The perspective of medieval menswear

Monday, December 7th 2020
Share
||- Begin Content -||

I recently saw a presentation by the cultural historical and writer Benjamin Wild (below), on the history of menswear. The talk covered everything from 1300 to the present day, but it was pre-20th Century that was the most interesting. 

The development of menswear in the past 100 years is covered pretty regularly: the Duke of Windsor, emancipation after WW2, the birth of the designer. Earlier trends are rarely covered in much detail, presumably because they seem less relevant. 

But there is a lot there that’s noteworthy, whether it’s how much our modern clothing is driven by the worship of individualism, or how fleeting our ideas of masculinity are. It can give us context and perspective. 

Here are a few of the points I found most interesting, which run roughly chronologically. The talk itself is not publicly available, unfortunately, but there is plenty more on Wild’s writing on his website here.

Early on, Wild made the point that the history of clothing up until the end of the 19th century was driven by institutions - by the monarchy, and by the church. 

They dictated what was acceptable and what was aspirational. This was one reason clothing didn’t change - alongside the limited means of production. 

This might seem obvious, but it stands in stark contrast to the second half of the twentieth century, where the powers of technology, globalisation and mass media have put the emphasis so much on the individual: what you want, what makes you look good. 

That emphasis on the individual might often be a ruse to convince you to buy something a particular brand is selling, but it’s telling that the idea of personal choice always frames the conversation. It’s worth remembering how much power we have.

Wild’s history began in the medieval period. And here, for hundreds of years, the dominant form of European male dress was the tabard (shown top, left; and above).

The tabard was a T-shaped piece of clothing, with a hole cut for the head, that hung to somewhere around the knees. The only shape came from a belt that could be tied around the waist, and from which tools or bags could be hung. 

You can see why the tabard was so practical, and lasted so long. It provided the basic covering required, was versatile, unisex, and had little requirement for sizing. It was also simple to make - just two pieces of material sewn together. 

In fact, its intuitive nature is probably demonstrated by how similar other garments round the world were - like the kimono, for example. One was a shirt and the other a popover, but otherwise they were a very similar concept. 

I found that section of the talk interesting because I’d never heard a tabard defined before - the only references to it you normally see are as some kind of heraldic layer over armour. 

The next point had wider implications about ostentation, and masculinity. 

For most of this late medieval period, rich people showed they were different from the poor by wearing more of these draped garments, or by dying them or ornamenting them. Apparently shaving the nap on the cloth into different patterns was popular. 

But later on, the nobility started differentiating themselves by adding shape. Tailoring was born. 

You can see this in the contrast between Phillip the Good (centre, in black) and those around him in the painting above. 

While most, such as the the noble and churchman on the left, are still in some kind of loose, long-sleeved tabard, Phillip’s outfit is tailored, with big sleeveheads. These clothes were now being cut close to the body, rather than just cinched, with hook-and-eye fastenings in the back. 

If you look closely, everyone in that painting also looks like they’re wearing Balenciaga Speed sneakers. Actually, these are pointed shoes called Crakows, named for the city in Poland they were supposed to have come from. 

This era of shaped, dramatic clothing and pointy shoes is one which, in the 21st century, we can find quite alien. 

How could it have seemed aspirational, and indeed masculine, to wear a cinched dress, poofy shoulders, and tights?

When we look at better-known images, like the Hans Holbein portrait of Henry VIII (above) that every English child sees in their history schoolbooks, it’s hard to identify with the clothes or why they were worn. 

But setting them in this longer running context helps - at least for me. 

The extreme of that trend came in France, most famously encapsulated in the Rigaud portrait of Louis XIV (above). 

Here, the King is shown in so much ornamental, flowing cloth that he couldn’t possibly have moved in it, let alone performed royal tasks. And he’s wearing red high heels - which I never noticed before. These were known (derisively) as talons rouges.

This type of clothing set the nobility apart because it showed they didn’t have to do anything for themselves - they had people to do that for them. And indeed, later Louis took to restricting which people were allowed to wear the red heels, making fashion a very explicit form of class signal. 

