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Medieval and Renaissance dress is... over the top, shall we say? Among those of the upper echelons of society, fashion was used as another tangible form of their wealth, among other forms such as the collecting of books, art, and gems, as in the case of the 15th century icon, Lorenzo de'Medici(1449-1492).* (1) While the church condemned high fashion as a sin (2), the nobility (as was the case with their palaces and their art collections) tended toward clothing that was sumptuous and fine, replete with a plethora of gold, jewels, and furs. Gotta wonder what it was like to wear such fine, heavy garments, day in, day out, don't you? This wasn't, after all, the American south--with 98 degree summers and 80% humidity. But as we understand it, southern Italy could get very warm; on the other hand, northern areas were rather chilly and the castles often drafty, (3) so maybe there was something to be said for the nobility's love of layers and layers of heavy fabric. And yet, even the lower classes had their fashion trends: The lower classes were forced by law to wear only drab, low quality wool clothing, so--as you've no doubt seen in many a Shakespeare play--some took to adding colorful pieces underneath, and slashing their clothing to let the color show through!(4)

Surcoats were a must, for most fashion mongers of the 10-12th centuries; a surcoat was an outer garment, usually worn as a sort of full-bodied apron; most especially one could see it on knights, and warriors on their way to some battle or other, and usually it carried whatever coat of arms they marched under. Women also wore them over their modest, yet widely differing style dresses**. (5) Cloaks, vests, coats, all were important, and usually lavishly decorated with jewels, thick gold embroidery and furs; just one example, of King Edward IV (1442-1483), attests to this truth: "The said master and twenty-four bargemen received sixteen yards of blue and murrey cloth, being the colours of the livery of the house of York, and forty-eight small roses embroidered, to make jackets, which were to be garnished with small roses; four other persons receiving on the same occasion eight large embroidered roses."(6)

Color seemed to be more than a mere preference of the wearer; we know of purple for royalty, and various earthy tones for the clergy; other people had no choice in the color of their clothing: along with the drab colored wool of the poor, women of ill-repute were required by law to wear red. There were other laws stating what a heretic must wear, and those of the Jewish faith, and for Lepers.(7)

Undergarments aren't usually openly discussed in period documents, but we know from art history that women probably wore petticoats and corsets as far back as the 12th century (8); and a well-preserved corset, owned by Elizabeth I, (circa probably 1604), is still in existence to show us surely what a fashionable then-modern corset looked like.(9)

Head coverings and shoes too were important fashion accessories. While men tended to keep their heads covered in church, women had to do so, all the time, unless unmarried, or a prostitute. So head coverings shifted with the times and wealth of the buyer, from simple veils and snug-fitting coifs, to the outrageously-shaped and decorated hats that wealthy women were often seen in, to the "flat caps" so popular in the court of Henry VIII. (10) Footwear, meanwhile, was often possibly no more than woolen stockings, and a soft leather low-heeled slipper, to what we would recognize as a pair of boots,(11) or--if one had the wealth to afford it, elaborate, high-heeled constructions that, to tell by the extant pictures, must have been rather dangerous to the wearer!(12). And of course, the jewelry obsessions of the wealthy, for such things as the cameos and gems mentioned above, to the varying styles--simple to elaborate--of crosses, broaches and cloak pins, cannot be overlooked.(13)

So the subject of clothing and fashion was just as important in the Middle Ages and Renaissance as it is today. Other trends came and went, too many to list here. Below you'll find a list of books, and articles--and links (and on the next page, even more links), that influenced this article,


*who, as well as funding the education of many young artists, had a passion for fine cameos.

**Bliaut(12th century) (scroll to the fresco of a group of women), or Moy Gowns (early 14th century? Ireland), kirtles(1)(and a second look at one or their peasant dresses or what-have-you

1. Jardine, Lisa; Worldly Goods, 1996,1998
1a. See also Cameos through Time

2. Renaissance Life

3.Historical Costumes and Clothing of Renaissance Women by Lorri Mealey

4. Renaissance fashion: 1400-1600; see also: Fashion in the European Renaissance

5. Period clothing see also: Glossary of Medieval Fashion

6. quoted from: Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York: Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV

7. Popular Culture in Renaissance Fashion

8. Glossary of Medieval Fashion

9. Elizabethan Effigy Corset and Reconstructing History

10. "The Costumer's Creation: Flat Caps made easy", by Juneaux, the Duchess of Netherwaullop (AKA Janet Melody), Renaissance Magazine Issue #22, 2000; p 24

11. see Footwear of the Middle Agesby I. Marc Carlson copyright 1999-2002, and

12. see Essay on Venetian Chopines by Elizabeth Louise Bernhardt

12. Medieval Jewelry

This was meant to be a simple introduction, but as I researched, it grew into an impromptu essay; if I did more than paraphrase, I humbly apologize.

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