was the adoption of the dropped shoulder seam in male tunics. In the northern portion of Europe, the long, fuller gown similar to Islamic cut—which had already been accepted in the south—was adopted at the close of the eleventh century by Normans imitating what was called "Saracen" or Islamic dress, understood as quite exotic.

England and Regional Distinction.

By 1204, the Crusaders had captured Constantinople, ending the cultural dominance of Byzantine and Islamic styles, and in time this Eastern city ceased to be a major influence on the clothing of the European nobility. Dress in Western Europe was then subject to tastes and trends developing within individual national borders; differences in styles now reflected geography. As an island nation, separated from the rest of Europe by the English Channel, England provides early examples of trends in dress that were unique to the local political and economic conditions. Male dress, for example, became more ornate during King John's reign (1199–1216), which was known for its extravagant spending on elaborate clothing, but the women of the court did not follow this trend. Instead their dress retained the styles previously instituted by the highly respected former Queen Eleanor (c. 1170), who preferred simplicity. Henry III's reign, beginning in 1216, ushered in a period of costume featuring unpretentious cut and fabric for both the nobility and moneyed commoners. Indeed, between 1220 and 1270 these plainer garments made it more difficult to distinguish between the nobility and merchants, or between shopkeepers and peasants. Of particular influence in this change from courtly ostentation to simplicity was King Louis IX of France, who reigned from 1226 to 1270. Much revered for his piety during his lifetime, he was canonized as Saint Louis in 1297. Through his marriage to the sister of the English queen Eleanor, his influence spread to both English and French courts, with nobles adopting Louis's preference for simple clothing. At the same time, the flourishing woolen industries in England and the Netherlands and various technological advances (in carding and spinning wool, and in looms) increased fabric production and availability. Woolens began to be dyed in yardage, and blue, green, and brunette (a dark brownish red color from woad and the ground-up shells of a small Eastern beetle) dyes were particularly popular. Twill weaves of an extreme fineness developed along with heavy felt-like wools used in the manufacture of hats. Thus court dress during this period, while simple in style, was renowned for the fine quality of the fabrics. Draped in various ways, long robes that fit easily upon the body without the use of excessive fabric were a distinguishing feature of this costume. They created an effect of sobriety and dignity while maintaining a quiet magnificence. Such a style also found favor with King Edward I of England (r. 1272–1307), whose personal humility inspired fashions exhibiting even greater simplicity.

Designs from Nature in France.

Styles in decoration evolved across the centuries as did fashion itself. In the thirteenth century, for example, Gothic art emphasized the beauty of the natural world in its details of flowers and animal life richly distributed throughout the decorative arts of Europe. Cathedrals both inside and out sported carved and sometimes painted friezes showing real and imagined animal and plant forms. And plant and animal life accurately drawn from nature began to appear in the margins and in the bows of letters like O, B, and D in the script of painted manuscripts across Western Europe. This appreciation of beauty found a parallel in the dress of the nobility, in the textures and patterns of fabrics utilized, the silhouettes developed, the patterns of embroidery, and the increasing amounts of additional metallic and jeweled decoration, often in designs representing the beauties of nature. One of the major literary works reflecting the incorporation of natural motifs into fashion is the Romance of the Rose, begun by Guillaume de Lorris and completed by Jean de Meun. Guillaume's portion of the poem describes a costume covered in every part with images of geometric shapes (lozenges, escutcheons or small shields), lions, birds, leopards, as well as broom and periwinkle flowers, violets, and other yellow, indigo, or white flowers and rose leaves (ll. 876–98, Robbins, 19). This trend toward naturalistic representation in weaving and embroidery patterns continued into the fourteenth century, by which time it had influenced English fashion as well. The silken band or banner that encircles the hero's helmet in the Middle English romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (written about 1370) is decorated in such a way that it resembles a border for an illuminated manuscript. It was "embroidered and bound with the finest gems/on the broad silk fabric/and over the seams were birds such as parrots painted with periwinkles and turtle doves and true love flowers thickly entwined."

The German Decorative Tradition.

