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As you are almost certainly aware, women throughout history wore dresses. The Middle Ages are no exception to this, but medieval dresses have a massive amount of variety. Class differences play a part in this, as a medieval peasant dress would look comically different from a royal medieval dress. There are also changes in the styles of different time periods, because the medieval time period lasted for hundreds of years, bleeding into the Renaissance. Because of that, we have considerably more than one kind of medieval dress for sale. These different types of dresses are very useful when it comes to creating a medieval dress costume for LARPing. You can either scan through our selection to find the perfect dress or decide to create different costumes for multiple characters.
The Design of the Women’s Medieval DressThe middle ages were an interesting time for fashion. The medieval time period is considered to have lasted about a thousand years, from the 5th century to the 15th century. Up until about the 13th century, clothing was a relatively drab and boring affair. However, during the 14th century, several things changed. Tailoring practices started to improve, which allowed for more complex designs. Trade and war had brought over more fabrics of better quality from the East, introducing silks and velvets. But more importantly, the Renaissance began, and with it, fashion exploded. As time went on, new trends were introduced. It wasn’t the same level as it is today, where something wildly fashionable one year is frankly embarrassing the next, but it was at the point where an expert could potentially be able to determine both the decade and area where a late medieval outfit originated. What we think of as the women’s medieval dress had a very basic design that lasted for many years and was shared by rich and poor alike. The biggest difference between peasant’s clothing and that of a richer medieval woman, especially before the Renaissance, was the material and quality of workmanship used in the dress. However, there were many variations to be seen in this basic design as the medieval time progressed.
The Basic Construction of the Medieval DressMedieval dresses were a relatively layered affair, for rich and poor alike. People at this time didn’t wear underwear as most of us do, but it was common for women to wear a smock beneath their dress. Don’t worry, we promise not to judge if you decide to wear modern underwear while in costume. The smock, or shift worn underneath the women’s dresses was commonly made of linen. Linen was a comparatively gentle material against the skin. Those who couldn’t afford linen would have to go without, or just wore a smock made using coarser materials, such as hemp. Over this shift would be a long tunic, known as a kirtle. The design of this garment did change through the times, but the purpose was the same. The kirtle would be secured with either lacing or buttons and could be either sleeved or not. The kirtle could be the final layer of a medieval woman’s dress, depending on how it was designed. However, many kirtles were underneath yet another layer, which would be the over-gown or dress itself. These had several names but were commonly known as surcotes (or surcoat, medieval people couldn’t spell). This outer layer of a surcote again showed some variation. The surcote was generally intended to protect the often finer and more expensive kirtle underneath, either from the work that a poorer woman would be putting up with, or from the travel of a wealthier woman. It would also provide an extra layer of warmth, if needed. These are the basic layers of a medieval dress. While they looked different as time went on, this layered construction lasted for centuries. Obviously, your typical medieval woman wouldn’t only wear her dress, she’d also wear the other accessories needed to complete the look. However, the dress is a great starting point for both the medieval woman and for a medieval dress costume.
Early Medieval DressesIn the early medieval times, clothing was comparatively simple. The kirtle that women wore was akin to a loose, long tunic and wasn’t fitted to the body. A belt was worn at the waist which did provide some shape. This kirtle, or tunic, could be slipped on over the head. Later on, the kirtle may have a slit at the bodice which was laced up. Like other periods, this was often worn with a sleeveless surcote atop it.
The Dawn of the RenaissanceAfter the Crusades, things slowly started to change, especially among the wealthy. Silks and velvets became more available, allowing for clothes to really take off as a status symbol. Then as the Renaissance started to pick up steam, things really took off. Whereas clothes earlier had been relatively loose-fitting and covered much of the body, the design of these dresses changed to follow the lines of the body more closely. This was especially true of the kirtle, which could be either laced or buttoned, depending on the wealth of the wearer. Longer sleeves too, became fashionable in dresses around this time. Surcotes would also come in styles that showed off the fine and fitted kirtle underneath. The black death in the 12th century also ended feudalism as it once was, as the peasant class suddenly had the bargaining power to develop coin of their own. This allowed even the poorer people at this time to have some consideration of fashion, and to wear finer dresses.
