BASIC DARK AGE AND MEDIĂVAL COSTUME

Introduction

In these notes, I shall try to give you some tips on reasonably authentic Dark Age and MediŠval costuming. I cannot promise to be totally correct on all points, and I shall make some sweeping generalisations, but this guide should give you the basic information you need for your first set of clothes. I also recommend looking through some books on historical costume, as they'll give you a better idea of how the clothes you'd like to make should look.

These notes should also be helpful if you're creating a costume with a fantasy theme, based on a near-mediŠval milieu. Since you're not striving for historical accuracy, you can use embellishments and brighter colours.

Colours and Materials

Getting colours and materials right is probably the most important aspect of mediŠval costuming. Even the most perfectly-tailored garb is going to look wrong if made from Day-Glo pink polyester.

Firstly, colours. These were obtained from natural materials such as plants and minerals. Some colours were impossible to obtain, such as lime green and bright pink, emerald, sky blue or turquoise. Other colours were hideously expensive, like bright red and purple, and pure white or black. Unless you were rich, you could only use these colours in decorative braids or embroidery.

As a rule of thumb, go for natural-looking colours. A wide range of yellows, oranges, greys, browns and greens are suitable. Soft reds, purples and blues are reasonable if muted rather than bright.

Secondly, fabrics. The most authentic materials are linen and wool. Wool is easily obtained, but it may take some time to find the right combination of colour, weave and weight. Linen is very expensive, so use coarse cotton instead. Later mediŠval costumes could include silk and velvet, but I'm afraid I don't know much about these.

Weave and weight are important. MediŠval fabrics were hand spun and woven, so they would be coarser and less even than most modern fabrics. Also, if your material is too thin and light, it won't hang correctly. Most garments look best if made in heavy materials. Look in the curtain and upholstery department as well as the haberdashery.

In general, it's best to stick to natural fibres. However, there are some artificial or mixed fabrics that have the right appearance. For example, I use a "linen-look" material for my dark-age trousers. Watch out for fabrics that are knitted rather than woven: these are definitely not in period.

I particularly recommend unbleached calico for chemises, shirts and linings. It resembles the shirt-weight linen used for the Bayeux Tapestry, and it is much cheaper than most other materials. It is therefore ideal for complete beginners who want to practise their needlework without having to worry about ruining a piece of expensive fabric. It can be washed over and over again, and when it gets too white (from the bleaches in modern washing powders) it can easily be hand-dyed for added authenticity.

Finally, motifs and decoration. This is where you'll have to look in the library for inspiration. The patterns woven into a fabric, or the motifs used in trimming, braids and embroidery, are often particularly evocative of a particular culture. For example, checks and stripes give a Celtic look to garments. Printed patterns are a no-no unless you're from the Far East. Rich merchants and noblemen might try looking at curtain fabrics for heavyweight materials with suitable embroidered patterns.

Sewing

Most simple types of hand stitching are authentic. Ideally, the whole garment should be hand-stitched. I compromise by sewing all the blind seams by machine, since the stitches won't be seen anyway. I then sew by hand any fiddly bits and any bits where the stitching will show. Don't worry if your sewing isn't perfectly even: mediŠval costume is meant to look home-made.

Figure 1

If you're using a coarse-woven fabric, or you're making a garment that will receive heavy wear (like a shirt or trousers), be sure to finish off the raw edges of your seams. One method is to sew a double seam - see Figure 1. This is very robust, but is only suitable for lighter fabrics, otherwise the seams become too bulky. For thicker materials, use overhand stitches looped around the raw edges to stop them unravelling.

Simple Patterns for Men

The basic costume for men up to at least 1300AD was shirt, tunic and hose. The shirt and tunic would be based on the simple "T-tunic" pattern. The shirt would most likely be of linen and the tunic of wool. The length of both shirt and tunic varied with period. Knee-length was common. To allow free movement of the legs, the garment would either widen out below the waist to give a full "skirt", or would be slit to about hip level. Slits were usually at the sides, but were sometimes at front and back.

Shirts tended to be fairly close-fitting about the neck and wrists. To allow the head to go through the neck hole, there was a small slit at the front, which could be held closed by a brooch if desired. Shirt sleeves came down to the wrist and were often long enough to bunch up on the forearm.

Tunics would likewise be pulled on over the head. The neck opening could be a little more open than that of the shirt, and would likewise have a small slit at the front. Alternatively, the neck could be loose, giving enough room for the head to pass through. Sleeves were of varying length, according to period, but generally came most of the way down the forearm, revealing the ends of the shirt sleeves at the wrists. Tunic sleeves could either be fairly close-fitting or loose.

Figure2 Figure 2 shows a basic T-tunic style shirt. The method of construction is to take a strip of material long enough to go over the head and hang down to the desired length front and back. Alternatively, join two pieces to form such a strip. The strip should be wide enough so that the finished garment can be pulled on over your head and shoulders - it's meant to be loose-fitting around the body. Cut out a circular hole for the neck. This hole should be offset toward the front of the garment, as you can see by looking at a modern shirt or jumper. Cut a slit down the front, just long enough to allow the shirt to go over your head. It's difficult to turn over the edges of a circular hole to make a hem, so I trim the edges of the neck opening with bias binding. (Use 1"/25mm binding folded in half.) Next, lay the fabric out, unfolded, and attach the sleeves to the body (A-A). Fold again, then sew along the sleeves and down to hip level (B & C). Finally, neatly hem the cuffs and the bottom of the tunic, or trim with bias binding. A wider binding (2"/50mm) looks nice round the bottom.

