Exploration One: Medieval Clothing Europe (1100-1400)

In 1327, Edward II founded the round table, which can be used as a landmark for the end of the old days, and beginning of the new, modern, medieval period. The ideals of chivalry and knighthood swept across the land. People were able to create complete careers, be given land, and gold, from their king, for competing well in competitions, and on the battle field. People still believed in magic, and creatures we’ve come to know today as mythological.

Medieval clothing is one of the turning points in fashion history. It’s a time when court dress exploded across Europe, and wool, linen, and especially silk industries boomed. Silk was prized so dramatically, that first, it could only be used at highly regarded religious ceremonies. Interest in fashion blossomed across Europe, and the silk road brought interesting jewels, silks, fiber, and ideas from the East. The textile business was flourishing so much, that it became possible for people from a range of classes, and walks of life, to buy higher quality clothing. It’s a part of history when men and women’s styles of dress distinctly parted from each other, and each sex embraced different desirable proportions.


The Textile Evolution of this Time:

The horizontal loom: The invention of the horizontal loom gave weavers the opportunity to create huge pieces of artwork out of silk. The looms could produce pieces of silk up to 6 1/2 feet, by 98 feet.

Dyes of the Time:

Cloth of Scarlet: Extracted by the Mediterranean insect, the kermes,
Purple: the ancient shellfish dye,
Perse, Blue/Green): Distilled from a plant distantly related to the wallflower - can be found in many places,
Brown and black: Came from the outward shells of walnuts,
Whitened: Fabrics were whitened by soaking them in buttermilk and being left in the sun to dry.


Women were expected to have small waists, narrow shoulders, and a fair complexion. Small hands were significantly valued as well, and were considered an expression of a woman’s feminine nature. Women wore fitted dresses, which usually tied up in the back. Sleeves were anywhere from 5 inches wide, some being so long that they touched the floor. At the beginning of the 400 year era, women would wear a robe which would wrap across their body. As time progressed the dresses became long, and flowing, with various layers. The skirts themselves didn’t protrude too dramatically from the body, but would gradually grow in size up through the renaissance, and continued up until the neoclassical phase.

A little later in the Medieval ages (around 1100-1200) the surcoat came into fashion. The Surcoat, originally made for women, found its way into male fashion as well. The armholes were made very big, so you could peacock the robe-like garment you had underneath. If you came from a wealthy family even your girdle would be made from precious materials, and covered in precious jewels.


One of the most exciting aspects of this period was the trends in headwear. Hats had so much to do with public standing and class. There were hundreds of styles, so it’s hard to do justice to the almost endless plethora of fashion statements you can see in visual representations of the time. Men wore hats too, generally a little less prodigious then their female counterparts. Velvet was popular, as well as colored wool, and furs such as otter, and beaver. Your hat would establish which class you came from, and this is why the medieval times are so famous for their headwear today. There is hardly any visual representation of people from those days, which doesn’t include a hat on top of their head, be they male or female.

During the crusades, purses came into fashion, and they’d attach to your belt with a ribbon or metal cord. Gold, silver, pearls and precious jewels were very much in fashion as the Medieval period hit its luxurious peak around 1200-1300. Court dress was wild with a variety of exotic furs, usually lining coats. Ermine, otter, beaver, fox, rabbit, ferret, and squirrel were particular favorites of the extremely wealthy. This was a phase in history, just before the globalized world as we know it. With the renaissance came knowledge on a completely different level than ever seen before. It was the last of the dark ages, and the beginning of what we can contemplate as a modern age.

This gives the idea of what a surcoat was like, layered over the women’s wrap dress, and then eventually over whatever men wore.

It was a time in history, when men were the fashionistas of Europe. Significantly less attention was given to women’s clothing, and men used their clothing as a way to peacock around their daily lives, trying to attract approval. Men would wear stockings and breeches. The breeches have been made famous through history, as they had a round ballooning design. The stockings were generally made out of the same material as the breeches. Large belts were in fashion, and if you could afford it, they’d be bling-ed up, and intensified through size and design. Most detailed representations of clothing from the time, are of men. This is thought to be because of the social circumstance of the hierarchy at this time. Men’s proportions drew special attention to making the shoulders large and bold, their legs thin and long, and finally, their genitals dramatized to an almost ridiculous degree.


Here, we can view a variety of looks from Medieval times ... Tights were the most popular trend for men from this era. They would generally wear stockings, shoes, an undershirt, and a constricting vest like over-shirt. The vest can be seen in the painting above, modeled by the man who has apparently chopped off some poor knobs head. You can see from the man in red clothing, that he is of noble birth, obviously having a skilled tailor. The fur on his collar is most likely beaver fur. Pads were added to the shoulders in most cases, in order to make the shoulders stand stronger and wider looking.

