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Women, Fashion, and the Middle Ages: 1300-1500

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Women, Fashion, and the Middle AgesImages from the Luttrell Psalter (14th Century) and the Queen Mary Psalter (14th Century)

Long, draping, formless garments give way to tighter, more form fitting women’s dress. The changing of silhouette in women’s fashion is immediately apparent when looking at a timeline of the middle ages. For centuries the style remained relatively similar, but as soon as the 14th century hits, drastic changes can be witnessed.

Some fashion historians have referred to this period as the beginning of western fashion and the birth Luttrell Psalter Psalm 108-109of tailoring. The 14th century emerges similarly to those before it. Long ceremonial garments seemed to be the norm for women of the age. By a quarter of the way into the century, however, women’s fashion began to feature a better cut and a closer fit. Buttons became more widely used, and served as an important piece of ornamentation. Buttons also allowed for garments to cling more closely to the skin, especially in the tight sleeves of the kirtle. This aesthetic also proved to be inspiration from the garments of the Muslim world, as the crusades helped to expose the continent to new and foreign cultures.[1] The décolletage was quite low, and was often criticized: “a gown open thus at the neck seems like the hole of a privy.”[2]

By the mid-14th century, streamers, also known as tippets,[3] were beginning to appear on the cote-hardie, or low-necked, tight fitting, often dagged edged gowns. Sideless surcoats would be placed over the cote-hardie or kirtle, exposing the tight fitting garment beneath it through its wide armholes. These would also feature decorative buttons, and in some cases, even fur. Headdress became increasingly lavish, an increase of color use on clothing was apparent, and a hairless look – high hairline and plucked eyebrows – was popular. Women were also depicted exhibiting a slouched posture.[4]Cote-Hardie with Tippets

Fashion seems to change once again in the 15th century with the introduction of the houppelande, a gown featuring a higher waistline, a v-neck, and tubular sleeves. This gown replaces the form-fitting cote-hardie. Tight lacing and corseting is also an element of women’s fashion of this time period.

My main area of interest focuses on the reason for these quick and drastic changes in fashion. Through research, it seems that scholars are simply interested in what the fashion looked like, and not necessarily the cause behind its formation. I look at the economy of the time, the laws and political structures (specifically of Italy and England), and Church opinion as sources of influence for the change in fashion. I conclude with discussing the basic ideals of women’s roles and the ideal of the female body as a context for the clothing that they wore.


The changes in fashion are importantly connected to the state of the economy. Looking at Italy as our geographic focal point, there are several advances in the economic prosperity of the land in the late middle ages, specifically in the years between 1300 and 1500.

Unlike nations such as England and Spain, Italy was split into various political and governmental Houppelanderegions. Florence was the seat of a republic; Naples was a monarchy, Milan a princedom, and Venice a combination of oligarchy and republic. There was no center of commerce, trade, or law, and because of this, Italy was able to profit from sporting several hubs of business and exchange.[5] All of these areas were involved in international trade, luxury good production, and involvement in foreign affairs.

Italy served as the leader in trade with the Near East and, later on, the Ottoman Empire. They profited from taking control of the Mediterranean. Serving as the middleman, Italy was able to profit from the goods produced in faraway lands. Soon, however, Italy became a center for its own production of desirable products.

As Goldthwaite mentions, as time wore on, Italy began to produce its own versions of the luxury goods imported from the Near East. Paper, glass, ceramics, and silks were all items that were beginning to be produced domestically.[6] No longer was there a dependence on foreign goods or raw materials. In one way, Italy became self sufficient in various sectors of trade and production.

Textiles and art became the staple products of Italy. Silk, as mentioned above, wool, and cotton all served as important raw materials and exports for Italian commerce. Italy was also able to produce its own dyes, a product that added to the luxury quality of their fabrics.[7]

Italy served as a location of focus for foreign powers interested in war and religion. Goldthwaite states that many northern rulers were interested in aiming their political ambitions towards the peninsula.[8] Their expeditions and excursions may have cost their home countries and drained their treasuries, but Italy reaped all of the profit and reward.

