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The Medieval Period | History Of Fashion And Hairstyling

The Medieval Period


The Viking invasions of Britain, during the late 10th and early 11th centuries, had little effect on the customs and fashions of the people. The next strong influence came from the Normans from France. Their conquest of Britain was completed by the death of Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The Bayeux Tapestry gives us a useful insight into what the Normans wore as well as the Anglo-Saxons.

Dress (Fig. 4.9) Women

Early Norman dress consisted of variations to the basic tunic. It was worn sometimes short to the knees, or longer to the ankles. Sometimes a longer tunic was worn with a shorter outer tunic on top, called a `dalmatic', which had sleeves and tended to emphasise the cuff. The material was either wool or linen, and the Normans liked to decorate their garments with a border design. These tunics were usually worn with a belt around the waist. The hood had become a separate piece of clothing and was worn like a very loose balaclava with a shoulder cape.

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Fig. 4.9 Norman fashions.

Later, around 1100 AD, a new style appeared for the noblewoman. A tighter-fitting bodice to the hips was worn (replacing the outer tunic) with a fuller skirt which fell in folds to the feet or even longer, forming a train. Suddenly the female figure was revealed. This early form of corseting was achieved by tight lacing at the back. The sleeves became a feature about this time, being worn tight to the elbow, then belling out into very wide cuffs. These cuffs grew to incredible widths, even so far as to be hanging to the ground (Fig. 4.10).

Another fashion that started about this time was the wearing of a 'girdle', which was a leather band worn over the gown, wrapped around the waist, and fastened on the hips with silken tassels attached in the front and left hanging down to the feet.


Early Norman men wore their tunics at knee-length and either wore woollen breeches or hose. Breeches were ankle-length trousers corded at the top for support. On top of these sometimes would be worn leg bandages, which were strips of cloth bound round the legs in spirals or criss-cross. Hose were like

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Fig. 4.10 Female fashions of the 12th century — the figure begins to be revealed.

knee-length stockings. The other variation of dress was the longer under- tunic worn under a shorter outer-tunic. Both styles were belted. Later, the hose extended to mid-thigh and was worn pulled over the breeches.

Both sexes would wear leather sandals (if they could afford them) or thick woollen pads on the feet.

Hair styles and headdresses Women

Women began to display their hair again in the 12th century, being very proud of their long tresses. Plaits became very popular and grew to enormous lengths, even to the ground. All sorts of schemes and devices were used to make the hair appear abundant. Extensions were plaited in silk, gold and silver sheaths; false hair was also used. The ends of the plaits were weighted with heavy ornaments to hold them straight (see Fig. 4.10). Sometimes four plaits were worn, two hung over the shoulders in the front and two behind.

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Long plaits were popular until about 1170, when the fashion required shorter plaits wrapped round the head and secured at the front.

Earlier fashions in headdresses saw a simple veil being held in place by a band of gold worn around the head. Later, towards the late 12th century, a band of material was worn under the chin and pinned around the head. It was known as the `barbette' and became the basis for headdresses until the early 14th century. At this particular time the `barbette' was usually worn with a 'fillet' (see Fig. 4.11), which was a band of cloth that was worn around the head over the top of the `barbette'.

Another important form of headwear that stayed popular for about 200 years was the 'wimple'. It consisted of a length of linen that was draped under the chin, obscuring the throat and pinned to the hair at the crown. It was usually worn with a veil. Later, it was sometimes worn without a veil and the ends would be tucked into the coiled hair at the temples. It was then called a `gorges' (see Fig. 4.12).

Blonde hair was fashionable and women would sit for endless hours in the sun with their hair stretched out in an attempt to lighten it. Later, saffron dyes were used to lighten the hair.


Early Norman men wore their hair long and were usually bearded. Later, the hair was worn shorter and they were clean shaven, although this fashion was short-lived. Beards and moustaches were soon worn again, but this time they were kept neatly trimmed. Men wore several forms of hats, one of the most common still being the hood, worn as a separate garment with a shoulder cape. Other common forms of headwear were the `phrygian' hat, which was a sort of pointed beret, and the 'coif' (see Fig. 4.13). The 'coif' was a small linen hood that sat snugly on the head and had flaps that covered the ears. It tied under the chin. This headwear stayed fashionable for both sexes until the

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Fig. 4.13 (a) 'Coif; (b) `phrygian' hat.

Tudor period of the 16th century. Wide-brimmed hats were worn when travelling, usually over a 'coif'.


