The Garb of the Noblewoman in the Middle Ages

When we think about a medieval noblewoman, our brain often produces images like that: Sweeping cuts, opulent fabrics, expensive colors and valuable accessories. In fact, during the thousand years of the Middle Ages, fashion trends changed the style of the garments significantly. In our blog post we are devoted to the garb of the noblewoman in the course of the Middle Ages.

Some thoughts about fashion at court

The fashion of the nobles, and thus also the garb of the courtly noblewoman, was driven more by trends in the Middle Ages than the fashion of the lower classes. This is because the working population needed clothes that were practical, resilient and comfortable. On the other hand, only the wealthy could afford expensive fabrics, colours or elaborate cutting techniques that require a lot of fabric.

For the privileged, the wearing of expensive robes served not only to make them “look good”, but also increased the wearer´s prestige. Especially from the late Middle Ages, the more precious the fabric, the higher the status of the noblewoman wearing it. It is therefore not surprising that any change in fashion was shaped usually by the nobility.

However, with the rise of the middle class and the wealthier peasants, it became increasingly difficult for the nobility to stand out. To counteract this conflict, laws were enacted prohibiting ordinary people from wearing certain fabrics, colours and shapes. However, as new trends continued to emerge, it was difficult to keep the decrees of law up to date and enforce them.

Early medieval garments of the noblewoman

At the beginning of the Early Middle Ages, around 500 AD, the clothes of the noblewoman did not stand out so strongly from the clothes of the lower classes. The women wore a smock-like dress that was held together at the shoulders by fibulae. A shawl was worn over it, which could also cover the head. The noblewoman wore a belt with a bag attached to it around her waist.

At that time, social differences were reflected less in clothing than in jewelry. Chains, brooches, and arm, ear and finger rings were popular.

Mainly due to Roman influences, the clothes of the noblewoman changed afterwards. The typical smock-like dress has been replaced by dresses with long, wide-cut skirts and tight-fitting sleeves. As before, the nobles continued to wear wool and linen, but the expensive silk fabric became increasingly popular with the nobility and kings. No wish was left unfulfilled: The precious silk fabric, also called purple in the Middle Ages, came in every imaginable colour. The Merovingian Queen Arnegundis, for example, was buried in 570 wearing a purple undergarment and a brown silk upper garment embroidered with gold thread.

From the 8th century, the Merovingian royal family was replaced by the Carolingians. Expensive silk fabrics had been fully established by then and were supplemented with valuable marten and ermine furs. The fabrics were interwoven with gold thread. The Byzantine court continued to determine the fashion of the time. Noblewomen wore a long, wide petticoat, and over it a shorter, long-sleeved outer garment. Only later did longer variations of the outer dress develop.

Women’s garb in the High Middle Ages

The most striking aspect of women’s fashion was the long hanging sleeves, these were fashionable among noble women from the 10th century onwards and they could sometimes reach to the ground. The upper robes were worn shorter again and bright colours defined the fashion of this time period. So red and dark purple clothing was particularly chic. Also colorful were the gemstones and pearls in the jewelry as well as the decorative seams.

From the 11th century onwards, the skirts of the dresses were made with fabric wedges at the front and back, so that they became much more “billowing”. In the area of the chest and waist, however, the dresses became ever tighter. The sleeves could be detached from the dresses so that they could be washed, replaced or given away separately if required. The upper and undergarments were always combined in different colours. A pronounced colour symbolism developed, which informed about the state of mind of the wearer.

The coats were lined with furs or dyed fabrics. They were no longer closed with a standard brooch, but by means of a chain that was attached to two cups. Therefore, this type of coat was also called “Tasselmantel” (Tassel coat).

Hair and footwear in the High Middle Ages

In the 13th century, the Church required married women to cover their hair from the age of 18. They also wore long veils before, but the fabrics were mostly transparent, so the hair could be seen. From the 12th century onwards, the wimple developed, which was bound around the cheeks and chin.

In the High Middle Ages, noblewomen wore half-shoes and short boots made of leather or brocade fabric. Under no circumstances however should the female wearer’s foot be visible, this was considered to be offensive. The shoes were closed with braces or cords on the inside and were usually pointed to the toes. From the 12th century, the poulaine entered into the fashion of European noble’s shoes, presumably from the Orient. The stuffed tops of the shoes were worn longer and longer over time, sometimes resulting in ridicule. It was also considered particularly chic to wear two different coloured shoes. In order to protect the shoes from mud, they also wore so-called pattens under the shoes (A kind of additional platform sole).

The clothes of the noble woman in the late Middle Ages

In the 14th century, clothing fashion changed considerably. The noblewoman’s upper and undergarments were now worn tighter. The dress now featured the so-called “devil’s windows” – wide recesses on the side of the dress, which revealed a lot of the physique thanks to the tight undergarments. In addition, the first button strips were added to the dresses.

The noblewoman no longer always wore the belts around her waist, but sometimes resting loosely on her hip. The narrow leather belts or decorated fabric belts still had various everyday objects hung from them such as purses, cutlery, a prayer book, or a perfume bottle.

Die Kleider der Edeldame im Spätmittelalter waren eher figurbetont geschnitten.

Already in the 13th century the so-called “Heuke” emerged. This was a cape that was usually placed over the head by women and remained open at the front. The Heuke was worn by wealthy women until the 17th century, but mostly as part of the overall outfit. In addition, the mantle was created, a circular sleeveless cloak without a hood, which was closed with a clasp.

At the end of the 15th century, the dresses adapted to the curves of the noblewoman. Emphasis is now placed on the appearance of wide hips. Sometimes this appearance was faked by means of padding. For the first time, the dress is also separated into two parts, a skirt and top (blouse). At Court, the clothes became more and more daring. A large number of decrees tried to put a stop to this freedom of choice, but were mostly unsuccessful.