A Study of 12th and 13th Century Clothing

  • A Study from Primary Sources.
  • **This is a paper I just finished about clothing of the 12th and 13th centuries, notably the Bliaut. When I went looking for info on this on the net, it was near impossible to find anything, so I've posted this up on the web to help others who may be interested in this garment and this period as a whole. I hope it is of some help to you.(To see images of the garments discussed, please go to Historical photos.)

    By L. J. M. L.


    The period of the 12th and 13th centuries fall under the category of High Middle Ages. This was supposedly the time of great wealth and diversity in material culture and society. The Crusades, beginning in the previous century had brought changes in materials, dyes, cut and styles of garments worn by both men and women. It was the nobility that used these innovations from the Holy Land combined with the European style of dress with far more variety than the common folk. It was assumed that if you could afford such sumptuous fabric as silk, cloth of gold, velvet (and yes, it did exist in this time), and so on, then you were more likely to be of noble birth and more given to the excesses of the nobility.

    Although the history of fashion in the 12th-13th centuries was by no means as swift moving as it is in today's society, there were some important changes in style of dress, fabrics, and so on. The basic T-tunic style of clothing for men showed little variation from the norm of the previous centuries, except in neck line, hem line, and trim. The same style, so common among women of all social classes, became somewhat more varied, again, with a difference in neck line, hem line, trim, cut and fall of the gown, and so on. During my years at University, studying a BA with a double major in history and Visual Arts & Archaeology, with minors in language, religion studies of the early church, and film & screen studies, I learnt many ways of interpreting sources, and using the sources available to extract relevant information. Because of my degree and 4 years of costume research and creation, I believe that the information I have found is relevant, useful and thoroughly backed up with over 20 primary sources, contained in an appendix to this document.

    The sources I have found were by no means easy to obtain. Living in Australia, I spent alot of time in the Barr Smith, Performing Arts and Resource Libraries. I also looked at relevant sites on the internet, photographs of primary sources, such as painting, sculpture and illuminations, and several works by SCA members who had covered various articles of clothing by themselves, rather than as a whole. Most of my primary sources are French. These seem to be the most complete remaining sources left to us, although I do have a few Spanish, Italian, German and English sources as well. I have looked at works dealing with the history of clothing along with works dealing with such primary sources as listed above. I believe that such a thorough examination of all sources available at this time support my theory on the variation of clothing throughout our time period.

    The Bliaut.

    The bliaut, is a much disputed garment of clothing. While it is unlikely that a corset was worn underneath the gown, as there have never been any primary sources found to indicate this, and tight lacing did not become fashionable until the 15th centuries, it is obvious that this gown, was for women, cut more fitting to the figure than gowns of the previous period. It was not popular long, but was worn well into the 13th century, after its fashionable period, 1140-1160 had ended.

    The most compelling evidence of the bliaut, also called bliaut are the statues of Christ and his followers, the Queen of Sheba and the Saints at Chatres Cathedral. Although the statues are representative of Holy men and women, they are carved in contemporary clothing. The statues of the left and right jambs, of the west portal, right doorway and the west portal, center doorway, as well as the west portal, left door, right and left jambs are extremely well preserved images of both men and women wearing the bliaut. The cathedral was completed in 1160, and it is from these statues that Viollet le Duc, a somewhat misguided historian took his images from to authenticate this garment. Although le Duc's images are somewhat more elaborate than the extant statues show, they are non the less, relevant to our time period, unlike alot of his assertions.

