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Early medieval European dress

The clothing of the Middle Ages in the West was determined to some extent by the phenomenon of Christianity and its taboos, innovations in clothing provided by the barbarian invasions of peoples and Muslims, and the evolution of the Byzantine and Roman dress.

Early medieval European dress changed very gradually from about 400 to 1100. The main feature of the period was the meeting of late Roman costume with that of the invading peoples who moved into Europe over this period. For a period of several centuries, people in many countries dressed differently depending on whether they identified with the old Romanised population, or the new populations such as Franks, Anglo-Saxons, Visigoths. The most easily recognisable difference between the two groups was in male costume, where the invading peoples generally wore short tunics, with belts, and visible trousers, hose or leggings. The Romanised populations, and the Church, remained faithful to the longer tunics of Roman formal costume, coming below the knee, and often to the ankles. By the end of the period, these distinctions had finally disappeared, and Roman dress forms remained mainly as special styles of clothing for the clergy – the vestments that have changed relatively little up to the present day.

Many aspects of clothing in the period remain unknown. This is partly because only the wealthy were buried with clothing; it was rather the custom that most people were buried in burial shrouds, also called winding sheets. Fully dressed burial may have been regarded as a pagan custom, and an impoverished family was probably glad to keep a serviceable set of clothing in use. Clothes were expensive for all except the richest in this period.

Gradually, the use of the gown disappeared and the use of the tunics was extended and the barbarian “bracca” (a kind of trousers adjusted to the body, made of leather) gave rise to the panties (precedent trousers, stockings, etc.) from the ankle to the knee with straps intertwined or tightened at the waist and including the foot in the garment. Also evolved the layers and mantles in men and sails and the ties in women.

Byzantine influence
Bizanci’s fashion was the bridge with Europe of the oriental opulence of the large clothes and embroidered brides with silver and jewelry, very fashionable during the Carolingian era for ceremonial clothes, while the town was dressed in panties, sails, túnicas and mantellets, that the visigodos called Striges when they were even and borda when they were made with fabric enough.

Muslim influence
The invasion of the Saracens influenced the clothing of the conquered areas, imposing the dressing of the saraguelles and the habrabes habits, the bands and the turban and other touches of oriental inspiration. The most common pieces of Moroccan origin in Mediterranean Europe were perhaps the Hawaiian (short tunic, adjusted to the arms and waist with buttons).

Materials
Apart from the elite, most people in the period had low living standards, and clothes were probably home-made, usually from cloth made at a village level, and very simply cut. The elite imported silk cloth from the Byzantine, and later Muslim, worlds, and also probably cotton. They also could afford bleached linen and dyed and simply patterned wool woven in Europe itself. But embroidered decoration was probably very widespread, though not usually detectable in art. Most people probably wore only wool or linen, usually undyed, and leather or fur from locally hunted animals.

Archaeological finds have shown that the elite, especially men, could own superb jewellery, most commonly brooches to fasten their cloak, but also buckles, purses, weapon fittings, necklaces and other forms. The Sutton Hoo finds and the Tara Brooch are two of the most famous examples from the Ireland and Britain in the middle of the period. In France, over three hundred gold and jewelled bees were found in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric I (died 481; all but two bees have since been stolen and lost), which are thought to have been sewn onto his cloak. Metalwork accessories were the clearest indicator of high-ranking persons. In Anglo-Saxon England, and probably most of Europe, only free people could carry a seax or knife, and both sexes normally wore one at the waist, to use for all purposes.

The scarcity of the sources does not allow to reliably hypothesise the cut and material of the clothing used by the poor European classes during the early Middle Ages . The ruling elites preferred sumptuous materials, important from the lands formerly occupied by the eastern Roman empire and at that time divided between the Byzantines and the Arabs : silk (in this sense the constant production of the metropolitan area) and the cotton. However, the rich also used colored wool and bleached linen of European production. Most people probably wore only un-colored wool / linen and leather / fur from locally hunted animals.

Although the iconography of the time does not allow us to detect it, the archaeological evidence shows that early medieval fabrics were richly decorated with embroidery and often obtained with particularly complex and refined weaving techniques . A solid sartorial tradition is attested to the Anglo-Saxons: v. Opus anglicanum. The custom of decorating dresses with bands and fringes of different fabrics (eg silk) is well documented by iconography and sources (eg Paolo Diacono).

Always the archeology has allowed to deduce the great importance given by the European high-medieval society to the goldsmith’s art.

The use of “transportable” accessories metal (for arms, the coat, the ‘ armor and / or tack the horse), daughter of a practice still steeped in culture nomadic barbarian, was in fact the main indication of the status of high social of the early medieval man . Of some Roman-barbarian cultures, eg. the Burgundians, we possess, not by chance, only material testimonies of a goldsmith type.

We must not forget, however, that throughout the early Middle Ages the possession of the metal weapon, primarily the multi-purpose knife of the scramasax typeworn on the belt, was a fundamental characteristic of the status of “free man”.

The most superb jewels were usuallythe cloak pins. The “Sutton Hoo Buckle” and the ” Fibula di Tara ” are two of the most famous examples of British men’s jeweleryof the period. However, there were also buckles, bags, accessories for weapons (the balteo and the sheath for the sword), necklaces and medallions of various shapes (eg the bracteates)., over three hundred golden bees and jewels (originally perhaps ornaments to hang from the mantle) were found in the tomb of the Merovingian king Childeric I

Decoration
Both men’s and women’s clothing was trimmed with bands of decoration, variously embroidery, tablet-woven bands, or colourful borders woven into the fabric in the loom. The famous Anglo-Saxon opus anglicanum needlework was sought-after as far away as Rome. Anglo-Saxons wore decorated belts.

This article was originally published on hisour.com

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