The reaction against this ostentation came in the 17th century in England - and this is where menswear nerds will be more familiar with the history, as it’s commonly regarded as the birthplace of the suit. 

When Charles II took to the throne, he decreed (on October 7 1666, according to Pepys) that courtiers should get rid of their lace and bows, and wear the new uniform of long jacket, waistcoat and (short, two-piece) trousers. 

As you can see from the image above (that’s Charles on the right), the proportions were very different from a modern suit. But still, it was a step change from the flowing fabric, cinched tabards and bows. It was plain, tailored cloth. 

This is still the age of institutions, and so what the king and courtiers wore, men everywhere aspired to as well. More interestingly, though, that aspiration also reflected the values Charles wanted to project: anti-French and anti-Catholic, prudent and Protestant.

That largely set the tone for the next 250 years. Well into the 20th century, men’s dress was intended to communicate that they were successful, serious people to be valued on their  character and their works. Not their beauty. 

Indeed, as Wild said in his talk, that idea of masculinity as being practical has died hard. Even after the peacock revolution and the flowering of fashion ever since, men are still most comfortable in clothes that are plain, and functional. 

There might be a lot of narcissism around today - begun, perhaps, by the fastidious Beau Brummell (above) - but there is still very little decoration in menswear. We’re a long way from even the fur and gold of Philip the Good.

Wild also talked well about modern trends, but I won’t go into them as they’re so broadly covered. For the moment I think it’s worth remembering, every time we scoff at some fashion trend or runway show, how narrow our ideas of menswear are - and how much of it has come before. 

P.S. In response to this post, a reader sent the image below, from a collection by a Canadian explorer. As he said, it's a particularly funny example of what was considered the height of masculinity 

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
53 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Pyc

Thankfully Mr Wild is wearing his suit without a belt.

Hristo (STEMESO Socks)

It would be interesting to go deeper into the topic of historic menswear. Are there other people interested as well?

Burt

+1 Fortunately, almost any bigger art museum will have paintings in its collection that depict former stages of menswear.
Impressive miniature of Philip the Good, by the way.

Ronald Hink

Very interesting content. Would love to read more like this!

Yolanda Powers

I stumbled upon this article quite by accident while scrolling through the news feed on my cell phone. I found it fascinating and I’ve always been curious about the history of men’s dress but never knew where to find anything. This article is fascinating and very well written and I of course would love to read more like this.

darryl

Brilliant. Great to see the history covered. Of course another factor is the conection between clothing and occupation, historicaly far more important and obvious than it is today when obfuscation on such matters tends to be the order of the day.

Stefan

Thank you for this interesting piece, Simon! This may sound exaggerated, as we are talking about rather banal things, but I believe the statement is true also in this case: It is always good to be reminded that the truths we believe in are in fact relative and represent only a very small period of time, compared to the history of mankind and menswear in particular.
I would really like to read more of such articles!

OP

Thank you, Simon. This is very interesting, and Dr. Wild’s thesis sounds fascinating and I was glad to be introduced to his work.
A critical Historian might have written that we are still in an “age of institutions”, probably more than in the middle ages. Medieval clothes were usually a person’s only garment, which one could say is the most practical attribute for clothing (just use the one you have). The church had little influence over everyday lives of peasants, defiantly not the ultra-religious middle ages often thought to be. In feudal Europe the nobility had relatively little everyday connection with the courts. It was Louis XIV’s model of absolutism which made the nobility so related to the throne and the court. In the 20th century, though, institutions dominated fashion. Be it financial centres (banks, etc.) which made the standard for dignified attire; be it the colonial powers and the nation-stated which attempted to create a standard of attire for subjects and citizens (the British Empire, for example, made and distributed suits for subjects in its crown colonies at its own expense). One could argue that though the ethos of today is individualistic, the attempt to par with models of success is not. The choice of a T-shirt and jeans is as an attempt to be viewed as young and innovative by not wearing a suit, as is the use of colours and ornaments in medieval garments was an attempt to be signal class. Software companies are as much an institution as royal houses were and the church was (perhaps even more so). So, perhaps, we’re just not as special as we like to think (both historically, as you mentioned, and individually).
This all, of course, doesn’t account for the change in attire itself. There you must have changes in technology, wealth, uses in clothes, etc.