Figure 3 Tunics are made in a similar way. Either use the simple shirt pattern, or an alternative design such as those shown in Figure 3. Adding diamond-shaped pieces under the armpits (to give freedom of movement) and flares down the sides (to create a full "skirt") is a more efficient way to use fabric, but takes extra sewing. Braid or trimming can be added, if appropriate, to decorate the neck, cuffs, and bottom of the tunic.

Loose hose was similar to pyjama trousers, tied with a drawstring around the waist. They suffered the major drawback that they didn't have flies! Dark-age trousers can be made by unpicking an old pair of pyjama trousers and laying them out on your material as a pattern. Cut out the pieces, leaving a generous allowance for seams, and sew them together. Then turn the waitband over at the top and thread a drawstring through. Hose often had stirrup-like bands that went under the foot, or else covered the foot entirely like modern tights. This stops the trousers riding up, but make sure the legs are long enough to allow you to crouch down comfortably. The Saxons sometimes kept their hose from flapping about by winding fabric strips up their calves. The winding could either be all in one direction, like puttees, or crosswise. Vikings and Celts left their trousers loose.

Close-fitting hose requires a stretchy material. Use a medium-weight wool or a sweatshirt fabric with the fluffy side out. Measure your leg at points all the way from groin to ankle, and work out the shape you need to fit it. Remember not to make the hose so tight at the ankle that you can't get it on over your foot. Cut the material to the required shape, but cut it on the cross (ie so that the long axis of your pattern is at 45░ to the edges of the cloth). This gives the hose its stretchiness. Tack the seams together and try on, then adjust to fit before finally sewing up. This sort of hose was made in single legs (like stockings) until about the 15th Century. They would have been worn with "boxer shorts", which would be tied around the waist by a drawstring or belt. The hose would have been held up by tying them to the shorts or belt with laces. Later hose was made in one piece, like ballet dancers wear. To make this, adapt the loose hose pattern to fit tightly.

Simple Patterns for Women

Ladies would wear a gown, with a chemise underneath, both ankle-length. Chemises can be made like shirts, but much longer and with a full skirt. If you wish, you can make the neck opening very wide, and close it up with a drawstring, provided you allow plenty of material around the shoulders. Viking women, amongst others, often laboriously pleated their chemises.

Simple gowns for dark-age women can be made like long tunics. From about the 11th Century, gowns for women were fitted to the body and laced up or buttoned, either at the back or down the sides. These can be constructed using variations on the T-tunic pattern. Sleeves varied from very loose, with dangling cuffs, to tightly laced along the forearm. After about 1200AD ladies' garments began to get quite fancy, beyond my ability to describe!

An alternative style favoured by Viking women was to wear two rectangles of fabric over their chemise. The material would usually have decorated borders and panels. One piece would hang down the back, and would have fabric straps which went over the shoulders. These were fastened to the front piece by large ornamental brooches above the breasts.

Accessories

Getting the right footwear is important, but not easy; bear the following points in mind. Shoes and boots were all flat-soled, and were never fastened using eyelets and laces. Leather would be various shades of brown, as only natural tanning agents were available. Ladies' shoes and boots are available in a wide range of styles, so women should be able to find something suitable. Men can go barefoot or wear flat sandals, if appropriate. Alternatively, plain boots (not lace-up) with low heels will serve, especially if made of soft leather.

Figure 4 If you want to make your own shoes, either out of fabric or leather, a simple pattern is shown in Figure 4. The seam that runs over the top of the foot from the toes to the ankle was often decorated. Sew this seam to fit the shoe to your foot, but make sure it can be put on and taken off again! Don't worry if your shoes don't fit too well - mediŠval shoes often didn't either.

A belt is essential to pull in your tunic round the waist and give it the correct profile. It is also a useful place to hang weapons, pouches of money, etc. Belts can be either fabric (an ideal subject for decoration) or leather. Leather should be brown with a simple buckle. The buckle can be ornamental, provided its mechanism is of the ordinary type, and the leather can be embossed. ArchŠological evidence suggests that women wore fabric rather than leather belts.

Many useful bits of jewellery, eating utensils, goblets, and similar bric-a-brac can be found in charity shops. It's always worth a look.

Cloaks are easy to make. A heavy coarse woollen cloth is essential. The two basic forms are rectangular and semi-circular. The dimensions depend on period, and whether the cloak is for summer or winter wear. The semi-circular cloak is worn by placing the middle of the straight edge against the back of the neck, draping the straight edges down the front of the body, and fastening across the chest. The rectangular cloak is donned by folding it around the left side of the body, so that one half passes across the chest and the other half across the back. The front and back are then pinned together with a sturdy brooch over the right shoulder. The ends hang down, leaving the sword arm free, (left-handers should reverse the instructions).

Head coverings and hairstyles varied considerably with time and location. Women wore their hair long, usually with some sort of veil or headdress.

Further Reading

The final word is that you should only take the above notes as a general guide. Look in your local library and bookshops for books on costume. A little research is very rewarding, and is essential if you are striving for even a modicum of authenticity.

Of the books in my own library, I particularly recommend the following:


This guide was originally written to accompany a presentation at the 1992 Eastercon (British Science Fiction Convention). The author would like to thank the many members of The Far Isles Medieval Society from whose works he has drawn inspiration. (In other words, "I wrote this, but I admit I cribbed some of your ideas".)
ę 1992, 1997, Trevor Barker.  Permission is given to reproduce and distribute this work, on the following conditions: this must not be done for profit, and this copyright notice must remain attached and unaltered.

About the Author
Trevor Barker, MA DPhil, studied Chemistry at Oxford University. He works for a leading software and systems integration company and is married with two young children.
Robert fitz John joined Duke William's army in 1066 as a mercenary archer. He is currently Sheriff of Blackwater in the Principality of the Far Isles. Amongst other things, he is a Seamster in the Guild of Needleworkers.

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