    So what is the bliaut? "Bliaus. (Fr. bliaut) A loose upper garment or surcoat worn by both sexes of all classes in the 12th century and familiarised to us by the modern blouse which has so nearly preserved the name....In a close roll of the reign of King John, there is an order for a bliaus lined with fur for the use of the queen. For the lower classes, the bliaus was made of canvas and fustian. "1

    This is all very well and good, but it still doesn't tell us much about this garment. "Bliaud: long overgown worn by both sexes from 11th to late 13th centuries. The woman's version fitted closely at the bust and had long loose sleeves. It was worn with a belt. "2 This is a little more helpful, and more accurate to the statues shown at Chatres. For women, the gown has the long, loose trailing sleeves, worn over the shirte, or undergown. The gown is gathered at the shoulder seams and at the armhole seams on the sleeves, to create the effect of pleating. It is fitted to the hips, and held in place by a girdle and a decorative belt. The neckline of the gown is somewhat plunging, to reveal the shirte underneath.

    Norris suggests that the bliaut was made out of soft silk, silk crepe and other silk variations. One historian, de Jong, has suggested that it was made out of silk velvet, which has been described as being similar to the pelt of an otherworldly animal. The bliaut is occaisionally seen in various texts as being worn with an Oriental Surcoat. Holkeboer provides instructions for the construction of this article, and Norris describes it thus: "Originally a Persian Coat, it may well have been sent as a present by a crusading lover to is bel-amie in France or England. It was a loose robe, reaching to the knee, with wide slevees. It was made of some light material, silk or even transparent silk gauze, through which the colour of the gown gleamed mysteriously; and it was edged all round with a arrow band of heavy gold or bead passement. It hung loose, without a belt, being clasped at the waistline by a brooch or ornament. When Persian coats of this type were introduced into Western Europe, ladies of high rank found them most useful despite their filmy nature, as an extra wrap on chilly evenings to slip on over their already co mplete toilet, which included the girdle. "3 Norris then goes on to note that this garment was very popular, and was copied in thicker and warmer fabrics, often lined with fur. This was called Pelice, or Pelicon, by the French, and examples of this have been found dating from 1140-1170.

    The bliaut for men was slightly different from the womans. As seen in the wall painting of the Three Magi in the Santa Maria de Barbara, apse, which was painted late 12th early 13th centuries, the blousing effect around the waist, with the fitted bodice and full skirt quite obvious. The statue of King Clovis, at Notre Dame de Corbeil, France, also shows this, but from the front, with the elegantly draped folds on the bodice part of the tunic. It was cut with fairly wide sleeves, and fitted to the body, forming a curved line below the waist where it was attached to the skirt. The hem line on the skirt shows the effect that we call today of 'hanky hem', and the back and the front were pleated. It was essentially a T-tunic with a knee length (or longer) skirt pleated to the bodice at a low waist seam. It was laced up the back to fit snugly. It was trimmed often in embroidery, as were the sleeves. It was cut low at the neck, like the women's bliaut, to show the shirte, and like the womens was laced at the back so as to tighten it closer to the fit of the upper body. A good example of this hemline can be seen in the statues of Saint-Gilles, of James and Paul.

    The statues at Chatres show two different styles of bliaut. The first is the one I have described, with the body belt or girdle around the waist, laced up the back, to add to the effect of being fitted to the body. The second indicates that the other option was to not use the girdle, and have the gown laced at the sides to pull it taught across the stomach, from under the bust to the hips. The skirt would then fall in regular pleated folds to the hem line. This can be seen in the carving at Bourges Cathedral, which distinctly shows this feature. It has also been seen at Etampes, Toulouse and in illuminations, where it has sometimes been mistaken for a side seam.

    From this, and other evidence that will be illustrated in the appendix of images at the end of the paper, we can see that the bliaut was very much in evidence in the 12th century and into the 13th century. In a separate appendix, there are some patterns from Holkeboer and Hill for making men and women's bliauts, and other pieces of clothing, which shall be discussed in the following section.

    The Pelice/Pelicon

    The Pelice or Pelicon as it is referred to by some historians was an overgarment lined with fur, and particularly useful in the winter. It was cut with deeper armholes, to allow sleeves lined with fur to fit, and was usually worn over the gown. It generally had slits up the sides, and was worn by both men and women. It was worn during the period of late 12th century and into the 13th century.

