7 Absurd Medieval Fashion Rules That You Won't Believe Women Actually Had To Follow
When we think back to the times of medieval fashion, we probably have a romantic view of the clothing and accessories. It was all satin ball gowns and pointy princess hats, impressive gold chains, and velvet capes. But in reality, women's medieval fashion was much, much different than what Sleeping Beauty portrays. It also had many political undertones when it came to what women could and couldn't wear on any given day. While it might be obvious that peasants didn't have mink cloaks stored in their closets, did you know they couldn't save up and buy one even if they wanted to? Did you know why those pointy women's hats were in vogue, or why women's hair was always swept back and tucked into hats? It wasn't just the look du jour that came over from Paris and everyone was copying — there were a strict set of rules that came with these wardrobe staples.
From the church writing its own version of Vogue and laying down fashion rules to the prevailing idea that women would tank the economy if they were allowed to buy expensive dresses, wardrobes in the Middle Ages looked the way they did for a reason. Ahead is the Medieval lady's guide to fashion — would you be able to do it?
1. Dress In The Clothes That God Gave You
The Middle Ages were a very religious period. Much like how the Renaissance could be defined by its gilded masterpieces and the Victorians by their high tea society, the Medieval period had its Bible. Because of that, it took over every part of people's lives, including their wardrobes.
According to Yvonne Seale, assistant professor of medieval history at SUNY Geneseo, the way Christians saw it was that one's spot in society was divinely assigned, meaning if you were a serf, you had to pick up the serf clothes that went with the part.
"As far as medieval Christians were concerned, the existing social hierarchy was divinely mandated," she tells Bustle. "If God made you a lord living in a castle, your clothing should reflect that; the same applied if you were the wife of a wealthy town merchant or a leper."
It was tricky trying to argue a better outfit, because you wouldn't take up your qualms with a stylist, but with the Church. So essentially, you were stuck with the same style for the rest of your life. You could, of course, try and buy other clothes — but the social stigma attached with that move would almost certainly deter you.
2. Avoid Being Showy At All Costs
In the Bible, pride and gluttony were counted among the seven deadly sins, so followers were discouraged from decorating their arms with layers of gold bangles or wrapping themselves in pretty silks and prints. In order to not lead yourself into temptation and keep straight on the pious road, sumptuary laws were put into place by the government that would dictate which clothes were banned. But while these laws had the added benefit of keeping greed down, their main purpose was actually to control the social hierarchy and make sure everyone stayed firmly in their station.
Even if you were a merchant's wife you wouldn't really be allowed to dabble with the latest fashions your husband was bringing in from over seas. "Women were also to be conscious of not just their gender but their class," Seale says. "Legislation passed during the reign of Edward III of England required, for instance, that craftsmen and peasants’ wives not wear silk veils, or furs other than that of the lamb, rabbit, cat or fox." No minks allowed — the point was to keep it modest and to keep it in your station.
According to Seale, the medieval government often liked to connect women's clothing to bad economies and stalling birthrates (women were too excited trying on clothes to make babies?) and so commentators would try to find instances that would prove it was all a gown's fault for any negative shift in society.
"For example, John of Reading, a 14th-century English writer, wrote with disapproval that when Philippa of Hainault, the foreign-born queen of Edward III, arrived in the country, her influence on fashion was such that men started dressing like 'torturers or demons' and women began 'wearing clothes that were so tight that they wore a fox tail hanging down inside their skirts at the back to hide their arses,'" Seale says. Any fashion outside of the one that had been agreed upon was painted with a demon-like color.
3. Cover Your Hair When Leaving The House
While it might seem outdated to wear a hat just to cover your hair nowadays, it's interesting to point out this shift happened only very recently.
"Covering your head was the norm for men and women in the Middle Ages, as it was in most of Europe and North America until quite recently: Think of how every adult in a movie adaptation of a Jane Austen novel is wearing a bonnet, cap or hat when they’re in public," Seale says. "Your clothing, including your head coverings, and your hair (length, style, visible or not) indicated your rank, occupation, gender, marital status, and religion, all at a glance." So when deciding what to do with your hair, you didn't just get to focus on your personal taste — maybe a bob this month, some bangs? — you had to make sure it aligned with your rank in society.
While your locks fell into a hierarchical order, there was one more connotation attached to them to worry about: sex. "However, men’s head coverings tended to be less restrictive and less sexualized than were women’s head coverings," according to Seale.
That's right, your hair was super "come-hither," and you would have to take great pains to make sure you didn't cross any salacious boundaries when outside.
