01 April 2009

Fashion: Medieval Vogue

By Carrie Lofty

In the medieval period, fashion meant anything above and beyond what was required for bare survival...and I suppose that still holds true today. So what form did medieval fashion take? What separated the garments worn by wealthy barons and monarchs from the basic clothes donned by commoners?

We'll start our medieval shopping trip by choosing an appropriate fabric. The most common fabric was made from wool, the production of which was a tedious process. After sheering the sheep, the wool was washed, combed, carded, spun, woven, and fulled. Fulling entailed a long soak in urine or a clay called fuller's earth, after which the wool was rinsed, beaten, felted, stretched on tenterframes and hooks, dried, and groomed with the spiny head of a teasel to create a soft finish. More steps meant more expensive cloth, so teaseled wool was the best money could buy.

Other cloth included linen, where the fibrous stems of flax were soaked, beaten, spun, and woven. This produced a very durable cloth like denim, which became softer after long use. Leather was also popular and equally arduous to process. The hides were scraped, softened and stripped of excess hair by using a lime solution or stale urine. Then they were tanned in a chemical solution derived from tree bark. Tanned leather could be boiled in oil or wax and then shaped to form armor called cuir boulli.

But what if plain cloth was simply not enough? Wealthy folks could decide to add fur to their ensembles. Peasants wore cheap, plentiful furs for warmth and softness, such as rabbit, cat, badger, beaver. These same furs were also used on blankets. But nobles could afford rarer animal skins, including ermine, sable and squirrel that were specially raised for that purpose.

Next, you had to decide on color. As a peasant, well...you got what you got. Wool might be variegated according to the color of the sheep, and linen came out looking like the flax of its origins. But for those who could splurge, color was the ultimate luxury. Indigo is colorless when cooked in vats, but it reacts with the air to create a deep blue. Madder is a red dye made from roots collected in the spring, and cinnabar (mercury sulfide) also creates a deep red. Other dyes include weld (yellow), woad (blue), iron oxide (black, bark and nuts (brown), mustard, and saffron. Women and men both experimented with color combinations, layering gowns or tunics of one color over undergarments of another, which were designed specifically to be seen and admired. If you're undergarments were dyed, that's saying something!

And no fashionable outfit would be complete without accessories. Rather than simply tying drawstrings or flaps together, a wealthier medieval individual might have used horn, wood, bone or ivory closure toggles, as well as crafted iron for buckles, clasps and pins. Other accents included elaborate embroidery, silken cords, and affixed jewels or quartz.

Here are some useful terms related to medieval clothing:
Agrafe: large brooch for fastening cloak or robe
Almoner: bag or purse looped by a cord to girdle
Buskins: high boots worn by country folk and travelers
Coif: close-fitting cap
Falding: coarse woolen cloth
Fustian: cotton or woolen cloth
Kirtle: woman's under-gown with tight sleeves
Latchet: strap used to fasten shoes
Roskin: squirrel fur (also called vair if grey or white fur)
Samite: rich silk fabric woven with gold