Medieval Clothing for Nobles and Peasants

Medieval clothing was more than just a way to cover yourself from the elements; it was a method of describing your station in life.

It has been said that clothes make the man (or woman!) and one of the periods where this was definitely the case was the late Middle Ages, a period stretching from about 1300 to 1500 CE.

The treatment that you received would reflect the clothing you wore, and medieval clothing was an important indicator of rank.

Sumptuary Laws

One of the concepts attached to clothing during the middle ages was the idea of sumptuary laws. These were laws that dictated what each class of people could wear.

There were some colors and some fabrics that only people of a certain rank could wear and those who broke these laws could be fined and perhaps even imprisoned. The fact was, breaking these laws could be seen as a sign of status in and of itself, and as the middle class emerged, the lines between real nobility and the merchant class blurred.

An interesting foot note in terms of medieval clothing was that sumptuary laws were waived for German mercenaries, known as the landsknecht; they could wear whatever they picked off of fallen foes in the battleground and were excused because they could not be expected to live long enough to enjoy it!

Medieval Dyes

When it comes to separating medieval clothing between the nobility and the peasantry, one handy thing to look at is color.

If one were well off and could afford it, cloth was very often dyed deeper colors. Dark blues, maroons, deep gold and bold oranges were very popular and quite expensive, as the dyeing process could be quite involved.

The poorer classes, on the other hand, often had to make do with dyes that did not produce deeper hues and so you will often see the paintings of peasants working in colors like yellow, faded green and a dusky rose.

Influence of China and India

During this period, Europe was already beginning to see exotic brocades and silks from East by way of India and China, but this was very much the province of the wealthy. Clothing for peasants was still mostly made out of woven wool though the more wealthy you were, the tighter and finer the weave would be.

For women, medieval clothing was mostly the same in terms of form. The shift, a long loose undershirt that went down to the knees was worn underneath a bodice of some sort, and then a kirtle or overdress was laid on top. Women of the nobility could wear tighter bodices that were lined with steel to give them an upright carriage, while women of the lower classes wore bodices lined with cord or canes to allow them more movement for their day to day work.

The clothing of men changed more slowly, but the late middle ages did see them becoming more form fitting. While peasants still might wear loose tunics and coarse woolen hose, noblemen would look into leggings that resemble today's tights and formfitting coats that were slashed to show off the fabric of the undershirt. In this regard, one can see the variation and style that could be found in the clothing of the middle ages.

This is a topic with a great deal of variation, and further study will only show you how fascinating medieval clothing really is!

For more information, check out the Medieval Times Clothing page.