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Clothes From Medieval Art -
Interpreting Historical Art to Make Medieval Clothing

Great care needs to be taken when interpreting art to make historical clothing. There are a number of issues to consider when collecting information from art, whether it be a painting, manuscript illumination, statue or other representation.

Artistic license
One must be aware that a certain amount of artistic license may have been taken by the painter or illuminator. This can usually be ascertained by looking at the overall style of other objects in the painting for their realism and accurate representation. Where people and animals are elongated, there is a good change that the style has been carried through to household objects and clothing, making objects perhaps seem out of proportion.

Artist representations of religious scenes can be extremely misleading. Often persons are portrayed wearing garments which belong to a much earlier or later time period. In many 15th century paintings, saints and religious figures are painted wearing contemporary clothes. Many pictures of Joan of Arc painted long after she had died, show her wearing contemporary clothing and not clothing of her own time period. This trend is popular amongst religious works particularly.

Realism in art
Many portrait artists, however, faithfully painted in great detail which is of great benefit to recreators of historical clothing today. Many paintings and illuminations when viewed with detail or with magnification, do show a great deal of seam placement, fabric drape and fastenings which are accurate representations of the time period.

The detail from the left panel of the St John Altarpiece painted in 1474-79 by Memling (shown at right) is a good example of one of the more accurate representations from the medieval period. It is those kinds of works I am primarily concerned with here.

Paintings like the one at left (top of page) of a young man in the stages of undress show how this particular outfit goes together. The subject is lifelike and the colours, linings, lacings and underwear are all painted similarly. Details like the wrinkles at the knee where the hose is yet to be stretched upward and attached and the wrinkling on the underpants where the string is lying across the front, give the impression we can accept that a certain standard of accuracy has been observed by the artist.

The 1442 Fouquet at left Portrait of the Ferrara Court Jester shows very large buttons on the front of the bodice, but a closer inspection shows that the garment was actually fastened with metal hook-and-eyes which are identical to the ones still in use today. It is to these painters and others like them that we can learn a great deal about medieval clothing.

Fabric drape
As any art student knows, a large proportion of early study goes into fabric, texture and drape. To make a modern comparison, a satin formal dress will hang and drape in an altogether different way to a woolen overcoat or cotton skirt. Linen pants will wrinkle in a different way to jeans.

It is not enough to look at the seams and design without also putting time and effort into finding out what kind of fabric was likely to have been used for a particular garment being worn by a particular class of person at a particular time of year. Looking at the drape of the fabric will give an indication of the stiffness of the fabric being depicted and may provide some clues.

As you would expect, the quality of fabric would vary for different classes. Silk came in many grades as did wool, which was easily produced by the lower classes themselves. This in no way means that the upper classes did not wear wool. It means that the quality of the wool being worn was of a far superior quality and richness to that being worn by merchants or peasants.

To make a modern comparison, the quality of a wool jumper bought from Kmart for $20 is in no way the same quality as one from Chanel for $400. Both the quality and tailoring would be of a different standard altogether.

The image at right from 1410-11 of Christine Presenting Her Manuscript To King Charles VI of France is an example of an illustration which shows gathers and draping of fabric, especially on the men's garments.

A note on construction
I believe the tailoring of home made medieval clothing to be of a better standard than generally supposed- with all sewing done by hand, a relatively high standard of needlework would be achieved by a girl of 12- the clothing produced for the wealthy would still be of far superior tailoring.

Many historical re-enactors make the mistake of sewing rough clothing for their portrayal of the lower classes. I believe that even the poorest woman would have needed to make clothing as durable and sturdy as possible to make the clothing last, and this would not have been achieved with large uneven stitching or shoddy seams.

Even in art, the working class are shown with fabric wearing through, not tearing at the seams.

As our clothing and fabric choices vary with the seasons, it is important to remember that those who lived in the Middle Ages would also have worn lighter fabrics in the summer months and heavier ones in the winter. Not all clothing would have been lined all year round. If decorum dictated that several layers were to be worn by the upper classes, then those layers may have been light.

In winter, more clothing would have been lined where the owner could afford it. It is reasonable to say that some items of clothing may have remained lined at any time of year- similar to the way our jackets are never unlined. I would expect these to be expensive, formal overgarments which make a feature of showing off the linings with large sleeve openings like sideless surcotes. I would expect that surcotes made for the working classes to remain unlined and be of a more practical nature or lined with budget furs.

Checking sources
Care should also be taken not just to study where the seams do and don't go, but to ensure that the artwork you are working from is as close to a primary or secondary source as possible. A safe rule of thumb for general wear is to find at least three of the style garment before deciding it was widely worn.

A line drawing of a copy of an effigy, for example, may lose detail each time it is redrawn. Black and white images also can be confusing as to which line belongs to which layer, thus sometimes changing the look of a garment entirely.

Remember, if you struggle to find many of the same kind of garment, it probably isn't a good representation of common clothing worn at that time.

The statuette at right shows a very common style of men's clothing which is usually painted one colour like the Gaston Phebus detail at left. It could be supposed from paintings alone, that the curves at the back are joining seams and the armholes are huge to allow for freedom of movement during battle.

This colour version seems to indicate that instead of being the Grand Asiette pattern (all sewn in one piece), the garment may have been two garments, similar to the sideless surcote which was popular with ladies. It appears that the cream fabric is stiffer and thicker by far than the fine, draped sleeves, hinting that instead of being one garment, it is in fact two layers of different types of fabric. It may be that just the sleeves are made of a different fabric. We can not tell for sure.

Fine details
The fresco painted by Di Manta in approximately 1411-16, The Fountain Of Youth (detail below) although depicting a mythical event, goes into great detail showing people in various stages of undress. Of the two chemises or smocks shown in this detail, one is a thicker opaque material which drapes less (possibly a linen and cut to a basic smock shape) and another is shown to be very sheer with many pleats (possibly fine silk gathered onto a neckline). These are both undergarments, both long and both white, yet a quick glance will show that they are two very different types of garment.

I do find the laced up kirtle at the right side rather interesting as it seems to have a different coloured bottom to the top yet be sewn together with a joining seam at the waist and laced as one down the front with the spiral style of lacing. As I haven't noticed that style of dress in any other place, I feel it's possibly an undergarment with costlier material on the top to show off expensive sleeves under an outer garment and a less expensive fabric on the bottom where it can't be seen. As this is the only one I've seen, I'd not recommend it be used as a style guide.

Check and double check
Among the many things to consider when doing research is the validity of the work. Whilst many old books have fabulous information and pictures, it is important to check modern thoughts, current ideas and where the information comes from initially. If things don't line up with consistancy or the sources are old, remember that theyy were published with the current research known at that time, which is not necessarily reflective of current knowledge of finds and research.

There are a huge number of books on medieval costuming and it must be remembered that to a large portion of the population, medieval fantasy dresses and medieval fancy dress costumes are one and the same as historical medieval clothing. Just because the internet says it's medieval, it doesn't mean it is.

Paintings, manuscripts, monuments, effigies, statues and religious icons are all great places to start clothing research and the accessories that go with them. Books from museums and art catalogues are invaluable as long as you take into consideration the reason for the piece being made and the likelihood of it being an item common enough for recreating.

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