12th century fashion trends

In the late 12th century, we start to see evidence of two fashion quirks that later became very prominent. Both seemed to come to England from Germany when an English princess had to return home after she became a widow. She had been the wife of the German Emperor (Germans continued to claim the “Holy Roman Emperor” title for many generations after the Pope gave it to Charlemagne). It seems likely that the fashion had been knocking around Italy already for most of the 12th century.

One of the trends was to cut the lower hem of a garment into strips, each several inches wide. The edges were secured and outlined with embroidery. The early word for this trend seems to be “dagges.” In the 12th century, just having the wealth to pay someone to overcast all of those edges in silk thread was a big deal. Later, the dagges themselves became very elaborate; for now, they were a novelty even in simple form.

By the end of the 12th century, commoners were wearing dagges on their tunics. Sumptuary laws forbade people below a certain rank, so as to preserve the decoration as a marker for the ruling class. As with all sumptuary laws, they existed mostly to permit officials to fine townsfolk when they wanted to; they were never more than partly obeyed.

(Later in the Middle Ages, some town officials, I think especially in Italy, tried hard to enforce the sumptuary laws. It meant hiring some men to sit at a booth in the city and grab women off the street to ask them, “is that fur you’re wearing?” The average medieval commoner could come up with some kind of “Gosh no, officer, it’s just brown moss” line, and at length they realized how futile it was to attempt real enforcement.)

The other trend was to make a tunic out of two colors. One half might be dark blue or black, the other half white or red and decorated with embroidery. In the 12th century, use of particolor was not as elaborate as it later became.

There’s another interesting note for the 12th century. People wonder what their ancestors wore to bed, and the only clues we have are in art, where kings or Biblical figures are shown in bed. As far as we can tell, in the 11th and 12th centuries, men and women wore their linen undershirt to bed. The men’s was called a sherte (spelling in early English was always wobbly) and the women’s, something like a camise. But once we get into the 1200’s, art shows people in bed naked. Stories that involved someone being surprised in the night, like attacked while in bed, also suggest that they leaped up naked and grabbed some nearby item to cover up. Night clothes didn’t become customary again until the early modern period, when once again, the basic shirt with a long tail became nightshirt, day shirt and drawers all at once.

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