The rude garb of barbarians

On the other extreme from the urbane Mediterranean Byzantines were the tribes drifting in from the Central Asian plain. Asia birthed several waves of people who took turns pushing each other into Europe: first the Germans (Goths, Franks, Burgundians, Vandals, Lombards…), then the Huns, then the Mongols and Turks. Each group seemed tougher and more militant than the last. They were all shaped by one important fact: the horse was native to their region. There was never a time when horses were not vitally important, so their native clothing was based on needing to sit astride a horse.

That means one thing: pants. The ancient Mediterranean world seems to have used horses mainly for chariots, perhaps since they were imported from Central Asia, so their clothing was based on the idea of a draped robe. Not so on the plains, where distances were far and everyone rode ponies.

“Breeches” and “braes” were the early English words for pants. Dark Ages breeches were of a very simple cut, tied with a drawstring, and made of homespun wool or linen. Poorer men wore them shorter, since shorter ones used less fabric and were less likely to fray. Their shirts were simple tunics. We don’t have any samples of them, and few images. Instead of socks, they wrapped strips of linen or wool around their feet and as far up the leg as they could reach, tucking in or pinning the end. Shoes were leather moccasins or boots. Fur-lined wool cloaks and hats completed their outfits. Cloaks were usually pinned with simple T-shaped pins, but these pins could also be heavy and expensively carved. They are known as square-headed brooches.

Women wore linen dresses. We don’t know much about their early costumes, since there were no paintings and none of the clothing has survived. We do know that women generally wore round brooches, pinning something in their garments, but we’re not sure what. We find these brooches in graves, situated near the shoulders. Did they pin straps to an apron or jumper? Or did they pin a hood and mantle to the dress? Were they pinned on the dress for decoration? Some of the saucer brooches were linked with amber beads and might have been merely decorative. Did all women wear them, or were they marks of wealth? We don’t have enough information to tell.

Men probably wore their hair long and braided, as in Viking images. Women definitely did. Women also wore hijab-like mantles over their heads, but in the Dark Ages, it was for warmth and custom, not to cover all skin.

When the first Germanic tribes met Romans (both the real Roman type and the Byzantines), the clash in fashions began to produce change. Working men never altered their clothing much for several centuries, but men who had servants could afford to dress like Romans. To ride horses, they probably still wore breeches. But to sit around and look impressive, they wore embroidered robes. Not wearing pants became a sign of wealth! And the longer a man’s robe was, the more it suggested that he didn’t need to work. This is why our images of fairy-tale medieval kings always show them in long robes. It’s a little remaining folklore of the time when only the kings could dress in a Byzantine style.

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