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Tunics were worn in one shape or another until almost the end of the medieval period. Like much of the fashions from the early middle ages, they were a holdover from the earlier Roman rule. Medieval tunics were loose and relatively simplistic, the simplest design being made up of a folded fabric panel with a neck-hole and sleeves stuck on. If you’re a collector of medieval clothing, or you are trying to create a LARP character, you’re likely going to want a medieval tunic. They were worn by men and women alike, and by both peasants and kings.
The Men’s Medieval TunicThe clothes that both men and women wore tended to be in separate layers. While tunics were worn throughout the middle ages by both the rich and the poor, the style of tunic did vary. In the early middle ages, fashion was comparatively static, but as we enter the high and later middle ages, things started to change. Both men and women’s tunics were dyed according to what the owner could afford and what dyes were available. For the common man, his clothing would mostly be either an undyed off-white or tan, or occasionally the blue of woad, which was a common and inexpensive flower. Richer men would have more brightly coloured clothing, partially for fashion’s sake, and partially to show off their wealth.
Early Medieval TunicsAt the beginning of the medieval period, the tunic was one of the signifiers of wealth and status. There were two main styles of tunic, one worn by the wealthy, and one by the not-so-wealthy. This was heavily influenced by the earlier Roman rule.
The CommonersThe first style was worn primarily by the common folk. This tunic never went below the knees and was worn over a shirt and some kind of leggings, whether they were some kind of trousers or the more tight-fitting hose. Medieval tunics would have been made at home, the material processed by either men or the women, then constructed by the lady of the house. The very simple design of the tunic would have made them easier to make at home. They were usually made from either wool or linen, although hemp was likely used for the poorest of society. The tunic would either have a hole large enough to be simply pulled on over the head, or a slit down the front that could be fastened. The common medieval man likely wouldn’t have a fancy brooch to fasten this slit, but he may have a simply made brooch or a pin, or the slit could be laced up. Most commoners, aside from the poorest peasantry, usually had two sets of clothes, their everyday working clothes and the “Sunday Best.” All but the most destitute usually had some kind of decorative needlework on the neck and cuffs of his tunic. Over this tunic, the commoner may wear an outer, sleeveless tunic. Alternatively, they would wear a cloak to keep the weather off themselves and their clothes. The medieval tunic would also be belted at the waist, which would carry the tools of our commoner’s trade.
The WealthyAs usual, the rich had the most interesting clothes. When it came to their tunics, they would wear a longer flowing garment that usually reached the ankles. This was similar to the style worn by the Roman upper classes. They were considered formal wear among those who could afford it, military men wore shorter tunics, but of fine material. The extra material wasn’t just because of the fashion, but it would show off the much finer cloth of the wealthy. This would be made from finer wools or linens. As silk was introduced, tunics made entirely of silk or with silk trimmings became a very clear indicator or wealth. Like more common tunics, these would either be designed to be pulled over the head, or with a slit down the front that could be fastened with a brooch. The brooch gave the wealthy and noble man another opportunity to display his wealth and status. The embroidery of these tunics would be more elaborate than that of the commoner. These longer tunics could be split up to the waist at the front and the back and were usually worn over hose. Atop the medieval tunic would be an outer tunic, or a cloak. The cloak could likewise be secured with an ornate brooch.
The Evolution of the TunicFor a long time, medieval fashion stayed largely the same. There was more variation among the rich, but even then, the basic style only changed a little. These changes were usually improvements in the processing of dyes and wools, and richer materials became more common. Furs came into fashion among the richer men. For a budding LARPer, this relative stagnancy is actually great news. If you’re creating a costume which emulates a medieval commoner, your character will fit in well in almost every event. Even a noble would have similar clothing throughout much of the middle ages. However, in the later middle ages, things started to change for medieval tunics. Whereas before, a long tunic was the height of fashion, the 14th century saw things take a sudden reversal. The trend now called for hem-lengths to shorten. This trend was seen in all classes, if to a lesser extent among the poor. Eventually, the medieval tunic became so short and so tight among the most fashionable noble men, that it essentially disappeared. Instead, they just wore their doublets or cotehardie. The cotehardie were formfitting and reached the hips. This fashion was often considered immodest, as the hose that was usually hidden beneath the loose-fitting tunic left little to the imagination. By the end of the 14th century, medieval tunics were largely abandoned by the majority of men, being worn only by those needed to project an air of dignity. A form of tunic, otherwise known as a tabard, did appear in the 15th century, but it was not the same by any means.
Other Men’s TunicsThere were some variations among men’s medieval tunics, which were found in specific groups of people, usually among the upper classes. These were found among knights and the religious orders.
- The medieval knight tunic that we’re more familiar is also often referred to as a tabard or a surcote, depending on the style. While medieval knights did wear tunics outside of battle, these would be very similar to the tunics of other nobility. In battle, they wore long sleeveless tunics over their armour which identified them. Eventually, they were phased out completely as suits of plate armour became common.
- Long flowing tunics were also worn by and associated with the religious orders. This tunic was worn underneath an outer sleeveless garment and tended to have large sleeves. This is still true today, as many vestments still call for a long, robe-like tunic.