The Writer’s Guide to 12th Century Fashion

People seem fascinated by the European Middle Ages and it is a popular period for fantasy authors to draw upon. Part of that fascination rests on the clothing, the image of ladies in elegant flowing gowns with long sleeves, of knights in dashing doublets. However, the Middle Ages is a massive chunk of history, spanning from the 5th to the 15th century. That’s a thousand years of fashion! Plus, there was a lot of variations in style across regions. Today I’m going to be focusing on the 12th century and giving you the basics of men’s and women’s clothing during this century.

12th Century Fashion

When most people think of medieval European fashion what they often picture, usually without knowing it, is the 12th century. Long flowing garments with wide bell-shaped sleeves were in fashion for both men and women. Most of the fashions of the previous centuries had been loose-fitting and comprised mainly of square or rectangular shapes to prevent fabric wastage. However, with the growing use of lacing, clothing became more fitted through the waist, starting first with the upper classes.

The bliaut (pronounced bliːˌoʊ) was a French fashion with variations for men and women. It was characterized by sleeves that were fitted to the elbow then flared into a bell or trumpet shape, a skirt that flared at the hips, and was moderate to tightly fitted through the torso depending on the time period. It was common for the edges to have a decorative pattern called dagging. The bliaut was popular from the 11th to the 13th century. [1]

Men’s Fashion

Generally, men wore a knee or ankle-length tunic over a long-sleeved linen shirt and tailored leggings called chausses or hose. It was common for linen drawers or underwear known braies to be worn. Younger men usually wore knee-length tunics while older men opted for the more austere ankle-length. The legs of the hose were not attached in the middle and it was fashionable to have a different color for each leg. The hose was held up by being attached to the braies.

A shorter fitted garment that became known as the doublet was just coming into fashion during this century and was usually worn under the tunic. The style would change and remain popular into the mid-17th century. [2]

Hoods worn various ways were the most popular headwear (think of most depictions of Robin Hood). Some of them had long tails called a liripipe or short capes that covered the shoulders.

A 12th century painting showing the varying lengths of men’s tunics. Hortus Deliciarum by Herrad von Landsberg. Photo source.

Women’s Fashion

Women generally wore tunics reaching the ankle or the floor over a linen chemise, chainse, or smock. A loose-fitting tunic was known in the French court as a cotte (pronounced coat). The tightly fitted bliaut was also popular and could have lacing in the front, sides, or back. The style was sometimes worn with a long belt or cinture that wrapped twice around the waist and knotted over the abdomen. Some examples end in decorative tassels or metal tags. A mid-century variation was the bliaut gironé, which had a pleated skirt attached at a waist seam. [3] Here is a fantastic “getting dressed” video by one of my favorite YouTubers, Prior Attire, showing the different layers worn by a 12th century woman.

Married women covered their hair with a veil although it was common for their long braids to hang out from underneath. The braids were frequently wrapped in ribbon and sometimes extended with purchased hair. Late in the century, the wimple was introduced and was fastened to the head under the veil and covered the neck. [4] The veil was pinned to two strips or bands of fabric that encircled the head. Contrary to popular belief, the veil was not held on by a circlet, although such jewelry was worn over them. With the veil securely pinned to the bands no other attachment method was needed.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

 [2] Boucher, François: 20,000 Years of Fashion, Harry Abrams, 1966, pp. 164–172. 
 [3] Snyder, Janet, "From Content to Form: Court Clothing in Mid-Twelfth-Century Northern French Sculpture", in Désirée Koslin and Janet E. Snyder, eds.: Encountering Medieval Textiles and Dress: Objects, texts, and Images, Macmillan, 2002, ISBN 0-312-29377-1, pp. 85–101. 
 [4] Payne, Blanche: History of Costume from the Ancient Egyptians to the Twentieth Century, pp. 159–168. 

7 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to 12th Century Fashion”

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