German aristocratic fashion differed somewhat from that of other European courts because, owing to lengthy civil wars and a series of dukedoms rather than a more centralized governmental structure, Germany did not develop a single court style which could respond to trends elsewhere in Europe. Unlike the French and English decorative traditions, which tended to emphasize designs from nature, the German tradition leaned more heavily towards geometric shapes, a feature still seen in the so-called "hex" patterns of Pennsylvania "Dutch" (that is, German) barns and quilts. Throughout the history of German costume, the outermost garments are characterized by decorative patterns, either in the weave or pattern of the fabric used, or in decorative woven or embroidered bands. Such bands appear at the mid-calf or mid-thigh level on gowns of the Byzantine style or, later in the twelfth century, as a decorative placket extending downward from ornamental circular yokes or collars, usually ending at mid-chest. Customarily two tunics were worn, with the outermost being made of patterned fabric with a lower border and the one underneath being fuller and longer, made of plain linen; the wealthy sometimes wore a third and plainer tunic overall, with an undecorated lower edge. The preference for decorative patterns may be seen in early thirteenth-century German costumes in stained glass windows in Augsburg Cathedral, which feature patterns of diaper (repeated diamond shapes), foliates (leaf-shapes), and quatrefoils (flowers or leaves with four petals) linked by squares and stripes. Such ornamentation increases in flamboyance throughout the thirteenth century, as can be seen in the painted marble or alabaster effigy of Graf Wiprecht von Groitzsch (1230–1240) at the Klosterkirche of Pegau, near Leipzig. In the effigy he wears a red mantle and a blue tunic, both bejeweled, a fur tippet (a stole with hanging ends), and an elaborate girdle at his waist. By the late thirteenth century, some overcoats featured short sleeves with a slit for the arm that allowed the sleeve to hang empty and free of the body, thus showing the arm dressed only in the tunic's tight sleeve. In addition, buttons could be both ornamental and functional along the neck placket and side slits. The German preference for colorful, patterned fabrics continued into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The Italian Peninsula and the Manufacture of Silk.

As early as the time of the Carolingian Empire, Mediterranean styles and Islamic textiles were arriving in Europe, not only directly, by way of East-West trade routes and the return of Crusaders, but also by way of the Italian peninsula. Sicily, an island off the tip of what is now southern Italy, had been controlled by the Muslims until it was reconquered between 1060 and 1091 by the Norman French, and thus it continued to serve as one of the chief geographical areas of contact with the Islamic world. From an early period, many textiles traveled northward from the island to the Italian city-states and the rest of the continent. This region, moreover, early developed a silk manufacturing industry with imported mulberry worms from China. The development of silk manufacturing in Sicily and also in the city of Lucca—which became known especially for its fabrics made of silk blended with other fibers—combined with the activity of Venetian merchants, who were importing silks from China, to create a strong taste for silk in both men's and women's attire at least as early as the twelfth century. Evidence of Eastern influence from this early period of Sicilian fabric manufacture survives in a piece of silk fabric, now preserved in the Fabric Museum in Lyon, France, which shows what appear to

and Other Textiles

Sources of Raw Materials.

Medieval European costume employed three main materials—wool, linen, and silk—in varying qualities. Silks had been imported from the Near East since the time of imperial Rome, and sericulture—the growing of silk worms—had reached Sicily by the tenth century, though fine silks continued to come from Byzantium through the medieval period. Linen was grown within Europe, and cotton, coming from Egypt by way of Italy after the Crusades (later produced in Swabia in Germany), began to be mixed with linen to create a popular fabric called fustian by the thirteenth century. Like linen, wool was a native fiber, and wool constituted one of the most important commodities in European trade. England, particularly in the north and west of the country, exported raw wool to France for the actual production of cloth in the south around Toulouse, though France was also a large raw wool producer, especially in Flanders, Artois, and Picardy. The actual wool merchants, at least up to the thirteenth century, were the Flemings from Ypres, Ghent, and Bruges, in what would today be called Belgium. By the fifteenth century, Spain and Germany overtook England as raw wool suppliers, while England began to excel as an actual manufacturer of woolen cloth and soon outpaced all other nations in the production of fine woolen fabrics for luxury clothing.

Making Woolen Cloth.