It is important to note that luxury spending occurs on a personal level. Why all of a sudden were Dagging, Posture, Hairlineindividuals diverting their funds towards these goods? The Black Death, occurring in 1348, wiped out a significant population of Italians. Many scholars posit that because of all of these deaths, those that survived were able to inherit their wealth. This is termed the “inheritance effect.”[9] Because there was a “higher per-capita wealth”[10] in Italy, these lucky survivors were now able to spend their inheritances less frugally. The end of the middle ages witnessed a trend from investment spending to one of luxury spending.

The increased wealth of individuals and the rise in consumerism perhaps shaped the changes in fashion. With more people willing to purchase, there was more reason for the alterations in style and design.


Luxury spending became an issue that political rulers and church leaders found to be problematic. Even poets, chroniclers, and satirists criticized the opulent and wasteful spending. Sumptuary laws were regulations directed towards various facets of everyday life. Clothing, ritual practices, and behavior were all categories that fell under the jurisdiction of needing reform. Women, however, proved to be the most important sector of public life upon which to enforce rules.

In her book Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500, Killerby produces a graph depicting the range of regulations affecting Italian life. Weddings, funerals, feasts, gifts, christenings, men’s clothes, women’s clothes, peasants’ clothes, minors’ clothes, and servants’ clothes all make an appearance on this chart. In the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, women’s clothes, without a doubt, skyrocketted above and beyond all of the other categories in terms of numbers of provisions. In the 13th century, women were subject to about twenty sumptuary regulations. Triple this figure, and by the 15th century, women towered over all other sectors of life with more than sixty sumptuary laws placed on them.[11]

As mentioned before, Italy was a peninsula separated by political power. Though there were differences in types of rule – republics, monarchies, princedoms, and so forth – each of these regions experienced similar types of laws as well as comparable amounts of said provisions. Florence, Naples, Milan, and Venice were all commercial centers, and because of this, each exhibited similar amounts of luxury spending, requiring regulation on the part of the ruling parties.

Political rulers worried that luxury spending would hurt the economy. In several instances, individuals proclaimed that “capital should not be withdrawn from productive activity and that citizens should not be allowed to ruin themselves.”[12] As Goldthwaite mentions, money was being diverted from investments and put towards luxury spending. Sumptuary law was also seen as a form of protection for the consumer “against the possible greed and dishonesty of the producer.”[13]

Advice was given in Italy to “avoid useless expenditures, which are continually made by women.”[14] In England, as well, the flood of prosperity made “the ladies of this country… haughty and vain in their attire.”[15] Blame is placed on women, resulting in the need for the increase in regulations aimed towards them.

After the Black Death of 1348, the population of Italy, and many areas of Europe, was incredibly decimated. Luxury spending was seen to be preventing the repopulation of the land: “The effect of indulgence in luxury goods on the marriage rate and hence on population levels.”[16] Dowries and inheritance played a major role in the world of weddings and marriages. With an increase in the production of luxury goods and fabrics, the competition for a sufficient dowry and bridal trousseau became steep. People could not afford to get married because of the perceived costs of the entire procedure. A lack of marriages prevented and threatened the growth of population after such a catastrophic epidemic. In Diane Owen Hughes’ essay “Regulating Women’s Fashion,” she quotes, “women are unmindful that nature deems it inappropriate for them to adorn themselves with such sumptuous ornamentation that men refrain from marital coitus on account of these inappropriate garments, which cause manly vigor to fail.”[17] The postponement of marriage and hence copulation, in turn, resulted in blaming women for “sodomitic sterility.”[18] Sumptuary laws, therefore, were seen as a way to boost the population by limiting luxury spending, specifically on the part of women, and promoting the institution of marriage.

It is hardly surprising that the enforcement and efficiency of sumptuary laws was less than desirable. It is human nature to want the best of the best, and to purchase the most fancy of products. Especially in a society where social hierarchy is important, owning the latest fashion was practically necessary. Many women, therefore, avoided these regulations placed upon them. Several women were seen to have written to higher-ups to protest the restrictions.[19] Those who were wealthy enough to do so simply disobeyed the law altogether, knowing that they could easily pay any fine that they were given.


Sumptuary law also played a political role in addition to an economic one. In a Genoese poem quoted by Killerby, it is stated that “so well dressed in fine gear / every man resembles a marquis.”[20] Social order was of great importance throughout the late middle ages. The way one dressed conveyed the social position of the individual. Social status was mainly decided by birth, not by achievement. The economic changes of the time, mentioned above, provided more liquid wealth to a greater majority of people – whether born of noble birth or not. The ability to purchase goods that were previously unattainable by lower classes, created a blurring of social lines that proved to be threatening to the aristocracy and nobility.

