In medieval times, as today, both fashion and necessity dictated what people wore. And both fashion and necessity, in addition to cultural tradition and available materials, varied across the centuries of the Middle Ages as well as across the miles of Europe. After all, no one would expect the clothes of an 8th-century Viking to bear any resemblance to those of a 15th-century Venetian.
So when you ask the question "What did a man (or woman) wear in the Middle Ages?" be prepared to answer some questions yourself. Where did he live? When did he live? What was his station in life (noble, peasant, merchant, cleric)? And for what purpose might he be wearing a particular suit of clothes?
The many types of synthetic and blended fabrics people wear today were simply not available in medieval times. But this didn't mean that everyone wore heavy wool, burlap, and animal skins. Different textiles were manufactured in a range of weights and could vary greatly in quality. The more finely woven a textile was, the softer and more costly it would be.
Materials available for use in medieval clothing included:
Wool By far the most common fabric of the Middle Ages -- and the core of a flourishing textile industry -- wool might be knitted or crocheted into garments, but it was more likely woven. Depending on how it was made, it could be very warm and thick or light and airy. Wool was also felted for hats and other accessories. More about medieval wool
Linen Almost as common as wool, linen was made from the flax plant and theoretically available to all classes. Growing flax was labor-intensive and making linen was time-consuming, so, since the fabric wrinkled easily, it wasn't often found in garments of poorer folk. Fine linen was used for the veils and wimples of ladies, undergarments, and a wide variety of apparel and household furnishings. More about the history of linen
Hemp Less costly than flax, hemp and nettles were used to create workaday fabrics in the Middle Ages. More common for such uses as sails and rope, hemp may also have been used for aprons and undergarments. More about hemp and nettles
Cotton Cotton doesn't grow well in cooler climes, so its use in medieval garments was less common in northern Europe than wool or linen. Still, a cotton industry rose up in southern Europe in the 12th century, and cotton became an occasional alternative to linen. More about medieval cotton use
Leather The production of leather goes back to prehistoric times. In the Middle Ages, leather was used for shoes, belts, armor, horse tackle, furniture and a wide assortment of everyday products. Leather could be dyed, painted, or tooled in a variety of fashions for ornamentation. More about medieval leather-working
Fur In early medieval Europe, fur was common, but, thanks in part to the use of animal skins by Barbarian cultures, considered too crass to wear on display. It was, however, used to line gloves and outer garments. By the tenth century, however, fur had come back into fashion, and everything from beaver, fox and sable to vair (squirrel), ermine and marten was used for warmth and status. More about medieval furs
Various fabrics, such as taffeta, velvet, and damask, were made from textiles like silk, cotton and linen using specific weaving techniques. These were not generally available in the earlier Middle Ages, and were among the more expensive fabrics for the extra time and care it took to make them.
COLORS FOUND IN MEDIEVAL CLOTHING
Dyes came from rather a lot of different sources, some of them far more expensive than others.
Still, even the humble peasant could have colorful clothing. Using plants, roots, lichen, tree bark, nuts, crushed insects, mollusks and iron oxide, virtually every color of the rainbow could be achieved. However, adding color was an extra step in the manufacturing process that raised its price, so clothing made from undyed fabric in various shades of beige and off-white was not uncommon among the poorest folk.
A dyed fabric would fade fairly quickly if it wasn't mixed with a mordant, and bolder shades required either longer dyeing times or more expensive dyes. Thus, fabrics of the brightest and richest colors cost more and were, therefore most often found on nobility and the very rich. One natural dye that did not require a mordant was woad, a flowering plant that yielded a dark blue dye. Woad was used so extensively in both professional and home dyeing that it became known as "Dyer's Woad," and garments of a variety of blue shades could be found on people of virtually every level of society.
Throughout much of the Middle Ages and in most societies, the undergarments worn by both men and women didn't substantially change.
Basically, they consisted of a shirt or under-tunic, stockings or hose, and, for men at least, some kind of underpants or breeches. There is no evidence that women regularly wore underpants, but with a matter of such delicacy that the garments became known as "unmentionables," this isn’t surprising. Women may have worn underpants, depending on their resources, the nature of their outer garments and their personal preferences.
Virtually everyone wore something on their heads in the Middle Ages, to keep off the sun in hot weather, to keep their heads warm in cold weather, and to keep dirt out of their hair. Of course, as with every other type of garment, hats could indicate a person's job or station in life and could make a fashion statement.
