Fashion as Catalyst

One aspect of everyday life that changed markedly in the fourteenth century was fashion, especially among nobles and the wealthiest of commoners, who could afford to follow trend rather than utility. England began to mimic the extravagant French style of dress in the beginning of the century, largely because of Edward II’s marriage to a French princess. Later kings, Edward III and Richard II, inherited his love of luxury, leading England further into an era of wildly extravagant costume. (Norris, 204-5)

While certain standards of modesty were rigidly upheld, such as a woman’s duty to cover her arms and hide her legs, others were forgotten. (Norris, 205) Buttons, now used as a method of closure (rather than a solely decorative addition as in the 13th century), allowed new techniques in construction to come into vogue; namely, tailoring. (Singman, 37-8) As garments no longer had to be pulled on over the head, they could fit and even shape the female form. The tight fit allowed collars to recede from the throat, passing even beyond the shoulders. The neckline traveled so far from the actual neck that carefully placed brooches or armbands were used to prevent the collar from falling too low. (Norris, 205, 231-2)

Unlike today, cloth was prohibitively expensive in medieval Europe. After cleaning and dressing raw fibers such as linen or wool, lower-class women would spin thread by hand. The drop-spindle was gradually replaced with a spinning wheel, speeding the process somewhat, but still one woman could produce only one strand of thread at a time. (Singman, 35-6) Previously, the woman would have then woven her thread into fabric with a vertical loom consisting of many threads arrayed lengthwise which hung and were held taught by weights tied to the end of each thread. (Singman, 36)

The horizontal loom altered this way of doing things. While it was more efficient, it was also more expensive. Urban tradesmen now owned the looms, and lower-class women would sell thread to them, rather than weaving it themselves. (Piponnier & Mane, 27) The horizontal loom made weaving much quicker, but still the process was done entirely by hand (as opposed to later looms with a foot peddle that separated up & down threads so that the shuttle could pass through quickly.) The weaving industry of England, in particular, advanced greatly during the fourteenth century, largely because of royal influence on the trade. (Norris, 280)

Once the fabric was woven, it still had to be finished and dyed. Medieval dyes were not fully permanent, though there was some understanding of the need for a mordant to fix the color in the cloth, to make it hold fast. Examples of common fourteenth century mordants are alum (aluminum potassium sulfate), gum arabic, vinegar, and even urine. The fabric would be boiled in a mordant and then placed into the dye itself. Colors were obtained with both organic substances, such as nuts or flowers, and chemical substances, such as rusted iron or lapis lazuli. (About the Recipes)

The finished fabric would then be sold to a draper, from whom a household could purchase it. A tailor was then called upon to transform the fabric into a garment — tailors provided only the thread. While chambermaids or other household servants would usually make the undergarments, the period’s closely fitting garments required the skill of a specialist. Most aristocrats did not have the means or the necessity for a full-time household tailor, so they would receive the tailor and his assistants in the home. (Piponnier & Mane, 27-31)

The extravagance of the period’s style required the services of a new kind of labor, other than the weaver and the tailor. A lady now required assistance to get into her clothing each morning. There may have been servants assigned to dress aristocrats in previous centuries, but the simple, baggy cut of the old designs didn’t really call for it. Now, it became a necessity. (Woolgar, 42) The lady-in-waiting would have warmed the night-chilled clothing by the fire, and then assisted her mistress in putting on the undergarments. This consisted of a shift of linen, a tightly laced corset extending over the hips, hose that reached the knee and were fastened by a lace or a buckled garter, and possibly a band of cloth wrapped around the bosom for shape and support. (Singman, 40-1; Norris, 205)

The maid would then help her lady into a gown called a “cotehardie”, which would be either laced up the back or buttoned in front, with a very tight-fitting waist. These gowns had several large gores (triangular or trapezoidal sections of fabric inserted at seams to add fullness) which allowed a full skirt without bunching at the waist and also made better economy of fabric than a simple gathered waist would. The bottom had a somewhat elliptical shape, creating a train that flowed behind the lady as she walked. At the elbows of the cotehardie’s tight sleeves were very long, narrow strips of fabric, called “tippets”, which served no apparent purpose other than to show off how much precious fabric could be wasted on trivialities.


In the front of the cotehardie were two vertical slots that look almost like pockets. They are unlined, however; simply slits in the front of the skirt. These had several purposes. They allowed a lady to lift and carry her skirt more easily, to place her hands inside for warmth, or to access a purse suspended safely beneath the gown. These openings were all but invisible, in some cases, and decorated elaborately in others.

Over this close fitting gown, a fashionable woman would wear a belt intricately decorated with gold and jewels. This hung low, over the hips rather than the waist, and emphasized the slender waist that was to be desired in this period. Over both the cotehardie and the hip belt came the “sideless gown”. It was much like a jumper, in that it had no sleeves and was worn over another dress. The armholes extended low enough that the hip belt was visible at the sides, and the back was cut wider than the front so that the lining would be visible when the lady moved. It had no fastenings, and was slipped on over the head.

With the train of the cotehardie, the train of the sideless gown, which was often lined with fur, and the train of the fur-lined, cloak-like garments that would be worn for full and semi-state attire, a noblewoman was carrying around quite a lot of weight. All of this excess fabric required a fourth new sort of labor — the trainbearer. (Norris, 217)

Because of improved methods of travel and the prosperity that followed the

devastation of the plague, the transfer of design and cloth from country to country became far more common in the 1300’s. (Norris, 253) The use of fine, expensive, imported fabrics became so conspicuous as to prompt new sumptuary laws. These dictated, based on rank, what materials a person could legally wear, regardless of what materials were affordable. (Rowling, 92)

The sumptuary laws, however, were not effective in quenching the thirst for finery that dominated the 1300’s. (Norris, 206) Marriage between lower nobility and wealthy merchants became more frequent, with the result that the distinction between rank and class was more fluid. Theoretically, a woman’s costume was a right accorded by her rank in society. In practice, a woman’s economic class often became the deciding factor in the style of her clothing. (Norris, 205) Thus, the fourteenth century’s extravagance in fashion was both a cause and an effect of the blossoming, urban economy that characterizes it.

Works consulted

  • About the Recipes.
  • Braun & Schneider. The History of Costume. C. 1861-1880. Posted by C. Otis Sweezey.
  • De Huguenin, Jehanne. Garb Seemly and Proper, Part IV: The Fourteenth Century.
  • Norris, Herbert. Medieval Costume and Fashion. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1999.
  • Piponnier, Françoise and Perrine Mane. Trans. Caroline Beamish. Dress in the Middle Ages. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2000.
  • Rowling, Marjorie. Everyday Life in Medieval Times. New York: Dorset Press. 1987.
  • Shaw, Henry, FSA. Dress and Decoration of the Middle Ages. 1858. Ed. William Yenne. Cobb, California: First Glance Books. 1998.
  • Singman, Jeffrey L.. Daily Life in Medieval Europe. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 1999.
  • Woolgar, C.M.. The Great Household in Late Medieval England. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1999.

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