In England, as well, it seemed that the lower classes were donning garments outside of their jurisdiction. In a petition to King Edward III in 1362, it was stated “laborers use the apparel of craftsmen, and craftsmen the apparel of valets, and valets the apparel of squires, and squires the apparel of knights; … poor women and others the apparel of ladies…”[21] In reaction to this petition, laws were created to prevent segments of society such as grooms and laborers from wearing garments over a certain price range.

It was not only because of economic prosperity and liquid assets that individuals were able to dress inappropriately for their status. Many upper class women, for example, would write their servants into their wills, gifting them with fine dresses and jewels once they, the wealthy women, passed away.

International affairs also impacted the sumptuary laws on fashion. England, in particular, was very adamant about the way its people dressed during its war with France in 1337. To promote national unity, but to also hurt the French economy, “no man nor woman, great or small, of England, Ireland, nor Wales… shall wear no cloth… other than is made in England, Ireland, Wales or Scotland.”[22] Not only did this law result in aiding English production, but it also created a somewhat English style of dress, though there was still some inspiration and copying from the style of dress on the continent.

It may be interesting to discuss whether sumptuary legislation was proactive or reactive. Did the rapid changes in fashion produce a need for rulers to expand their laws, or did the sumptuary regulations spur new and creative ways to circumvent government control on private life?


The middle ages can be described as a time when the Church held dominion over society. When it came to fashion, the clergy was very vocal about what it believed was sinful. Churchmen found inspiration for their sermons not only in the bible, but also from their predecessors, and even from ancient philosophers. Tertullian is one example of a church figure that spoke about dress: “Dress yourselves in the silk of probity, the fine linen of holiness, and the purple of chastity.”[23] Tertullian also stated, “A woman therefore, if she hopes for rebirth [in heaven], should not long for them [i.e. silk, dyes, pearls, gold] now, or even know of them, since she did not possess them or know of them when she was truly alive [before banishment from Eden].”[24] He influenced future clerics such as Cyprian, Augustine, and Saint Jerome. Augustine said, “the true and unique adornment of Christian men and women is a good character, not lying paint, or even gold or ostentation of fine apparel.”[25]

Women are often associated at this time with the realm of fashion and clothing because of their relation to Eve and her sin. Man was created in God’s image, but once he was clothed, he “was become like the beasts which by nature are clad in raiment of skins alone.”[26] Because Eve ate from the tree of knowledge, she covered herself and man in clothing.

Words from such influential holy men can explain certain phenomena in fashion. St. Augustine, for example, spoke to the tradition of women’s head coverings – a fashion item that became increasingly embellished and fawned over in the later Middle Ages. In his book On the Trinity, he explained that women are meant to cover their heads because they are not made in the image of god: “For she is instructed for this very reason to cover her head, which he is forbidden to do because he is the image of God.”[27]

Not only did secular society – the republic, or the monarch – try to limit luxury expenditure, but the Church tried to enforce this as well. Both monetary fines and excommunications were methods employed by the Church in order to dissuade its members from exorbitant spending. However, it seems that these tactics were far from efficient, as many excommunications on the grounds of luxury spending have been recorded.[28]

The change in woman’s attire from formless drapery to more tightly fitted garments came into great criticism from the Church. At first, ironically, women were blamed for influencing men’s fashion.[29] Women were not the only members of society that were becoming more body conscious in their wear. Men started sporting shorter tunics, showing off their legs in tights. The tippets and liripipes witnessed on female garb also became a staple of menswear. The tides turned, however, several years later, when women were now criticized for dressing to similar to men.[30]


To quote St. Thomas Aquinas: “Female is a begotten male” and “Woman is naturally of less strength and dignity than man, [therefore] thou shalt be under the man’s power.[31]

As in most time periods of western history, women in the middle ages were subservient to their male counterparts. This role was supported by the Church, the aristocracy, and in the later middle ages, was also supported by the growing urban middle classes. According to both Caroline Walker Bynum and Eileen Power[32], misogynistic attitudes towards woman increased during the time period between 1300 and 1500. This misogyny might be explained by the fact that women represented a higher proportion of the population, and because they also exhibited a higher life expectancy.[33] They entered trades and crafts at a more frequent rate, and guilds excluded them from membership.[34] Perhaps this was through fear of competition, more so than more traditional reasons of women having “less strength.”

