Female Adornment in the Middle Ages

November 3, 2018

Caitlin Cleary


In the Middle Ages, women of all classes were expected to be obedient and remain silent. Therefore, with so little power and influence, women relied heavily on fashion to express themselves in ways that they couldn’t with words.

Though the Middle Ages are classified as a period of backwardness and poverty, a few factors allowed for an environment where the elite flourished financially and culturally. The Black Plague of the late 1340s and early 1350s killed a large percentage of the European population. As a result of these extensive deaths, those who survived were positioned to inherit much more wealth, allowing them to engage in opulent spending. Thus, this consumerism lead to a demand for more goods that were of better quality.

The Crusades in the Middle East and the trade routes opened up by Marco Polo brought a new influence on the fashion world to Europe. Several styles of headdresses became popular at this time. The most popular styles included the wimple (10th to mid 14th centuries), the barbette and the filet (12th to 14th centuries). These headdresses consisted of a cloth worn over the head and around the face and neck. They were used for modesty, as it was unseemly for women to show their hair. Women in the upper class eventually started to decorate these headdresses to indicate their status. A high hairline and plucked eyebrows were also popular trends that went hand-in-hand with headdresses.

In the Middle Ages, women’s fashion evolved from shapeless garments to more elegant and elaborate form-fitting dresses. Gowns were made of higher-quality fabric and decorated with intricate patterns like brocade. New patterns and new fabrics were also a product of foreign influence.

Jeweled girdles were often worn by elite women, though gem cutting was not developed until the 15th century, so these jewels were not lustrous. Beginning in the 14th century, buttons became a popular form of ornamentation on clothes.

The church influenced women’s fashion and adornment in the Middle Ages in a few key ways. The church was known to criticize luxurious spending. The clergy believed excessive spending and luxurious items to be synonymous with greed, and thus were a sin. However, the church’s condemnation of opulent adornment was in stark contrast to society’s relationship to visible wealth. Women were seen as an extension of their families, particularly the powerful men in their family. Therefore, it was important that a woman’s appearance put her family in a favorable light, so dressing suitably while staying within the bounds of one's socioeconomic class was essential. Women feared that if they were not dressed up to the appropriate standard of splendor, neighbors would assume their family was in economic distress. The church was also key in stressing the necessity of women covering their heads to promote modesty.

Although the Middle Ages are often classified as a period of little change or mobility, for a small sector of the European population, this period provided opportunity and innovation. Wealthy women enjoyed more innovative and bountiful fashion choices. They ended up relying on certain articles of clothing in order to subtly express themselves and set them apart from others.