The next great stimulus to changing fashions came in the late 14th century, as Britain began to recover from the devastation of the plague. Emancipation from the feudal system also brought newly acquired wealth, although humble, to the poor, and this led to a revived interest in dress.

Dress Women

During the late 14th century the slender waist became a desirable feature following on from earlier trends (see Fig. 4.10). The result was the introduction of the corset (a lace-up version) to acquire this desirable shape. This was, perhaps, an innocent development but it was to become the curse of women throughout history, periodically developing into extremes and grossly distorting the figure. The gown was still the basic garment in the 13th and early 14th centuries, but the wearing of the girdle disappeared and was replaced by a sort of sleeveless, sideless tunic worn over the gown, called a `cyclas'. This extra garment subsequently made the 'mantle' cloak unpopular (Fig. 4.14). The `cyclas' then disappeared with the development of the tighter- fitting gowns of the late 14th century. Materials became heavier — in particular velvet, which was popular. Another feature about this time was the

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Fig. 4.14 Gown and mantle cloak of the 13th century (in foreground) replaced by the popular `cyclas'.

wearing of long strips of material that were attached to the elbow, called `tippets' (see Fig. 4.15).


One of the important adaptations to dress for men was the `surcote' or super tunic, worn over the basic under tunic. It was adapted from the tabards worn by the crusading knights. First it was sleeveless, being slit at least to the waist, but later it adopted sleeves. The 13th century saw the passion for Gothic architecture, and the long tall spires started to be echoed in the shape of the dress. Pointed shoes became very fashionable, although they were to reach their peak more towards the 15th century (see Fig. 4.15).

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Fig. 4.15 14th century female fashions showing the trend for 'tippets' and the male 'gothic' style of dress.

A feature that was characteristic of the 14th Century was 'clagged edges', which was when the hem and sleeves of the tunic were cut to give a jagged effect (see Fig. 4.16).

The late 14th century saw the disappearance of the `surcote' and the introduction of the `cotehardie', a tighter fitting, shorter over-tunic that required the wearing of a full hose (similar to tights).

Hair styles and headdresses Women

A form of headwear emerged in the 13th century which was usually worn with the `barbette' and became popular with most women until the late 14th century. It was the `crespine', a sort of caul net that encased the coiled or plaited hair at the nape of the neck (Fig. 4.17). It was an important feature as it became the basis for many headdresses in the succeeding centuries and has stayed with us throughout history, reappearing periodically: Victorian caul nets; 1940s snoods; a version of it is even around today in the slightly

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Fig. 4.16 `Dagged edges'.

smaller, circular nets used to envelope buns, etc. The tendency to cover the head more became apparent in these centuries, and it was not until the 16th century (Elizabethan period) that the head was exposed again.

Another characteristic style of the 14th century was the wearing of a `crespine' with two long plaits worn at either side of the head. The 'circlet' was another popular headdress of the 14th century. This was an open-work metal casing worn either side of the face and joined by a decorated metal band or fillet worn around the forehead (Fig. 4.18). The hair would be plaited and folded into the casing. The 'cushion' headdress consisted of a padded roll worn over the hairnet or `crespine' with the hair coiled at the temples (Fig. 4.19). An important fashionable detail of the late 14th century was the trend for women to shave or pluck their hairline back to attain the very fashionable high forehead that had become so desirable. This continued until the end of the 15th century.


During the 13th century men wore their hair in a very basic bob style, a style that has been revived many times throughout history but worn more by

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women. It was parted in the middle just above the forehead and the sides were dressed into loose waves and rolled under at the jaw line. The most popular form of hat for men was the 'chaperon', which was made from cloth into a circular padded roll with folds of material attached to the top. These would be either hanging down loose or gathered up round the face, keeping the hat secure (Fig. 4.20).

Cosmetics and make-up Women

Paintings and portraits from this period indicate that women in the 13th and 14th centuries preferred a very clean, sometimes virginal look. The skin was

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usually portrayed as delicate white and totally unblemished with the appearance of porcelain. The eyes were left natural. The only indication of make-up was rouge on the lips.

The fashion for plucking eyebrows was popular, although unlike the ancient Egyptians these women did not replace the eyebrow with a drawn line. Considering the raised hairline, the face must have appeared extremely bare (see Fig. 4.23).


The same paintings and portraits show no signs of men wearing any form of make-up or any obvious alteration to their facial features.