    The Pelice was made of silk, wool, or cotton, and as previously mentioned, lined with fur. This is where the name came from, as pelice is the Norman French word for fur. It fell in folds to just below the knee, and it was not confined at the waist, but a belt, called a ceinture, when worn, was fastened around the hips. For the nobility, this garment was worn over the gown, with the sleeves visible under those of the Pelice. The mantle or cloak is worn over the top of this ensemble. For the existence of the Pelice we can turn to the following lines written during the latter half of the 12th century. "Holding up they train, thine ermine-lined pelicon, and camise of fine white linen, So that thine ankle may be seen."4

    The types of fur used to line the pelice included such pelts as ermine, which was generally reserved for the nobility, sable, grey squirrel, and lamb, the latter by less pretentious people. The working class (although not exclusively) wore badger, rabbit, muskrat, and fox. Because of its warmth, the pelice remained popular with both men and women well into the 13th century.

    The image of working dress of the medieval period from the illumination on f.41 a, St. Peter's Denial of the Lord, Coronation Gospel Book, written in 1085, shows the first examples of the pelice, and the loose hanging sleeves. The image of elaborate dress from the period, from the illumination on f.19b, The Sacrifice in the Temple, shows the pelice with embroidered sleeves.

    The Cotte/Coate and Surcotte/Surcoate.

    The cotte and surcotte were also popular throughout our time period. Generally the surcotte was worn by knights on the field, over armor, but also as an over garment to the T-tunic and gown. The Cotte was worn as a long sleeved gown or tunic, with fitted sleeves to the wrist. The Surcotte was worn over this, sometimes with no sleeves and larger armholes, sometimes with loose sleeves, and sometimes with sleeves just as fitting as the sleeves of the cotte. The sleeveless version worn by women was denounced by the clergy far and wide, but women continued to wear this garment, especially in summer, over a chemise. The neck line of the cotte was much less heavily ornamented that the necklines of gowns previously examined. Its appearance was more the second quarter onward of the 13th century. It was slit a little way down the front and fastened with a brooch. "The skirt was cut in one with the body, and it may have had side gores to account for its width. It was confined immediately above the hips by a belt with a buckle and a long tongue which hung to the knees."5

    The surcotte went through much the same variations as did the mens garment of the same type. It continued to be long worn by women after being discarded by men as anything other than something to be worn over armour. It was introduced as daily wear from the end of the 12th century and was extremely popular in the 13th century. The style of surcotte for both men and women has been best described thusly: "It was belted or unbelted at will, and its length varied from above the knees to the ankle....Often it was made of rich material, fine woollen, samite or other heavy silk, or even cloth of gold. Its neckline was like that of the cote, but the slit of the surcote was often richly trimmed and fastened with an elaborate brooch. "6

    The finest primary source example of the surcotte and cotte are the statues at Charroux, Saint Sauveur, of the former abbey church in France, dated at 1250. The statues are of two young women. Clearly the one on the right (see appendix) is wearing a surcotte over her cotte. The sleeves of the cotte can be seen as being tight fitting, with the surcotte armholes being just as fitting. Further statues showing the tightness of the sleeves of the cotte are the statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga, formerly on the outer jambs of the south transept portal, at Strasbourg cathedral, dating around 1240.

    To sum up the examination of surcottes comes the following from "Le Dolopathos", of 1224.
    "Trop fu apertement vestue
    En braz et par les pans fu lee,
    Deliee, blance et ridee.
    Pelize et legiere et sanz manch....."

    "Too much notice is given
    To a chemise worn underneath
    On arms and not the face
    Delight, white and wrinkled.
    Pelize and gown with no sleeves...."7

    Hairstyles and headdresses.

    As there were variations in clothing, so there was in hairstyles. For men, this is relatively simple, long or short hair, curled or straight, beards or clean shaven. Some beards were curled and separated into two thick pieces, but this was more favoured by royalty than by the majority of the populace. For women, however, there were several different styles available, and just as much argument about this as anything else!