4. Take The "Sex" Out Of Your Tresses
If you had a love for fashion in the Middle Ages, one thing you would have to get on board with was that the point wasn't to stand out — it was to fit in.
"Nowadays, we tend to think of clothing as a way of marking us out as an individual," Seale says. "For a medieval person, your manner of dress was a way of marking membership in a group."
And reputation in that group was everything — they were so image-conscious and wary of their character that it was scary trying to toe the line. That included hair. Loose, tumbling hair was so synonymous with sexuality that women couldn't appear outside without it neatly tucked away. Proof in point: Only prostitutes could walk around with their locks out.
"In fact, it was often illegal for sex workers to cover their hair outdoors in the Middle Ages," Seale says. "In the 14th century in Bristol and London, prostitutes could only cover their hair with striped hoods in public. There might not have been a formal legal reprimand, but the power of social disapproval was extremely strong."
So imagine what would happen if you decided a headdress wasn't in your aesthetic that day — you'd walk through town with your hair uncovered and everyone in your village would be suspicious of your career change. In fact, Seale points out that if a woman from the French town Arles saw a prostitute with her hair covered, she had the legal right to rip it off. That's how regulated veiling was.
5. Make Sure Textbook Versions Of You Were Just As Modest
This belief extended as far as to the pages of higher learning textbooks. For example, in an anatomy book from that period, there was a diagram sketched out of a pregnant woman showing her internal anatomy. She obviously wasn't wearing and clothes since she was a cadaver and her organs were on full display — and yet she was drawn wearing a headdress that covered her hair and neck!
"Her visual honour is therefore preserved, and viewers are assured that she is still a respectable woman," shared Seale on her blog. Anything less would have been a scandal.
6. Don't Let Your Shoes Rise Above Your Rank
While sumptuary laws extended to all areas of dress, some of the more interesting restrictions fell on shoes. They limited the shapes and materials of the boots, but also, most importantly, the height. A really tall shoe meant that the merchant needed more materials to create it, and more materials meant more gold coins.
"The use of so much fabric and embellishment (I call it bedazzlement) was a sign of excessive wealth — symbols of the immoderation, luxury and vanity that sumptuary laws sought to limit," Dr. Joanna Drell, associate professor of history at the University of Richmond, tells Bustle.
"What seems most interesting here is the way a woman’s role in society necessitated the regulation of her dress in the minds of authorities," Drell says. "A woman embodied the honor and social status of her family and, to some extent, she determined that social status — for example, a bride could elevate the status of her husband."
While it was well known during this time period that women didn't have many rights or little to no room in the public sphere, it's interesting to see how much symbolism was allowed to be heaped on their bodies and clothes.
"A woman’s job — in addition to producing requisite heirs — was to project family honor and social status, and her clothing was central to this," Drell says. Because of that, some families didn't mind ignoring the laws and letting their wives and daughters run free with their tastes.
7. Don't Try To Outsmart The Law (Even Though We Know You Will)
While it was extremely difficult to make both the church and king see the power of a decorative dress, that didn't mean women didn't try. Women of nobility constantly tried to side-step and find loopholes in these laws — and none more so than Florentine women.
They constantly studied and stayed on top of the laws of their city so they could be one step ahead of the police when it came to their clothes. They knew the crack-down on outfits was disproportionately unfair — between 1200 and 1500, 135 laws regulated women’s clothes while only 25 regulated men's — so they found ways around all the oppressive rules.
They had literal fashion police called "Officials on Women" patrolling the streets, ready to issue rule-breakers tickets for extravagant pieces. But these ladies would make a playful game out of outwitting them, where if a gorgeously dressed lady saw a cop coming her way, she'd duck into a church (which was a "safe zone") and wait until he'd leave. If they weren't quick enough and were forced to talk to him, they became famous for their quick wit and evasive language. When he'd point to the piece that was breaking the law, she'd bat him away and say it was a knock-off and she wasn't doing anything wrong. Or to stick it to the man further, if legislatures passed a law against a certain look, the women would kill the trend and move onto a new one, leaving the courts scrambling to write up another rule to catch up.
So, in short, it wasn't easy loving fashion in the Middle Ages. Not only did you have to come head to head with the church, but your government was also trying its hardest to keep you in bland, modest clothes. Those that are passionate always find a way, though, and the women prevailed, looking chic as hell no matter how many people they irked.
Images: Michael Sittow (1); Hans Memling (1); Rogier van der Weyden (1); CleveJoos (1); Domenico Ghirlandaio