11th century fashion

“The centuries that established England’s Norman kingdom and launched the Crusades were the beginning of fashion in Europe. Clothing had been traditional and practical before this, and fashions changed very slowly: clothing a century old did not appear odd. But during the 12th century, fashion began to change every decade or so among the upper classes.”

The 11th century, of course, begins at 1000 AD. Iceland had just accepted Christianity; the Danes had settled in England as farmers. Charlemagne’s empire was divided mainly into West Francia and East Francia. Spain’s Caliphate of Cordoba was broken into about a dozen smaller kingdoms. In 1066, the Danish-French Normans took over ruling England. Italy was stable; in 1088, Bologna began the school that became its university. Pope Urban II called for the first Crusade in 1095.

As these bits of history suggest, the 11th century was a time of increasing peace and prosperity, but not of rapid social change (except for Anglo-Saxons now ruled by Normans). The “Dark Ages” had ended. This stigma-loaded term tends to refer to the period when barbarians (Vikings and Huns) were routinely burning and blackmailing cities. When they stopped, the cities developed rapidly from the more primitive “Dark Ages” society into the high medieval.

Prosperity was the key word in 11th century court fashion. Practicality was out, decoration was in: tassels, feathers, and pearls. Clothing was cut simply but layered on heavily.

Cloaks were lined with fur. Kings wore ermine: that white and black fur we see on their stereotypical robes was made up of many cute eensy-wittle white and black ermines, all sewn together. Every black spot represents another ermine. Tradesmen wore whatever fur they could get: hare, fox, or even wolf (well-washed).

Men wore cottes (tunics) that came to the knees in the 11th century, belted with a leather girdle. The surcote went over the tunic according to changing fashion. Only royalty were permitted to wear mantles, the large cloaks that covered everything. Kings sometimes rewarded messengers for extremely good news by giving them the mantles off their backs; but the messengers sold them (to middlemen, who sold them back to minor royalty?) instead of wearing them. Europeans always took for granted that social classes needed permission for some things beyond simply being able to afford them.

Men’s legs were covered with primitive socks. The next century saw the invention of full-leg hose; at this time they were wearing tubes of cloth held at mid-leg by garters. We can’t tell in pictures if these tubes were knitted or made of woven cloth. They didn’t have foot-shaped ends. They may not have been much better than wrapping the leg in a long band, which at least flexed with motion.

Women wore simple linen gowns underneath generous, heavy colored wool or linen gowns. 11th century gowns were longer than the floor and needed to be lifted, to walk. They were often laced at the back to show the lady’s figure. The 11th century lady showed off her wealth in her girdle, which was tablet-woven, embroidered, or jeweled. For most of the century, the belt was worn snug around the waist, but toward the late 1000’s, it sometimes hung slack, forming a V. We see this style copied in many romantic depictions of medieval ladies.

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