OP

Perhaps more varied, but it is hard to determine what predated what: wealth and technological advances which allowed for more diversity in dress, or institutional changes (they are related). Even if we agreed that there are fewer institutions that influence the way people dress than ever before, they affect more people. So you might see the same types of dress in Kraków and in Dijon, while 15th century fashion differed to the extant of importing styles of shoes and naming them. These processes exist still, of course, with pockets of certain traditions of dress – as is prevalent from the PS body of knowledge – but perhaps the differences are more subtle. These traditions are also more prone to boundaries, perhaps (this is they way WE cut a suit, and we have been doing so for so and so years, etc.)? At the very least, they represent an older geo-politic reality, which is part of their appeal.
You are right regarding the Middle Ages, of course. I was trying to make the point that people responded to others of their own class – peasants to other peasants, city dwellers to the their neighbours and so on. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who didn’t view himself as part of any specific Judean sect, was asked why he dressed in Jewish religious clothing. He replied that it placed him visually with a group he wished to be associated with. I think this is the key motivation in why we dress the way we do. It is as individualistic as it is institutional. I like the idea of saving a bit individual sensibility on top of a traditional/institutional base.

Stephen

Hi Simon,
I agree with previous comments, that this was an interesting article. Just to add that the dissemination of clothing styles (as a means of demonstrating membership to a ‘tribe’) and most other information was restricted to the nobility, institutions and guilds. The more general population was probably more focused on just surviving although possibly only informed through paintings seen in churches. This was until newsprint, photographs and movies became widely available and influenced many aspects of daily life and aspirations. I would welcome similar articles
In more recent periods the Duke of Windsor is often mentioned . I’d suggest reading: King’s Counsellor: Abdication and War: the Diaries of Sir Alan Lascelles edited by Duff Hart-Davis. This in my opinion would provide context and deter lauding him in any way including as a style icon.

Stephen

In this specific context given the position he held, it was the behaviours he exhibited and actions he took in relation to both the abdication and in the time leading up to WW2 ( better to read book than go into in this comment). Whilst this may derive from what he may have been like as a person, for me it’s what he actually did.

Shoddy

Is that “Tommy” Lascelles as he appears (rather severely but elegantly dressed) in the Crown. If so I’m not surprised his views of the Duke of Windsor were harsh.

Il Pennacchio

I remember reading about community elders in Renaissance Italy complaining about how tight young men were wearing their trousers (or analogous leg covering). Plus ça change…

Paul Boileau

Interesting article, thanks. The comment about Balenciaga speed sneakers made me smile (although I must admit I had to google them). I wish the V&A would show more of their historic dress collection. Can you have a word with Tristram Hunt please? I recommend the V&A book, Four hundred years of fashion.

Steven B

By coincidence that last photo is my current lockdown look, proving that there is nothing new under the sun!

Aaron Daniels

A few notes in regards to medieval clothing:
Tabards were worn by a large mixture of people, but it is more of a coat (and yes, knights later on wore them over armour, there were also surcoats etc). What definitely was worn by all peasants was a tunic, worn over a shirt and braies (basically boxer shorts). Hose (leggings) were tied to the braies and were usually both brightly coloured and a different colour for each leg. There are more elaborate ones with multiple colours per leg, but that was for richer people. Over time tunics got shorter and braies became longer, until they became breeches.
Crakows are a particular type of pointy shoe popular in the 15th century, the more general name is turnshoe, so named because they were made inside out, and then turned.
In regards to Philip wearing black, interestingly this change was initially spearheaded more by the middle class. Previous black dyes were a more browny black, but in the 14th century a deeper black dye was developed and so many of the city-dwelling middle class (hence bourgeoisie) started wearing black, both as a sign of wealth at being able to afford this new dye and also because of certain other expensive colours being restricted. The nobility and royalty of Europe began picking this up soon after.