But hats were especially important, and to knock someone's hat off his or her head was a grave insult that, depending on the circumstances, could even be considered assault.
Both men and women wore hoods, often attached to capes or jackets but sometimes standing alone. Some of the more complicated men's hats were actually hoods with a long strip of fabric in the back that could be wound around the head. A common accouterment for men of the working classes was a hood attached to a short cape that covered just the shoulders.
You may have heard that in the Middle Ages, "everyone slept naked." Like most generalizations, this can't be perfectly accurate -- and in cold weather, it was so unlikely as to be painfully ridiculous.
Illuminations, woodcuts, and other period artwork illustrate medieval people in bed in different attire; some are unclothed, but just as many are wearing simple gowns or shirts, some with sleeves. Though we have virtually no documentation regarding what people wore to bed, from these images we can glean that those who wore night dress could have been clad in an under-tunic -- possibly the same one they'd worn during the day -- or even in a lightweight (or, for colder weather, ultra-warm) gown made especially for sleeping, depending on their financial status.
As today, what people wore to bed depended on their resources, the climate, family custom and their own personal preferences.
Clothing was the quickest and easiest way to identify someone's status and station in life. The monk in his cassock, the servant in his livery, the peasant in his simple tunic were all instantly recognizable, as was the knight in armor or the lady in her fine gown. Whenever members of the lower strata of society blurred the lines of social distinction by wearing clothing ordinarily found only among the upper classes, people found it unsettling, and some saw it as downright offensive.
Throughout the medieval era, but especially in the later Middle Ages, laws were passed to regulate what could and could not be worn by members of different social classes. These laws, known as sumptuary laws, not only attempted to maintain the separation of the classes, they also addressed excessive expenditures on all sorts of items. The clergy and more pious secular leaders had concerns about the conspicuous consumption the nobility was prone to, and sumptuary laws were an attempt to reign in what some found to be distastefully ostentatious displays of wealth.
Although there are known cases of prosecution under sumptuary laws, they seldom worked. It was difficult to police everyone's purchases, and since the punishment for breaking the law was usually a fine, the very rich could still acquire whatever they pleased and pay the fine with hardly a second thought. Still, the passage of sumptuary laws persisted through the Middle Ages.
There are exceedingly few garments surviving from the Middle Ages. The exceptions are the apparel found with the bog bodies, most of whom died before the medieval period, and a handful of rare and costly items preserved through extraordinary good fortune. Textiles simply cannot withstand the elements, and unless they are buried with metal, they will deteriorate in the grave without a trace.
How, then, do we really know what people wore?
Traditionally, costumers and historians of material culture have turned to period artwork. Statues, paintings, illuminated manuscripts, tomb effigies -- even the extraordinary Bayeux Tapestry -- all depict contemporaries in medieval dress. But great care must be taken when evaluating these representations. Often "contemporary" for the artist was a generation or two too late for the subject.
Sometimes there was no attempt at all to represent a historical figure in clothing appropriate to the figure's time period. And unfortunately, most of the picture books and magazine series produced in the 19th century, from which a large percentage of modern histories are drawn, are based on misleading period artwork. Many of them further mislead with inappropriate colors and the casual addition of anachronistic garments.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that terminology is not consistent from one source to the next. There are no period documentary sources fully describing garments and providing their names. The historian must pick up these bits of scattered data from a wide range of sources -- wills, account books, letters -- and interpret exactly what is meant by each item mentioned.
There is nothing straightforward about medieval clothing history.
The truth is, the study of medieval clothing is in its infancy. With any luck, future historians will break open the treasure trove of facts about medieval clothing and share its riches with the rest of us. Until then, we amateurs and non-specialists must take our best guess based on what little we've learned.
SOURCES AND SUGGESTED READING
Piponnier, Francoise, and Perrine Mane, Dress in the Middle Ages. Yale University Press, 1997, 167 pp.
Köhler, Carl, A History of Costume. George G. Harrap and Company, Limited, 1928; reprinted by Dover; 464 pp.
Norris, Herbert, Medieval Costume and Fashion. J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., London, 1927; reprinted by Dover; 485 pp.
Houston, Mary G., Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries.
Adam and Charles Black, London, 1939; reprinted by Dover; 226 pp.
Netherton, Robin, and Gale R. Owen-Crocker, Medieval Clothing and Textiles. Boydell Press, 2007, 221 pp.
Jenkins, D.T., editor, The Cambridge History of Western Textiles , vols. I and II. Cambridge University Press, 2003, 1191 pp.