Medieval Hairstyles & Costumes

Written by brian canty
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Medieval Hairstyles & Costumes
The nobility dressed to impress, and the working class peasantry to labour. (Jupiterimages/ Images)

Styles shifted during the medieval period, the 11th to 14th century, according to trend and desire. As the crafts of tailors, dyers and weavers advanced, styles became more ornate and varied. However, one constant was how clothing and hairstyles indicated distinct social divisions, in terms of wealth, power and practical requirements. The nobility dressed to impress, and the working class peasantry to labour. This was formalised with the Sumptuary Laws, a set of laws that consigned dress codes to the social classes.

Costumes of the Nobility

Displaying wealth was important to the nobility, and this was largely reflected in how they dressed themselves. Silk, damask, cotton, linen and furs were used in the tailoring of their clothing. Vibrant colours such as rich greens and blues showed expense and taste. Men's clothing tended to be tight, including waistcoats and fitted breeches. Surcoats--generally expensive, loosefitting and worn on the outside--were first made for women but were later also worn by men.

Tunics and bodices fitted closely to highlight the form of noble women. The extravagance of some clothing often required other people--usually servants--to dress and undress the person. As embroidery developed and wealth became more widespread, the addition of jewels and gemstones to garments became particularly popular from the 13th century onward.

Hairstyles of the Nobility

Viewing primary sources such as the "Bayeaux Tapestry" or paintings such as Van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Portrait" gives an indication of how the nobility wore their hair during the medieval period. High status was usually portrayed by length and luxuriousness. Franks, for example, wore their hair in a tuft high on their foreheads that then trailed back over their necks.

Noble women's hairstyles changed from flowing hair in the 11th and 12th centuries. They wore it in long plaits, hidden from view under headwear known as crespines or barbettes, or in coiled buns on the side of the head. Wearing their hair high on their foreheads was considered sign of beauty.

Peasant Costumes

Peasant clothing was inexpensive, basic and practical. Leather and wool were among the cheaper, more durable materials used. Depending on the availability, animal skins like deer and goat were used. Clothing was predominantly homemade and was therefore often rough, shapeless and of plain colours like browns and greys.

Working outdoors and in difficult conditions, men wore overcoats and woollen trousers or breeches. In the later Middle Ages, doublets became more common. Women wore long woollen dresses that were clasped around the waist with a simple belt. During winter, ground-length cloaks for men and women kept out the cold.

Peasant Hairstyles

For peasants, hairstyles often tended to be practical and to display their low social status. The "Bayeaux Tapestry" shows they wore their hair short on the back and sides and allowed it to grow on top. As the nobility's hair got progressively longer over the centuries, peasants tended to keep their hair short and roughly cut.

Male serfs had their heads shaved, a symbol of their status. Women's hair, although worn longer, was roughly cut also. To keep it out of their eyes during work, they concealed it under a wimple, a cloth headdress covering the head and neck.

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