The process by which wool moved from sheep to fine dress or robe was a complex and lengthy one. The English wool brokers sold bulk wool in sacks of 346 pounds to drapers, as they were called, who then subcontracted the wool to workers (usually women) who washed, beat, and sorted the wool fibers, often at home in cottage industries, a practice that continued in the northwest of England until the mid-nineteenth century. Sometimes these fibers were dyed blue with a plant called woad, imported from northern Italy, which allowed them better to retain other dye colors, such as reds of varying types (sometimes called "scarlet," though this term also denoted a type of material), a brownish tone (very common for the garments of agricultural laborers), and, by the late Middle Ages, rich blues and black for upper-class clothing. The next link in the chain was the weaver draper, who again subcontracted the fibers to combers and carders (who worked on the shorter fibered wools); these persons readied the material for the spinners. The wool then went back to the weaver drapers, who paid off the artisans at so much per pound, and on to wooden looms—often water powered—where clothing fabrics like worsteds and more expensive broad-cloths and serges were woven. Wool could also, in its finer grades, be ornamented with silk and even metallic threads and have shapes of other fabric sewn on. Yet another step for some grades of woolen cloth was fulling, which involved shrinking the cloth and the addition of a sort of chalk called fuller's earth to the fabric to compact and stiffen it. The cloth then went back to the weaver drapers who had the cloth dyed in a mix of pigments and alum from Asia Minor in bolts of a certain length and width (called ells in England and toises in France) and marketed it to merchant clothiers, where it eventually became clothing in the shops of tailors.

Competing Textiles.

Though woolen cloth was a staple for outer garments for all levels of society, it was expensive because of the many duties and taxes that were collected as it moved from its place of origin as a raw material (for example, England) to the cloth-making regions (usually France) to the actual merchants (in Flanders) and then to the consumer. For this reason, as well as for comfort, undergarments—the chemise or long smock worn by both men and women—were made of linen, a fiber derived from the flax plant, which grew well in France and Italy. It was very durable and less irritating next to the skin. Silk, on the other hand, was preferable to wool for luxury clothing because it was thin and supple, and it could be woven to create shimmering patterns and highlights. By the 1370s there was a taste for very ornate textiles and many new types of fabric became popular. Some of these had come from the East with the returning Crusaders, such as samite, a densely woven silk, and cendal, a thinner silk much like the silks used in women's clothing today. Others were damask, brocade, and velvet, a fabric soon reproduced in Florence. These Eastern fabrics were imitated in France in lower-cost examples by the 1460s. Still, though silks and silk blends offered greater versatility and visual splendor, many medieval wools were quite beautiful, and wool had the added advantage of being durable and having a high insulative factor. In an age when housing lacked central heating, especially in northern Europe, the use of wool and wool blends was important to help keep the wearer warm.

be peacocks and dragon-tailed animals surrounding a floral medallion of the sort found on oriental carpets. Though the technology had been acquired from the Far East, the designs were increasingly blended to include Mediterranean patterns of all kinds, especially combinations mixing European designs with Muslim motifs. Merchants distributed these fabrics widely throughout Europe, Britain, and Scandinavia.

The Italian Peninsula as an Exporter of Style.

Not only Eastern fabrics, but also fashion itself sometimes moved from south to north during this period. One method of distribution was through aristocratic marriages, as was the case with King Robert II the Pious (972–1031) and Constance of Arles, who were married in 1005; their union brought Mediterranean (in this case, southern French) styles worn by the bride's courtiers to northern France, and these were important enough to be commented on by writers describing the event. These styles involved fabrics with many pleats, a sort of waffle-like pattern called goffering crimped into robes more fitted than usual. Indeed, fashion from Italian city-states and the Mediterranean was distinctive from an early period and was exported to France, the Netherlands, England, and Germany. These exports include both actual garments and drawings brought back by courtiers and diplomats on their travels and also renditions of costume in illuminated manuscripts from Italian workshops. One of the distinctive features of fourteenth-century female costume in Italy was the headdress and hairstyle, which was arranged in a large ball or "balza" at the back of the head, covered with braided bands of fabric and light gauzes. Men in the late fourteenth century had a rather square profile with wide shoulders accentuated by padding in rolls over the shoulders, with a full-length or thigh-length tunic and most of the weight and value of the garment concentrated in the chest and shoulders through banding, piping, folds, and rolls. One of the most interesting examples of exported Italian fashion was a trend towards black silks, which was developed in Italy to distinguish members of the upper middle classes from true aristocrats, who alone could wear bright colors such as scarlet and blue. Before long, black did not have good social connotations, and the Italians exported their black silk garments and dark furs to go with them to European courts, who found them to be very original and were not attuned to the negative social implications of the color black in Italy. Though black silks were primarily used for male doublets and gowns, women also wore them, and the fashion for damasks, velvets, and brocades of black silk with a mantle or trimming of sable (a very dark fur from the area of what is now Russia) was popular among aristocrats in the fifteenth century. Thus, in the fourteenth century a strong taste for black developed throughout Europe among the aristocracy in marked opposition to the taste for bright colors that had prevailed from about 1330 onward. In this, as in other fashions, Italy seems to have been the source of a major trend.