Simon K

Great write up. I sometimes think how much the industrial dying of textile must have changed the street scenery.
I came to think of something the guide told me at the museum about medieval Stockholm. Apparently shoes were one of the few things you could use to “express yourself” . They were simply made (so, cheap) and you wore them for a not very long before they were worn out. They have found heaps and heaps of those leatther shoes. So, very pointy shoes became all the rage! Longer and longer. This became an increasing problem in the very narrow streets in Stockholm. People got entangled and stumbled on each others pointy shoes. Often when it was muddy you walked on planks on the ground so it was even more difficult to get passed each other. The result was that it got legislated that you were not allowed to wear very long shoes. Maximum was two times the length of your foot, if I got it right.
I just had to share that story.

Philip

There are quite a few errors in this article. Like something out of Victorian historiography.

‘Tabard’: No, the basic item was a tunic. Tunica. That was the name by which it was known. The tabard is an overgarment, and the name is, at best, post-medieval.

Talons rouges is just French for red heels. Louis XIV is shown in coronation robes. They were never designed for anything else

The idea that fashion was shaped by institutions is nonsense. Case in point: sumptuary laws.

Charles II, the Merrie Monarch: Not only was he profoundly French in his tastes, he was even accused of being too plotting a French takeover. Hence the Glorious Revolution. They even had ditties about French fashions in the restoration (“I talk of Old England” etc. “steelettoes and other jeejaws”, etc.). The illustration is anachonistic.

I think you confuse him with British fashions in the Napoleonic era: Beau Brummell and country clothing. Then, yes, it was a reaction against French court dress.

OP

I’m not sure I fully understand the point about fashion not being shaped by institutions. If you refer to sumptuary laws as being only a reaction to an already existing fashion, then yes. But isn’t that the case with everything? All change is essentially a reaction to something. Sumptuary laws in northern Italy definitely shaped fashion, they affected the use of new cloths and techniques to reshape the demonstration of wealth within the restrictions. The North-Italian city state and the papal legates who issued them are to be considered institutions in my views. I apologize if I misinterpreted your intention.

Philipp

Actually Phillip’s outfit reminds me of sleeveheads I’ve seen from neapolitan tailors (eg Sciamat, Sartoria Chiaia)…

JGA

A couple points:

1. As a bit of trivia, Philip the Good is wearing the Golden Fleece emblem on his chain.

2. It’s somewhat misleading to suggest that depictions of rulers, i.e. the portraits of the monarchs shown above, are accurate reflections of the reality of monarchs’ everyday dress; rather, they were works for private consumption intended to telegraph authority within the court. Moreover, as regards decoration, it’s not really fair to compare modern menswear (I’m thinking of the tailoring PS normally covers) with the court dress of Philip the Good. Putting Philip alongside most monarchs/rulers in formal regalia would offer a better comparison, and then there would be enough gold braid, fur, velvet, jewels, and gold to illustrate the continuities of court attire.

3. A reader above makes the point of deeper black becoming more popular with the bourgeosie/burgher class. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the fashion for black began emanating from the Spanish court (a mix of religious sobriety, exclusivity, and a uniform). As with discussion today of how black a barathea can be achieved in contrast to past years’ more toxic dyes, so too in the medieval and early modern period, the more saturated the dye the more precious it was. In the Italian Renaissance, painters such as Giotto referred in their contracts to the deepness of blues they were able to achieve with ground lapis by the value of the pigment contained in the paint, e.g. somewhat anachronistically, a 20EUR blue or a 50EUR blue. So deep black velvet became especially popular in other European courts. Speaking of “how great things age,” Venetian Senators in the early modern period were known to wear their senatorial black velvet robes until they were fading and worn, even then still a symbol of the authority entrusted to them by the Republic.

PeterHall

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2007/jun/22/art.fashion

Nice article about clothing in my adopted homeland and the fashion of black

Benjamin

This was absolutely fascinating. I think it is illustrative of the way that this site has become a really authoritative source for detailed information of all sorts on menswear. Everything I read on here helps me to contextualise and understand the clothes I buy and wear, even though the vast majority of brands you feature are far beyond the reach of any salary I am likely to take home in my lifetime. It’s no mean feat to write with such specificity, but for the content of your writing to have such wide applicability.

