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Medieval Clothing Embellishments

The finishing touches to a woman's garment defined who she was or in many cases, who she aspired to be.

Sumptuary Laws fought alongside the clergy urging women to dress moderately and not above their station in life, but this was largely ignored by the rising merchant classes who were eager to mirror the fashions seen at court and worn by their social superiors. The upper classes, therefore, trimmed their clothing even more richly to combat this trend.

Jewelled bands and hems
Many artworks from the medieval period show heavily decorated bands along the edges of cloaks and along the bottom of overgarments. The detail at top right comes from the 1410 painting from Campin of Saint Veronica and shows the typical jewelled band at the hem of her outer gown. Her brocaded undergown or kirtle can be seen underneath.

Many surcotes, like that shown in Campin's The Nativity, at left, painted in 1420, show a similar band at the sleeves and on the deep V of the neckline. Both of these appear to have a gold, metallic band with many small gemstones attached.

The Nativity painting appears to show what could possibly be pearls edging the band also. A garment such as these would be worth quite a sum and certainly set a wealthy woman apart from the less well-off woman who might have a garment cut the same but without the trim.

Embroidery on medieval clothing
Embroidery was an acceptable pastime of the noble lady and indeed it was considered one of her finer accomplishments. Many of the embroidery techniques used in the middle ages are still in use today- couching, split stitch and appliqué.

Embroidery was used to provide finishing touches to almost any garment, dependign on the time period and the fashion.

Veils might also be embroidered at the edges.

Popular art shows many surcotes with embroidered bands. Popular motifs included heraldry, mottos or phrases of love, animals, flowers and botanical themes and religious scenes and characters like the Virgin and Son or a patron saint.

The detail above from the 1445-1450 painting by Rogier van der Weyden of Saints Margaret And Apollonia shows embroidery, possibly gold thread, around the neckline of the garment. Another detail at right from the same painting also shows the bottom edge of a mantle with its heavy gold embroidery. The kirtle underneath and brocaded surcote can clearly be seen also.

There are very few existent fragments of medieval embroidery remaining. A beautiful sample of can be seen below at left, on an embroidered band.

The embroidery was sewn onto a separate strip of fabric which was then stitched to the garment.

Dated at the 13th century, it is a band of fantastic animals in roundels embroidered with gold thread on silk twill. Photo ©Timothy Mitchell, Victoria Albert Museum of London.

Looking almost identical to our sequins of today, the spangles which used to decorate medieval clothing among the upper classes are effectively exactly that. Small metal discs with a hole punched in the middle were stitched onto clothing with only a stitch or two to permit the spangle to move freely.

Again, something afforded to the upper classes and not to others.

Pressed metal spangles, bezants or gauffres
Another decorative clothing embellishment is the pressed metal decoration. Patterns were pressed or embossed onto inexpensive, thin metal plates and die cut. The decorations were then sewn onto clothing or belts.

The image at left shows small metal decorations sewn onto an altar cloth. Althought this is not an item clothing, it is indicitive of the type of spangle produced at the time.

Copyright © Rosalie Gilbert
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