Battle Between Blue, Red,
and Black

The Rise of Black

Clothing colors have long indicated social class, and in the late Middle Ages this was particularly true of the colors blue, red, and black, though it was only during the fifteenth century that black became a competing force against red and blue in bourgeois and aristocratic fashion. Among the most prominent medieval wearers of black were King Charles VI of France (1368–1422), Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy (1396–1467), and King René of Anjou (1409–1480), all of whom dressed in black throughout their adult lives and helped to give the fashion social preeminence. Yet, by an irony of history, their taste for black did not originate with the aristocracy but rather with the upper bourgeoisie in Italy, who in the fourteenth century were forbidden by law to wear garments of "scarlet" or luxurious blues. Although the dull blacks of earlier years had never been an appealing alternative, the medieval dyeing trade was becoming more "industrialized," allowing artisans to create richer and more luminous hues, including wools of a deeper and more striking black. As parallel technological advances among weavers increased the availability of rich black serges and gabardines, a vigorous trade in black cloth developed to meet the demand. Soon the fashion for black moved from Italy to France, England, Germany, and Spain, and the color became a court fashion, appearing in linens, silks, and woolens as well as in black or very dark furs called sable.

Luxurious Scarlet

By the mid-fourteenth century, then, black was a competing color with "scarlet," a term which could refer to several different hues of red as well as to fabrics of various colors but of a generally luxurious appearance, and the dyes used to create them. Authentic scarlet fabric was very expensive to own, as it was created by a special dye called kermes that was laboriously made from the dried shells of a small beetle. Other dyes to make less fancy forms of red involved the use of madder, a plant material common in Western Europe. In either case, however, dyeing fabric red required an additional process with a chemical called a mordant, literally something "biting" (typically urine, lime, or vinegar) which allowed the red pigment to enter the fibers of the fabric and bond with them. Accordingly, scarlet was a color reserved for royalty and persons of high rank. In Portugal, for example, only members of the royal family were allowed to wear it. Red was also the preferred color of royalty in Italy and Germany.

Royal Blue

Early blue fabric was first used in the costume of servants and workmen (a use which it still has in France today and which lingers in the American phrase "blue collar"), and it typically denoted low social status. But again technology played a role in changing aristocratic perceptions of the color's symbolic value. The first blue fabrics were rather pale and lusterless, but as techniques developed for producing blue in more vivid shades (using indigo from India), the color (eventually known as "royal blue") competed with red, and later black, in status. Blue was associated with the Virgin Mary, considered the religious patron of France, and pictures of her in manuscript painting showing her in blue robes helped to make the color fashionable. Perhaps even more important was the appearance of blue as part of the French royal family's coat of arms, where a blue ground with gold lilies (fleursde-lis) became standard from the end of the twelfth century. In scenes from the magnificent manuscript called the Très Riches Heures (1416), not only Jean, duke of Berry, but even his horses are draped in blue fabrics with gold fleurs-de-lis as the duke and his entourage go out riding. Well before this time, blue had become a color for others to imitate. As the dyers who made red fabric saw their livelihood threatened (for dyers were forbidden by guild regulations to make several colors in one workshop), they responded with propaganda campaigns against the dyers who worked in blue, and actual violence between these "colors" often occurred. Hence, by the mid-fourteenth century—the period when we begin to find the great interest in colors and extravagance of costume developing—there was a true combat between red, black, and blue which was to have important ramifications for the next two centuries of fashion. Of the three colors, only black retains today some elements of its medieval significance, indicating, for example, not only somberness in mourning, but also social respectability and high status as it is worn for formal occasions in tuxedos and formal dresses.

Spanish Costume.