Late Medieval DressesAs the medieval period reached its end, Europe had a lot of wealth, and it showed. By now, necklines had plunged and widened, showing at least the neck and collarbones of the wearer, but often some bosom. The trend that had started at the dawn of the Renaissance only continued when it came to the medieval renaissance dress. The outer gown became incredibly elaborate, sometimes with wide and flowing sleeves, made with furs. The surcote had evolved from a simpler garment designed to keep the wearer warm and protect the kirtle underneath, to something to show off.
Medieval Dresses and StatusLike today, clothes and fashion in the middle ages were a sign of both status and wealth. Medieval dresses could vary in both quality and design through the different classes, which made it easy to mark the wearer. In the earlier medieval times, the biggest difference was the quality of material used to make the dresses. But there were some other signifiers of wealth that could be seen in these dresses. Another development in medieval times were rules known as ‘sumptuary laws’, which actually restricted certain clothing from different classes. These laws were intended to distinguish the classes from each other and so made it illegal for a peasant to dress like a noble, even if she’d somehow managed to afford the material. Because clothing was expensive, it wasn’t uncommon for a woman to only own a few dresses. This was even true of wealthier women. These clothes were so expensive because they had to be made completely by hand, which took time and skill.
Dresses of the PeasantryThe poorer medieval women would almost always make their own dresses, along with the clothing of the rest of the family. They would have to use whatever material they could get their hands on, usually wool or hemp. This material might be coarse and uncomfortable, but it would have to do. Because they would make their own clothes, the dresses wouldn’t be elaborate or overly fiddly and delicate. Instead, they would be simple and practical, to allow for the wearer to still work without their clothes getting in the way or fearing to ruin them. The medieval peasant dress would never feature buttons, as they were expensive. Instead, their dresses would be secured with laces. These dresses also wouldn’t be dyed, so would generally be the same colour as the base material, often a tan or off-white colour. The surcotes that medieval peasant women wore would be designed only to keep them warm and to protect the rest of their clothes from the dirt and grime they’d accumulate through the day. Because clothes were so expensive, the peasant woman would want to keep them as well maintained as possible.
The Emerging Middle ClassThe black death which struck in the middle of the 12th century turned the economy of many European countries on its head. It ran rampant, killing both the elite and the peasant class. However, because the main workforce came from the peasantry, those who survived had the opportunity to move up in life as their services suddenly became so much more valuable. This allowed a middle class to emerge. This would include skilled crafters, merchants and others who had enough of a disposable income to allow for comfortable living. However, most weren’t anywhere near the level of the nobility and the rich. These medieval dresses would have finer material than those of the peasant class, allowing for linen and more finely woven wool. While many of the middle class still couldn’t necessarily afford to have many garments made for them, they could buy already processed and dyed material. Different dyes were of different prices, as some colours were very difficult to come by or needed to be specially treated to make sure they didn’t fade from the material. Very bright and rich colours, therefore, tended to be more expensive and only found among the rich. One exception to this was woad, which was a plant that produced a dark blue dye. This meant that the colour blue was available to even poorer people. Some kirtles were designed with pin-on, or laced sleeves. These were popular with medieval women of all walks of life, as the removable sleeves allowed for women to do messy chores at home and protect the nicer sleeves of her kirtle. She would never leave the house without her kirtle sleeves. These detachable sleeves allowed for different sleeves to be added to one kirtle. Often, a woman would have one set of more ordinary sleeves for the week, then a set of finer sleeves which were worn at special occasions or weekends. Surcotes would often be plainer than the kirtles, meant to protect the fine material and to keep the wearer cosy. These would often be hitched up to show off the more beautiful dress underneath. These could be worn at home during domestic duties, and on travels. The dresses worn by the middle classes could be very varied, as the level of wealth did so. Often, the styles of the rich were copied, just with more simple embroidery and more ordinary materials. This was also the level of society where dresses started to be lined, which was often shown off by slashes or a hitched skirt.