It is important to note, however, that women’s roles were not stagnant at any point in history, especially in the Middle Ages. Differing social statuses resulted in varied tasks placed on women. The lower down on the social ladder the woman, the more important a role she had in daily life.[35] Many of these women helped to support their households by either helping their husbands in their work, or by taking on their own occupation for supplementary income. Women were also found to be participating in all segments of labor, from textiles to food production, and often contributed to various trades at once.[36]

Whether an aristocrat or laborer, however, women were not offered the same education as men. Their instruction mainly consisted of vocational training – consider how important this would have been for all of those women partaking in multiple industries – and proper etiquette. This is hardly surprising, as this had been and was the case for women’s education until the modern era. The best bet for accessing knowledge was to enter a nunnery.[37]

Fashion served a very important social role for women in the late Middle Ages. Woman’s purpose was to be in the service of man, and fashion was one way in which she could serve as an important figure. Like a billboard or advertisement sign for a business or brand, fashion served as woman’s voice in a public setting.[38] Walking next to her father or husband, the fashion that she donned conveyed her family’s social position and honor. If her dress was too ornamented and fancy, her family might be seen as ostentatious, and she would be seen as bringing dishonor upon them. On the other hand, she mustn’t dress to plainly for risk of depicting her family as in economic distress.


A discussion on how the physical body was perceived is necessary as a means to understand how the body was covered in cloth. At the end of the middle ages, it seems that both men and women acknowledged their bodies in a different way than they had been before. Though religious ascetic behavior continued through to the Renaissance, Alain Boureau argues that praise and adoration of the individual body can be traced to the years between 1350 and 1550: “I have a body, whose use I enjoy as if it were an inalienable possession, untransferable to anyone except God; this body establishes me as a unique subject.”[39] Again, a connection to the decimation of Europe’s population after the Black Death in 1348 is referenced.

In Christian thought, there was a lot of tension between the ideas of body and flesh. The question arises about the reason for God’s inhabiting the body of man. If the form of the body were one of sin and repulsion, God would not have done such a thing. In proclaiming, “This is my body,” Jesus was placing the body on a sacred platform. The body, therefore, is seen as incorruptible, immortal in a way, whereas the flesh “is understood to fill out the body.”[40] It is the flesh, not the body, therefore that is susceptible to invasion and possession. The body is the “locus of the sacred.”[41]   

Women have come to be associated with the body. In the words of St. Augustine, “man was the mind, but that woman was the bodily sense.”[42] It is from Adam’s rib that woman was created, therefore connecting her strongly to the idea of body. Caroline Bynum writes about the physical torture that religious women inflicted upon themselves in order to create a union with the body of Jesus Christ. Instances of trances, seizures, bleeding, and starvation are often associated with female saints more so than their male counterparts. In some cases, there were even specific instances of holy anorexia and miraculous lactation. She states, “Illness was more likely to be described as something to be endured when it happened to women” because of its physical quality of suffering.[43]


The changes in women’s fashion from the period between 1300 and 1500, after analyzing the economic, political, religious, and social culture of the period, can be seen as part of a restructuring of women’s roles. The most prominent transformations mentioned in this essay were the increase in sumptuary laws and the beginning of the rise of a new middle class. Both of these events push women down in social hierarchy in relation to men.

The sumptuary laws target women at an extremely higher rate than their male counterparts, aiming to create stronger restrictions on the female sex. The emergence of a new social class, because of the Black Death and liquid wealth, impacted the position of women in their families and in their trades. Joan Kelly-Gadol states that it is during this period that “women… especially among the classes that dominated Italian urban life [i.e. the emerging class] experienced a contraction of social and personal options.”[44]

While the transition to a tighter silhouette and tight corseting may refer to the connection between women and the idea of the body, there is perhaps more evidence that shows that the restrictions in society, as mentioned above, are mirrored in the physical restrictions imposed upon women in the form of their garments. This is not a unique occurrence, as a similar event takes place centuries later in the 1800s, when corsets and crinoline succeed a period of loose chemise dressing, and the restrictions on women’s roles in society are extremely apparent.

[1] James Laver, Costume and Fashion – A Concise History, (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969), 56.

