Women's fashion in medieval times is important not only for academic study, but for anyone interested in fashion history. The styles gradually changed from the early part of the era to the latter years, spanning from the fifth to the fifteenth century.
Medieval Women's Fashion
What women wore depended on their status. Comparing what people wore during these historic eras to what we wear today, you'll notice that people in medieval Europe wore a lot of garments on a day-to-day basis. It was usually much more complicated than a shirt and a skirt. Even wearing a dress required layers of undergarments, including tight corsets.
To get a clear picture of women's fashions from medieval times, it's important to distinguish between different groups.
Wealth and Nobility
Wealthy women and noblewomen wore tunics, or sleeveless dresses that came to the floor, just as peasant women did, but the material choice was very different. The wealthy preferred more colorful, luxe fabrics and rich embroidery.
Fur was usually worn on the inside of clothes to keep women warm, but as the era wore on, fur trim became more popular.
As the Middle Ages progressed, dress for the wealthy became more elaborate. Two tunics were typically worn, with one more vibrant and embellished than the other. Ornamental bands decorated sleeve borders, necklines and the bottom half of dresses. Waistlines became more emphasized, with girdle-like pieces called panniers creating a bigger hip shape. Plenty of jewelry and silver, gold and pearl embellishments adorned clothing and accessories.
Women who were not wealthy or part of the nobility class also wore dress-like tunics, or kirtles. Their kirtles were made of wool or undyed linen. Most women wore a shirt beneath their tunic.
Sumptuary laws of the time prevented the poor from dressing fashionably. These laws determined that the poor could not wear expensive veils, silver-garnished girdles or the colors gold and purple. Breaking the law brought severe punishment.
Eventually, the lace-up bodice that's so often associated with medieval dress came in vogue.
Social Standing and Dress
Just as in the Elizabethan era, what people wore was determined by who they were. This was true for men as well as women. The nobility wore very different garments than peasants and servants, but one thing is the same across the board for answering the question of what women wore in medieval times and that is: no pants!
Headdresses in Medieval Times
Women often covered their hair with either caps or veils. Married women in particular sported close-fitting nets and caps, which were formed into a bun shape. The hair was either left loose or braided, and could also be covered with a long veil. Head coverings for women slowly changed from long veils to pointed caps to rolled bonnets.
Get Your Own Medieval Dress
If you want to portray a Middle Ages wench or noble for your next costume party, Halloween gathering or reenactment, these online retailers provide the perfect medieval recreations for you in a variety of styles:
- Pearson's Renaissance Shoppe - A wide variety of medieval, renaissance and cosplay costumes. Prices range from around $40 for one piece of clothing to over $600 for a gown. Some outfits are tailored to fit your body, so you'll need to provide measurements for those. Others have sizes small through XL for both dresses and corsets.
- Tudor Dressing - From pirate and wench wear to full dress ensembles, prices range from $30 to around $240, depending on the type of outfit. Sizes range from Small to XXL.
- Medieval Collectibles - Featuring dresses from peasant wear to gallant gowns. Most dresses are available in sizes small through XL, but certain dresses can be ordered up to XXXL for an additional fee. Prices vary from around $40 to over $500.
- Dark Knight Armoury - This site has a small but affordable selection of women's dresses, ranging from around $60 up to $220. Most dresses are available in Small through XL, with an additional charge for XXL or XXXL on certain items.
- Historical Clothing Realm - Here you'll find gowns, crowns, and capes. Prices range from $55 to nearly $700. Sizes depend on the outfit; some are available in small, medium, and large, some up to XL, and others go by waist size.
You can also find some modern shirts and dresses that have elements inspired by medieval dress, such as corset style evening dresses or flowy tunic tops.
Rich in History
Unfortunately, much of the original clothing from the Middle Ages has been lost due to deterioration. Much of the information that's available from the fashions of the era come from paintings and sculptures, which were better suited to survive the times. By reading about some of the era's styles, you'll be knowledgeable about one of the most important eras in fashion history, and prepared if you have to dress as a fair maiden or saucy wench for a costumed affair.