Textile Time Travel – the Middle Ages

It’s not often that we get the kind of bleak rainy weather we’ve had lately, so I’ve been glad for the excuse to stay inside and lose myself in some wonderful books and websites.

My experiments with natural dyes this summer got me interested in old herbal books and manuscripts.  I have found a treasure trove of these wonderful books on the internet, and while I was paging through one, I found this:

page from herbal

LJS 62
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
University of Pennsylvania
used by permission

to see the book on its home website

Way back in the 1990s, I learned from Joan Severa’s book, Dressed for the Photographer:Ordinary Americans and Fashion, that clothing styles could be used to date photographs, and that little details can help the viewer figure out facts about the sitter.  The height of a collar, the degree of pleating or ruffling present, the fit of an armscye – all of these can tell you what year the garment was made, and whether it was made at home or by a professional. I pored over her book and eventually I got pretty good at dating old photographs to at least the right decade.

I wondered if the same process would hold true for the medieval era.  I know the experts at the University of Pennsylvania can date this book, but what could I figure out for myself?   So many questions to research – Can I tell the date of the illustration from the clothes they are wearing?  Are they specific people?  Was the illustration done during their lifetimes? Do the garments show the occupation or status of the people in the illustration? Do the colors mean anything?  Since it was the medieval period when people were more focused on the next world, did the illustrator even care about showing their actual clothing?  Would that have been important to him?

What strikes me in this picture is how plain these clothes are.  Just one layer, no contrasting trim, plain shoes, no extreme shapes, no embellishment.  When I visualize typical illuminated manuscript pictures, in my head I see layers, contrast, two-toned clothes, ornamentation, exaggerated features like long, knotted sleeves, shoes with 15-inch toes that are tied up to the garters.  Even when everyone in the picture is dressed in the basically the same fashion, there is usually a sense of the individual touch.

Going on to the differences between the two men – the man on the left has a bowler-type hat, a beard, and his sleeves are loose at the wrist.  It looks like there is a seam in the center front of his garment. That might be an important construction detail.  The man on the right has a slightly taller hat with a rolled brim, a clean-shaven chin, a slightly higher collar, and tight sleeves with possible banding or wrinkles at the wrists.  It looks like he might have a front opening on his garment, or maybe a piece of trim, but nothing special.  Both men have belts that look to be made of the same cloth as their garments.

Assuming that this illustration is meant to show an older man passing on knowledge to a younger man, I would think that the older man’s clothing should communicate “old-fashioned” to viewers at the time the illustration was created.  So it seems like a good starting point to skim my fashion history books, looking for a time when fashion went from loose sleeves to tight sleeves, and from wearing a beard to shaving.

fashion books

Some of my fashion history books – they were too general to be of much help.


The illustration in the top center position was the best match I could find, but even he is wearing layers, not just one robe. This is from the 1958 Mode in Costume by R. Turner Wilcox. The man on bottom left has dagged sleeves – the fabric is cut into decorative points.

When I couldn’t find a good match in my costume history books, I requested everything I could find from my local library system.  And then I spent weeks reading!

costume books

If I could only keep one book for the rest of my life, it would be the Taschen Masterpieces of Illumination.

For a quick overview, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer is a good choice.  It covers memorable and even humorous aspects of food, lodging, health and hygiene, the law, entertainment  – and of course, what to wear!

(And what not to wear.  After explaining all the expenses associated with armor, war horses, lances, and squires, Mortimer writes, “And at the end of the day, all this expense is going towards a set of steel ‘clothes’ which are decidedly uncomfortable and which someone is simply going to bash with a sharp implement.  Attractive though the joust might look, you would be wise to leave it to the knights.”)

This book was an excellent choice for my purpose, because it covers the century when novelty in fashion became more accelerated.*  Mortimer says that in 1300, clothing choices were made for practical reasons, and from the shoulders down, there was not much difference between the clothing of men and women.  Rank was reflected mostly in differences of color and fabric quality, rather than in cut or tailoring.  During the 1300s a few important changes happened – the use of buttons, and the ability to cut and fit comfortable armholes, among them.  (He has a very interesting footnote about the theory that a closer fit developed from garments created for fitting under armor.)