The area now known as Spain is a particularly interesting case for the development of fashion because of its relative geographic isolation. As a peninsula separated from the rest of Europe by the Pyrenees mountains, with a culture that had long been under Islamic influence, Spain developed some fashion trends peculiar to the region, though they could be exported. In the early Middle Ages, dress for the Spanish noble class was modeled on that of ancient Rome, but constructed with exotic fabrics derived from the Islamic presence there. Both male and female Spanish costume resembled that of other Europeans in having as its basic combination a long tunic with tight sleeves worn under a second long tunic with wide sleeves. During the tenth century, however, men wore a mantle with a slit for the left arm, and for their military dress, tunics with striped fabrics. The outer tunic was sometimes sleeveless, and both "keyhole"-shaped neck openings and armholes were decorated with braid. A distinctive cape or mantle, like the surplice a modern Catholic priest would put on to say Mass, was worn over the back and chest, a style adopted by women as well. In the thirteenth century, ladies' tunics covered their feet, while those for noblemen ended at mid-calf, allowing full visibility of their pointed-toe leather shoes, which were often decorated with gold braid. At this time, noticeable ball-shaped buttons or rosettes ornamented the neck and wrists of the tunics. A distinctively Spanish thirteenth-century fashion trend was the custom of slashing or opening the over-garment under the arms to show the layer below in a contrasting color; lined mantles completed the costume. By the mid-fourteenth century, Spanish nobles had adopted the so-called "short costume" of doublet and hose, worn with long pointed toe shoes, which dominated medieval Europe and Britain from about 1330 onward; it appears that this combination had actually originated in Spain much earlier as a military fashion worn by soldiers in Aragon, after which the concept had taken hold in Naples in Italy, and was later exported from there to France and beyond. The elite retained their semicircular cloak at hip length, decorated with large buttons from neck to breast. In addition to the tighter, shorter fashions, nobles in Spain also continued to wear the two tunics of the older style, but with narrower shoulders, topped with a semicircular flap of fabric reaching to the elbow as a sleeve, and a skirt that gradually flared to the hemline. Though Spanish female costume remained much the same from the early to the late Middle Ages, by the late fifteenth century women did wear a hoop skirt which belled out below the waist through the use of stiffeners, a fashion not yet seen elsewhere. And by the end of the period covered in this chapter, all Spanish garment styles underwent the variety of constant changes in tightness and looseness, and (for men) in lengths of garments and in amount of decoration common in all European courts. Throughout the entire era, cities and regions such as Valencia, Catalonia, Castile, Barcelona, Andalusia, and other places produced fabrics that blended Christian European motifs with Islamic and Far Eastern designs, and Spain retained these patterns long after Moorish control of the country ended in 1492. Catalonian woolens were of the finest quality in the late 1400s and throughout the 1500s, and a thriving silk industry evolved by the late fifteenth century. The peak of such luxury weaving was reached in the production of silk "cloths of gold." Hence, Spanish costume was marked by a fondness for richly patterned fabrics and bright colors, such as white, red, pale blue, pink, light violet, and sea green. These were deviations from the older primary colors in use in the rest of Europe (red, yellow, and blue), and even from the secondary colors (orange, green, and violet), and suggested a subtle refinement of taste. A favored fabric design was that of a large pomegranate, woven in both damask and velvet, one example having a background highlighted with metallic thread on which the image appears in cut velvet. Many of these Spanish fabrics reached Europe and the British Isles through merchants, and London livery companies—trade and religious fraternal groups wearing the same costume or "livery" as a sort of insignia—used some of them for palls or coverings for the casket during processions at the funerals of their members.


N. B. Harte and K. G. Ponting, eds., Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe: Essays in Memory of Professor E. M. Carus-Wilson. Pasold Studies in Textile History 2 (London: Heinemann Educational, 1983).

David Jenkins, ed., The Cambridge History of Western Textiles.

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Maurice Lombard, Etudes d'Economie médiévale: Les textiles dans le monde musulman du VIIe au XIIe siècle (The Hague: Mouton, 1978).

Agnès Page, Vêtir un prince: Tissus et couleurs à la cour de Savoie 1427–1447 (Lausanne, Switzerland: Cahiers Lausannois d'histoire médiévale, 1993).

Jean Richard, Louis IX; Crusader King of France. Trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Jonathan Riley-Smith, The Crusades: A Short History (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987).

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Intercultural Influences and Regional Distinctions

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