Shoes were still very simple, it was popular for the toes to point.

Slowly, as the fourteenth century came along, the timeline blurs to exactly when the Medieval ages subsided, and the Renaissance began. I suppose it was when Italian fashions seeped across Europe and Italy’s artistic dominance over Europe began.


Exploration One: Chinese Fashion: The Tang Dynasty 618-907

The Tang Dynasty in China, is one of my favorite clothing periods of the East. Taking place during a renaissance of feminine power, the Tang dynasty was a 300 year stretch between 618-907 AD. China’s only female monarch, Empress Wu Zetian, came into power around 70 years after the beginning of this dynasty, and brought with her a revolution in female rights, like never seen before in China. Tang women were free to educate themselves, history, philosophy, politics and military skills, women had an almost never-ending plethora of opportunities for them to grow in themselves during this time. During the Tang dynasty, poetry was a common pastime for men and women, not just high born men and women, but people from the common population too. Women from all classes could dance, go riding, and even play polo!

The Tang dynasty women had a huge amount of freedom for that time, women were allowed to virtually run wild. Divorce was not looked down upon in the same way, and couples who agreed to divorce mutually were accepted. Even princesses weren’t looked down upon for having the freedom of remarrying, which was an incredible and modern step in society at this time, as princesses have been used throughout time as a way to make ties between families.

This picture shows two upper class women walking a puppy.

FUN FACT: Before 618, women were expected to only ever leave the house wearing a face covering veil, this was partly to protect against dust, but mainly to hide women’s faces from the public. Throughout time, in multiple cultures, this has been a way to isolate women from those outside their families circle. Over the course of the 6th century, the veil decreased in length until it completely disappeared and replaced by a hat, until 713, when that disappeared too.

The effect Empress Wu Zetian’s reign had on feminism was quite dramatic. It became popular to wear very, low cut shirts, exposing cleavage-- Just imagine! Besides the dramatic low cut, a blouse was worn on top of this, with long, narrow, sleeves which extended 6-3ft in length! The blouse had no buttons, but was kept closed by a long, high waisted skirt, which rested just under the breasts, and tied with a ribbon.


By this time in history, the Chinese had already discovered how to harness silk worm’s cocoons, for the making of beautiful silk fabric. This made the Chinese the most advanced out of all the other civilizations in the world back then. They were able to create patterns with shape, patterns, and multiple colors. Their textiles had evolved past ‘simply doing the job’ and into luxury.

26 tang-dynasty-sculpture

Hair was a theatrical, and ornamental add on to their outfit. There were a variety of ‘popular’ hair styles with different names, and it was an important part of being presentable. A few examples of names include, ‘rolled up lotus leaf’, ‘conch shell’, and ‘cloud style’. Common add ons to their updo’s included gold and silver combs and pins, and foe flowers.

This is a lily knot from the Tang dynasty.

Tang women were famous for their makeup, which they liked to change and play with daily. The average day of makeup included a white layer of foundation, typically made from lead, red lips, intricate eyebrows in unusual shapes, a huadian on their foreheads. Two little dots at the corner of the lips was a popular feature in this dynasty, and a faint red curved line at the temples of her forehead.

Huadian: a feather, or a gold/silver piece of foil, cut into a blossom or plum.

The Hufu was a unisex outfit which was accepted by the Chinese as ‘foreigners clothing’, as China was one of the biggest trading capitals of the world at this point. This outfit consisted of a waist length jacket, trousers, and a leather belt and boots. Women of the Tang loved this outfit, as it was an alternative to the skirt, and allowed them to ride horseback easier. The men would wear their hufu made from simpler silk, well, in comparison to women who would wear decadent colors and patterns. Women’s lust for clothes will never change.

Believe it or not, there is hardly any historical information about men’s clothing in the Tang dynasty, as all anyone could talk about was the women’s clothing. Not even the emperors robes, or crown were ever properly described. What we do know is that at court assemblies, people were expected for their robes to match their rank in society. The highest ranking members of court would wear purple, going down from this came vermillion, green, and then finally blue. The men generally wore robes of two kinds during the Tang dynasty, a tighter robe with a round, and short cut collar, or a looser robe with long wide sleeves, and a collar which stood up around their neck.


Generally speaking throughout history, Chinese men wore their hair long, and placed it in a bun atop their heads, Tang men covered their hair with a head cloth, which was later replaced with a hat which did the same job. The Hat came in different shapes, and heights.