Cutting the coat to fit the cloth

Medieval cloth was clearly very expensive. It required the labor of many hours and many hands in order to go from flax or sheep to bolts of cloth. Even with low wages, the final cost made clothing a real investment.

In a time when fabric is so inexpensive, woven offshore by tired, exploited foreigners, we don’t consider the cost of cloth when we design fashions. But it wasn’t so long ago that cloth was directly part of fashion design. During World War II, cloth was rationed like everything else. Weaving mills were sending most of their products to uniforms, bandages and parachutes; little was left for dresses. Fashion during the war tended to shorter, tighter skirts. After rationing ended, fashion designers let out their breath and began designing big, flouncy skirts. The 1950s are known for wide, full, long skirted dresses. (Even so, the attendants at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation found their long, full dresses made of scratchy, cheap fabric that hasn’t held up over time.)

Medieval fabric was always “rationed,” in effect. The poor had to “cut their coats to fit their cloth,” literally. Their tunics and dresses were shorter; their sleeves were 3/4 length. Their cloaks were not as long, and their hoods were not as generous. Their feet were wrapped in the leftover rags of decades-old cloth originally cut for other purposes. They tended to wear everything they owned when the weather got cold; there was no such thing as a change of clothing.

At the top scale, dukes and princes wore long robes with full, gathered skirts that dragged on the floor. Depending on the century’s fashion trends, their sleeves were often longer than their wrists and full enough to get in the way. In one later fashion trend, sleeves were so showy, heavy and impractical that they needed a slit part way up so that hands could come out and actually do something without obstruction.

Women’s gowns over the centuries often had under-chemises with highly decorated tunics and overdresses. These, too, dragged on the floor. In some centuries, gowns had trains that had to be lifted in order to walk.

Household linens had the same proportionate differences. The poor man’s towel was the rag left from the old tunic that finally fell apart two years ago. In the prince’s house, there were two white-bleached linen cloths for every table, and these tablecloths draped right to the floor. Guests at table could use the tablecloth’s edge to wipe their fingers, but sometimes they were given smaller cloths just for hands. Additionally, servants circulated with water and towels. Beds had sheets, blankets and quilts. The wooden bathtub had a linen liner, and its attendants held clean white towels.

Because cloth was such an investment, people cared for it gently and passed it down in their wills. The dead were buried in coarse linen shrouds, but their clothing was passed to relatives. Sheets and towels formed important dowry contributions. When buttons came into use in the 14th century, their main use was for detachable sleeves that could be washed separately from the main shirt. One shirt with two sets of sleeves cost less than two shirts, and sleeves wear out faster. For the same reasons, we don’t have any extant medieval clothes. Everything was recycled. By the time a later age began to value the rapidly-vanishing past, medieval clothing was long since cut up, cut down, and turned to patches.

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