    In 1250-1260, hair nets, wreaths of flowers, and veils were worn by women. The lady at the forefront of the Blessed of the statues at Bourges has neck and ears visible under short curls at the temple. A tressure, which is a pair of long plaits, around the head, was held in place by a snood. Also from this time, although ending its popularity in 1300 was the crespine. This was worn as a mesh over the hair, generally of silk, studded with jewels at the intersections of each piece of silk. The hair was coiled in plaits or coils around the head, and worn under the crespine. "From 1200 until nearly 1300 the hair, still parted in the middle and braided, was drawn back and cris-crossed into a bun usually rather low on the nape, from 1250 this was covered with a colored net. When the hair had been arranged thus, a piece of white linen was brought from under the chin to the top of the head and there pinned; then a band of stiff linen was pinned around the head. Instead of a band, there might be a complete cap, like a bell-hop's. " (The cap resembles more of a pill box style of hat than a bell hop's cap, but that's personal interpretation.)8

    The crespine is the relative of a much older garment. In her public lecture, Proffessor Elizabeth Barber, Proffessor of linguistics and textiles at the Occidental University, Los Angeles says that in 6500 BC, a garment was found much resembling the crespine, though not nearly so delicate. It was woven from natural fibres with the needle knitting technique, so that it resembled a mesh cap with little pieces of square knitting at interlocking sections. At first this was thought to be a bag, but it was discovered in recent years that this was a head piece, worn between 7000-6500 BC in central Europe. This is the first evidence of the article we know as the crespine.

    This linen strip under the chin and over the head was called a barbette. The piece that went around the head, similarly to a circlet was called a fillet. The pill box shaped hat was called a coif.

    From 1000-1200, braids were the general fashion for hair. Very long hair was essential for the fashionable lady, and there is alot of sculptural evidence to support this (see appendix). The hair was parted in the middle and arranged in two long braids, falling sometimes as low as the knee. A variation of the normal braiding is the addition of a ribbon entwined with the hair, again seen in numerous statues. A way to lengthen the braids, was to put them in cases, which resembled socks for the hair. These cases were sometimes as high as the neck, and were stuffed with some sort of filling for weight, if the lady's hair was not as long as she wished it to be. The practise of false hair being braded into the natural locks was also used, as there has been archaeological evidence to support this. The braids and the cases were often finished at the ends with one or two ornamental metallic tassels or pearl or bead drops.

    Upon the heads of the ladies would be a circlet, or a chaplet of real flowers, or flowers made from gold and precious stones. The head was frequently, although not always, covered with the veil. Loose hair is visible in the manuscript of the Hours of St. Louis, from 1250, Biblioteche Du Roi, Paris. Also loose hair with a simple circlet or pill box style hat, called a coif, is clearly shown in the statues on the left jamb, north portal, facade, Strasbourg Cathedral; The Queen of Sheba, left jamb, right portal, north transept, Chatres Cathedral, 1215-1220; Ecclesia, Strasbourg Cathedral, 1240; and in the illumination Hours of St. Louis, 1250, Biblioteche du Roi, Paris; and as early as the example of a Lady Falconing, from St. Gregory's Moralia in Job, 1110-1120, Dijon, Biblioteche Municipale. Examples of the coif, plaits and crespinette can be seen in the images of the statue Germigny l'Exempt, parish church, west portal, lintel console, 1215-1220; The figures at Chatres Cathedral, 1145-1250; and the statues at Charroux, Saint-Sauveur, former abbey church, 1250.

    At the time of Stephen, approximately 1150, uncovered hair and long plaits were at the height of their fashion. The snood, which was the net to confine the hair, was "already worn in ancient times, it was a net used in the 13th century to cover head gear."9

    (c)This paper published first on the web on the 14th May 1998.