I would be very interested to read more along similar lines, broadening the scope of men’s style out in time (as here), and in geography too. Excellent work, thanks Simon.

EL

So: when do we get to see the PS x PWVC tabard? In navy flannel perhaps? With it’s own belt? Could be kind of stylish.

Joshua

Simon,

This is fascinating, love this type of content on the site. Have you seen the new book by Virginia Postrel, “The Fabric of Civilization”? It looks at some of these issues (though not specifically menswear) but from a technological point of view, very interesting for the history of clothes, indeed for the history of “civilization”. You can listen to an in-depth interview about it here:
https://www.econtalk.org/virginia-postrel-on-textiles-and-the-fabric-of-civilization/

KD

The title is misleading , as medieval period ended by the 16th century. Makes it sound like everything before the 20th century was medieval. Louis XIV would be very upset

Rabb

Interesting as always. Do you think we are due for a new ‘masculine’ silhouette or is clothing just going to become gender neutral? Space togas for everybody!

Also quick sartorial advice sought; how would you autumn-ise a worsted navy pinstripe? Ecru shirt? Brown knit tie? Thoughts?

Ramon Hoyos

Philip the Good, Duc of Burgundy, is perhaps the first “power dresser” and was very influential in how we view the color black. He deliberately chose to wear only black (a mourning color) a signal to his adversaries that he was going to get revenge (which he did), but also set himself apart from the fashion of the day which was very colorful (red especially was a sign of riches and power). A very interesting historical use of “fashion” as a way to assert power (cf. also Louis XIV) .

Ian

For the record, the picture that includes Phillip the Good is by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1448) and is a manuscript illustration.

Jason Sexton

You may want to follow this one up with some reflection on this book, Simon: https://www.baylorpress.com/9781481312738/fashion-theology/

ben w

I can’t speak to its scholarly credentials but Pearl Binder’s “Muffs and Morals” is a *very* entertaining history-of-fashion book that speaks a great deal to menswear.

Rondell

Very interesting and well-written article Simon. This is why I follow your blog.

James M Dowdy

Very interesting piece, Simon – thanks!

James

ANM

Pants – I read something a while back about the reason we wear pants (and not various forms and lengths of tunics/dresses) is the advent of riding horses…..

ANM

Another tidbit – I believe that the “death” of men in stockings, and short pants was the 1830’s. This (I remember reading) is based upon analysis of paintings/portraits (and very early photos) of people…Before 1830, one’s formal portrait likely had one looking closer to the “middle ages” in style (including the odd powdered wig), a look that absolutely vanished by 1840.

I attribute it to that fact that something that may have looked aspirational in a painting, as well as relatable to what had been the style for centuries, looked absolutely dreadful, when seen in a photograph.

Similar to how everyone was worried a few years ago about how high definition television was going to cause a complete re – thinking on how celebrities presented themselves (more cosmetic surgery, etc.)

Christopher Lee

As a medievalist, I enjoyed this article especially. I also highly recommend taking a look at “The First Book of Fashion: The Book of Clothes of Matthaeus and Veit Konrad,” a visual record of what a well-to-do merchant’s accountant from Augsburg wore between 1520 and 1560. Centuries before the Instagram iGent (and smartphone photography :-)), Konrad “commissioned artists to make accurate watercolour paintings of him on parchment, showing him in his fashionable dress.” Quite fascinating and illuminating of the connection between wealth, status and clothes in the Early Modern period.

Bonnie

I love the Canadian explorer. Ha! He does nothing for me. I just had a really great laugh. Thank you!!

ANM

Simon,

How about an article on how ‘future’ menswear has been depicted in science fiction?

It seems the future has two flavours – tan coloured Nehru jackets, or synthetic, stretchy adult pajamas….(the good news about the pajama option is that will incentivize people to be in better shape)

If so, the survival of Savile row may be more in question than we thought!