Dresses of the NobilityTragically, we can’t all be rich. Some of the more iconic and beautiful designs of the medieval time period belong to the nobility and the very rich. These women could even splash out on their shifts, with some going so far as to wear silk. That was a considerable expense for what was essentially underwear, but it would be much softer than linen. This is also the fashion that changed the most, as the richest of society could afford to follow trends and change their dresses regularly. Generally, the kirtles would be of rich material and would either be designed to be worn with no outer garment, or with an outer gown or surcote. The richer women would have their kirtles secured with buttons, which would display the wearers wealth and could be made from precious metals. Multicoloured kirtles were popular among both noble ladies, where one half of the gown would be a contrasting colour to the other. The surcotes of the richer ladies and nobility would often be incredibly ostentatious and lined with furs for both warmth and to display wealth and status. Depending on the time period, these often came with long lined sleeves which at some points reached ground length. With these increasingly beautiful and richly made surcotes came a style known as ‘the gates of hell’. Sadly, this is less cool than it sounds, but referred to how these side-less surcotes showed off quite a lot of the formfitting kirtle. It would have been impractical, as the sides had been cut out, ruining its use as a warm or protective garment. Instead, it was often richly embroidered with gold and lined with copious amounts of fur. This was entirely a fashion choice designed to show off how rich the wearer was. Another style of surcote that was only worn by the upper classes was the houppelande. This was an outer gown that used large amounts of material in both the voluminous gown and the large, loose sleeves. The houppelande could also have a high collar, which was lined with fur. This garment came into fashion in the late medieval period.
Royal DressesWhen most people think of medieval times, they think of royalty. The monarchy reigned, and with it came queens and princesses. Because of the sumptuary laws mentioned earlier, certain clothing was only available to royalty. This including clothes made of gold and purple silk, which even today are considered “royal colours”. The medieval queen dress, for example, was primarily made of velvet, silk, and fur. All of these were rich and expensive materials. She would wear a long gown which was decorated with embroidered lace, buttons, and gems. Even the everyday clothes of the medieval queen were designed to clearly display the difference between her, as royalty, and every other medieval woman. Her official clothing would be richer still, usually making considerable use of the gold and purple silks only available to royalty. The princess medieval dress would likewise show her to be well above the other nobility, while still being less extravagant than that of the queen. Her dresses would be very similar to that of the queen, indicating her royal status and association to the queen. So, expect lots of gold and purple. While the nobility would wear beautiful and shockingly expensive gowns, laws were in place to ensure that the royal family were always head and shoulders above the rest of the nobility when it came to high fashion. Status was a huge part of life in medieval times, and clothing was a constant reminder of this.
Modern Day RecreationsNow that we’ve had an overview of what medieval dresses were like, it’s time to look at recreations of medieval dresses. These would be available to be worn as part of a character’s costume when LARPing, either as part of a historical event, or a more fantasy focused event. The importance of picking the right dress can’t be ignored. Our idea of the nebulous ‘medieval dress’ often pulls from all over the medieval time period and can cover different areas of social standing. Presumably, you’re going for a specific character. So, it’s best to look at each medieval dress for sale here and decide who your character will be.
- The medieval peasant dress is obviously designed for those who aim for the good old random peasant. They will be humbler than the more elaborate designs of other dresses, but that’s not what matters. You can look the part and really add to your LARPing experience.
- The other medieval dresses tend to pull from different designs which would have been worn by medieval women who aren’t quite on the bottom rung of society. These dresses are attractive, come in a variety of colours and allow for an incredible range of different characters. If you’re not quite sure who your character is, you’ll be wanting a more versatile dress that can cover different roles.
- If you want something that’s more specifically a medieval renaissance dress, a recreation can also be found which will suit your needs. You’ll be looking for a dress that more closely follows the line of the body, which may well show more of the chest and neck than other medieval dresses.
- Perhaps you’re after a more royal medieval dress. If that’s the case, you can either play the part of a princess, a queen, or some other noble. Modern recreations of these dresses won’t be anywhere near the quality of an actual royal dress, not unless you’re willing on forking out thousands of pounds, but you should be able to find something that gives the idea of royalty.