By 1400, we had reached a pinnacle of design eccentricity, a “riotous climax of fashionable excess,” especially for men.  They were the ones whose hemlines changed dramatically, ending the century with tunics only a few inches longer than their belts.  They also tied up their liripipes (long tubes on their hoods) and flaunted Crackows (shoe tips tied to their garters).  “[N]o one puts their head through the central hole [of their mantle] anymore, but rather men try to wear the mantle rakishly, by putting their head through an armhole and gathering up the extensive folds over one shoulder.”  (p. 109)

So!  It would appear that since the two men in the illustration in question are dressed in long plain robes, they must be from before 1300 – at least if it is documenting a real event.  But (cheating a little bit), I see that the University of Pennsylvania believes this manuscript is from the 15th century.  On to more research!

My library had two fabulous books by Margaret Scott.  Fashion in the Middle Ages is a small book that was published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name, which ran at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2011. (And now that I’ve seen their list of exhibitions past and present, I know where I will be spending a lot of online time!)  Her larger volume, Medieval Dress and Fashion, expands upon the same topic, analyzing how textiles and clothing were presented in illuminated manuscripts, from 840 – 1570 AD.  There are examples of clothing worn by all social classes, in many different activities.

One of the questions I had about the illustration from the herbal was whether the color of the garments had a meaning.  Scott mentions red being a color for academicians, and green being a color that was forbidden to the clergy (and sometimes others), but I am still looking for more definite information on where and when exactly those color rules were in place.

But there was a recurring theme that helped me analyze this illustration –  that then as now, artists might choose costume details to make a visual point, to add a layer of meaning to the illustration.  They might choose dagged hems or multicolored clothing to show that someone was foolish or overly concerned with this world.  They might put a turban on a subject’s head to evoke a sense of the exotic.  They might choose clothes that just suggested the past, without a concern for detailed authenticity.

I think all those practices are still used to some degree, in book illustrations, movies, and Renaissance Festivals, but I had never really thought about it being practiced in the past as well.  I am in awe of the way Margaret Scott can tease out those layers so knowledgeably from illustrations that are hundreds of years old, and explain them so clearly.  Here are some quotes that helped me look beyond the way clothing is illustrated, to seeing the importance of understanding what its audience perceived when they looked at it.

Medieval artists often idealized, exaggerated, or modified the dress of their figures based on accepted artistic conventions or their own desire to convey aspects of a time or place beyond their knowledge. – Elizabeth Morrison, in the Foreword to Fashion in the Middle Ages

It takes time and effort to understand not just the structure of dress in visual sources, but what it meant to contemporaries who saw clothing depicted. – Margaret Scott, Medieval Dress and Fashion, p. 9

And for those times we can’t figure out what exactly the artist meant to communicate

In many of the images looked at in this book, dress, fashionable or not, is used to help narrate stories or to indicate moral or social standing.  Evidence survives in a few cases to demonstrate that artists were issued with clear instruction… about the contents of the scenes they were to pain, with the clothing sometimes being included in the instructions.  Sometimes there were clothing conventions to be followed with particular people, such as biblical figures.  More often there is no indication why the artist proceeded as he {usually he} did. – Margaret Scott, Medieval Dress and Fashion, p. 8

So, thinking about those angles, (and cheating just a little bit more,) I see from the University of Pennsylvania, that this is supposed to be an illustration of Dioscorides and Galen.  And checking with the oracle of Wikipedia, I learn that Dioscorides wrote a five-volume book about the use of plants in medicine, and lived from about 40 to 90 AD.  Galen was a physician and philosopher who lived from about 129 to 200 AD.

Therefore!  Putting together these clues, my conclusion is that these clothes were deliberately made to look generic and vague, as the artist was trying to evoke a sense of the past.  However!  The description of the book also says that is was created in the eastern Mediterranean region, so it is very possible that it reflects a whole different fashion tradition.  The books I was looking at were focused on Western Europe, so I don’t know how much of their information applies to the Mediterranean.

Even if I am way off base with my ideas about the artist’s intention, I have learned so much by reading these wonderful books.  I am looking forward to learning lots more about this area of textile history!

Also, thank you to the person who started me on this little research trip!

* Margaret Scott argues fashion as “an ever-changing appearance based on novelty and not on necessity” started at the beginning of the twelfth century, and I certainly would bow to her expertise, but Mortimer’s brisk survey of fashion trends was very easy to follow.

Books I used:  The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer, 2008, Touchstone Books (a division of Simon and Schuster)
Medieval Dress and Fashion by Margaret Scott, 2007, The British Library

Fashion in the Middle Ages by Margaret Scott, 2011, Getty Publications