[2] Cecil Willett Cunnington and Phillis Cunnington, Handbook of English Mediaeval Costume, (Boston: PLAYS Inc., 1969).

[3] Diane Owen Hughes claims that elements such as tippets and slashed fabrics made it difficult to reuse and refurbish garments. The longevity, therefore, of women’s fashion was shortened by the inability to maintain their dresses. As their clothing wore out, women would have to seek out new styles – perhaps one reason for the changes in fashion.

[4] Cunnington, Handbook.

[5] Richard A. Goldthwaite, “The Economy of Renaissance Italy: The Preconditions for Luxury Consumption,” Chicago Journals 2 (1987), 25.

[6] Goldthwaite, “The Economy,” 21.

[7] Goldthwaite, “The Economy,” 20-21.

[8] Goldthwaite, “The Economy,” 22.

[9] Goldthwaite, “The Economy,” 17.

[10] Goldthwaite, “The Economy,” 24.

[11] Catherine Killerby, Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002), Fig. 2.1.

[12] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 42.

[13] Frances Elizabeth Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1926), 12.

[14] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 42.

[15] Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation, 23.

[16] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 51.

[17] Christiane Zuber, and Diane Owen Hughes, “Regulating Women’s Fashion,” in Silences of the Middle Ages, Vol. 2, (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992), 142.

[18] Hughes, “Regulating Women’s Fashion, 146.

[19] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 122.

[20] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 80.

[21] Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation, 46.

[22] Baldwin, Sumptuary Legislation, 30.

[23] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 18.

[24] Hughes, “Regulating Women’s Fashion,” 145.

[25] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 19.

[26] Hughes, “Regulating Women’s Fashion,” 144.

[27] St. Augustine, “On the Trinity,” in Women in Western Thought, ed. Martha Lee Osborne, (New York: Random House, 1979), 57.

[28] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 101-103.

[29] Hughes, “Regulating Women’s Fashion,” 137.

[30] Hughes, “Regulating Women’s Fashion,” 138.

[31] Thomas Aquinas, “Summa Tehologica,” in Women in Western Thought, ed. Martha Lee Osborne, (New York: Random House, 1979), 68.

[32] Eileen Power and M. M. Postan, Medieval Women, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 3.

[33] Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion, (New York: Zone Books, 1992), 151.

[34] Power, Medieval Women, 47.

[35] Power, Medieval Women, 45.

[36] Power, Medieval Women, 54.

[37] Power, Medieval Women, 72.

[38] Killerby, Sumptuary Law, 115.

[39] Alain Boureau and Benjamin Semple, “The Sacrality of One’s Own Body in the Middle Ages,” Yale French Studies, no. 86, (1994), 7.

[40] Boureau, “The Sacrality,” 7.

[41] Bynum, Fragmentation, 184.

[42] St. Augustine, “On the Trinity,” 59.

[43] Bynum, Fragmentation, 189.

[44] Joan Kelly-Gadol, Did Women Have a Renaissance?, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997), 176.



Aquinas, Thomas. “Summa Tehologica.” in Women in Western Thought. ed. Martha Lee Osborne. New York: Random House. 1979.


Augustine, St. “On the Trinity.” in Women in Western Thought. ed. Martha Lee Osborne. New York: Random House. 1979.


Baldwin, Frances Elizabeth. Sumptuary Legislation and Personal Regulation in England. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1926.


Boureau, Alain and Benjamin Semple. “The Sacrality of One’s Own Body in the Middle Ages.” Yale French Studies. no. 86. 1994.


Bynum, Caroline Walker. Fragmentation and Redemption Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion. New York: Zone Books. 1992.


Cunnington, Cecil Willett and Phillis Cunnington. Handbook of English Mediaeval Costume. Boston: PLAYS Inc. 1969.


Goldthwaite, Richard A. “The Economy of Renaissance Italy: The Preconditions for Luxury Consumption.” Chicago Journals. 2. 1987.


Kelly-Gadol, Joan. Did Women Have a Renaissance?. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1997.


Killerby, Catherine. Sumptuary Law in Italy 1200-1500. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2002.


Laver, James. Costume and Fashion – A Concise History. London: Thames & Hudson. 1969.


Power, Eileen and M. M. Postan. Medieval Women. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1975.


Zuber, Christiane and Diane Owen Hughes. Silences of the Middle Ages. Vol. 2. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1992.



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