website book blog tutorials noticeboard thegilbertcollection email

clothes &

about clothes

acquiring clothes

clothes from historical art

sumptuary laws

glossary of clothing names

clothing care

Acquiring Medieval Women's Clothes

Noblewomen's clothes
A noblewoman would not make her own clothing, although she would have a good knowledge of how clothes were made and what was fashionable. Her clothing would be made by a tailor who was hired specifically to make custom-fitted garments for the social elite. If a noble family was wealthy enough and had an extensive staff, they might hire a tailor exclusively.

Her fabrics would be of the finest wools, silks, silk velvets and brocades. Linens would have been fine.

In the case of Royal households, a tailor might be employed full-time along with other laundresses and clothing specialists. Not only did it ensure that the tailor was always available to that family, it prevented other families from hiring him or her. A tailor who worked in a shop in town was available to anyone with the money to pay for his services.

Rich merchant class women's clothes
Rich townswomen may have engaged in their husband's trade, worked the shop front while he worked producing goods or have been solely in charge of her own household and staff. Her work was neither hard nor grubby. Her fabrics would include fine linens and wools of a high quality. Brocades of some quality would be worn, but not those that equalled the nobility.

Her clothing was also made by hand, whether by herself or bought off the rack from a mercer's store. Ready-made clothing was available to the rich townswoman, but many women may have still preferred to make their own in order to get a better fit. By sewing her clothing herself, the townswoman was able to have a good-fitting garment without the expense of hiring a professional tailor to make it. Many, of course, did get their clothes tailor-made. Most of these women were very well off and strove to emulate their noblewomen icons in dress.

Although second hand clothes were available to the wealthy townswomen, the thought of being caught in another woman's hand-me-down would most likely have seemed appalling.

Working class women's clothes
Women who worked often carried out their husband's trade and therefore wore specialised clothes specific to their employment. Other women who worked also had clothing suitable to work in rather than regular clothes with which they might tend the front of a shop.

Working class clothes were also made by hand, whether by herself or bought off the rack from a mercer's store. The fabric available was more varied and of a better quality than that of peasant women, but usually it was of a sturdy nature in order to stand up to the rigors of labour and be durable.

Ready-made clothing was available, but many women may have still preferred to make their own or buy second-hand from a fripperer's shop. Working class women had less money to spend on clothing but still valued good cloth, and were the class most likely to have purchsed second hand clothes.

A clever lady could remodel or cut down one style of gown into another using the good fabric which she may not have been able to afford normally.

Sumptuary laws dictated whether these garments could be lined with furs and what kind of furs were permitted to the lower classes, but in all liklihood, valuable furs were probably stripped from garments before on-selling. County fairs once a year may have provided extra opportunities for clothing acquisition.

Peasant or rural women's clothes
Peasant women usually made their own clothing at home. This in now way implies that the quality of their clothing was poor or shoddy. A woman who did all her weaving and sewing by hand would be able to produce a high standard of workmanship. The main difference between the clothing worn by a peasant woman and a townwoman would be the quality of the fabric itself and the colours available.

A peasant woman would need to make sure her clothing was strong and durable and since she made it herself- it was all custom made to fit. It needed to be roomy enough to work in around the shoulders but this does not mean her clothes hung like a sack or were not well made.

Sumptuary laws in medieval Europe are discussed in SBS's Europe In The Middle Ages saying:

By law, what a peasant wears must be either black or grey- nothing else is permitted- a coarse linen smock is appropriate, wooden clogs and one pair of leather boots. That is enough.

I don't understand how peasants were expected to wear black when the dying process to produce black dye would not be affordable to peasants.

For the very poor or at special times of the year, clothing might be given to the poor by the wealthy as part of celebrations or as gifts by the church or wealthy patrons who made gifts of clothing to the poor. A peasant woman who worked for a well-off family in town could expect to recieve a new gown as part of her yearly upkeep. Not only was this a form of charity from the part of the employer, in also ensured that the staff they employed were reasonably dresses and fit to be seen as part of their retinue.

Secondhand clothes in wills
Second hand clothing were usually of two kinds. Firstly, clothing that was bought from a second-hand clothing merchant called a fripperer and clothing that was handed down. Often clothing was included in wills and specific beneficiaries were names as to who received what.

Servants often had clothing handed down to them, particularly gowns which might be of value or in good repair. One London merchant's will records a bequeath of

...12d and one of my old gowns to make her a kirtell.

hinting that the old gown which was being passed on would be cut up and remodeled to make a new garment for a new wearer. Since fabric was an expensive commodity, this does not come a real surprise.

One example from a private will dated 17 June, 1550 of a man described as a Citizen and Fruiterer of London, England states:

To my sister Magher, the best gown that was my well-beloved wife’s Alice’s, her best kirtle

His own clothing gifts were extremely extensive including fabrics which included velvet, satin and taffeta. The wife's gown does not specify what the kirtle is made from, so it is to be assumed that it is none of these fabrics or they would have been especially mentioned. This shows that a prosperous merchant could own garments of good enough quality and value that they need to be specified as to who might receive them and not just left for general distribution among family and friends. They were specifically intended to specific persons because of their value.

The will of Joan Buckland, widow, of Edcock who dies in 1462 leaves:

...all my other gowns and kirtles, that they be given to my women servants dweling with me and my departure. Also to the woman that is by me at the time of my departing... one gown furred with mink.

Clothing was often handed down from a mistress to her ladies-in-waiting. A noblewomen was expected to keep up to date with current fashions and although she might keep an outer garment for a few years the same way we keep a favourite winter jacket, she might look to replace her undergowns which were usualy visible. Undergowns would be handed down, if the fabric was suitable, and re-made or re-fitted to suit the new wearer's status. Trains might be trimmed and fur removed to make an outfit suitable for a lady-in-waiting.

A 1459 bequest from York from widow Joan Cotyngham, shows that even underwear might be gifted:

I also leave to Joan Day, a poor little woman staying in a certain maison-dieu, my russet gown lined with buckshin and a chemise of linen cloth.

Second hand clothes merchants
Francoise Piponnier and Perrine Mane in their book, Dress in the Middle Ages, say that clothing might be bought from sales held in the market square. Buyers might be private persons or secondhand merchants who would re-sell at an increased price.

These merchants bought and sold in used clothing much the same as our second-hand clothes shops today with the exception that clothing was by far a more valuable commodity than today and far less disposible. Secondhand clothing dealers were closely monitored and could either have a shop in the town or wander the streets offering their wares.

A person who bought second hand clothes might have it recut to fit the new owner, or have the garment unpicked and remade inside out so that the fabric which was not exposed to the ouside elements became the inside and the fresh side of the fabric became the outer. This process gave a fresh, new look to otherwise faded material.

Hand-me-down clothing was often handed down for the same reason as families do today. Should a growing child outgrow an item of clothing, it would hardly be thrown out; it would be passed down to the next smallest child in the house, especially in households of lower financial standing.


Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
All text & photographs within this site are the property of Rosalie Gilbert unless stated.
Art & artifact images remain the property of the owner.
Images and text may not be copied and used without permission.